Poverty Is No Puzzle

Three recent events reported on a news station have encouraged me to venture into a field of discussion which has usually frightened me, always puzzled.

First, I heard of someone who has just recently paid twenty million dollars to take a ride of several days duration in a space ship. Astounding!

Second, I heard an interview in which a number of people were asked to respond to the question: What causes poverty?

Third, is the annual Walk for Hunger, which I believe is going on as I write.

My head-heart is unsettled, and requires me to put down some thoughts about poverty, which of course, means I must say something about economics. My fright at entering into that discussion is considerable, since many will rush to prove that I indeed know nothing about the subject. My ignorance is encouraged by something I understood Dorothy Parker to have once said, “If all the economists in the world were laid end to end they would not reach a conclusion.” I’ll probably not reach a conclusion either, but here I go!

Immediately I want to avoid a couple of pitfalls. I do not want to argue that the guy who spent some of his millions in space should give it to relieve poverty. He probably has a few more twenty millions under his pillow, but it is unlikely he will do what I would like. Giving some of those millions would be a capital idea, but it would not end poverty even if a thousand of similarly affluent people were to add twenty million to the anti-poverty coffer.

Nor do I want to discourage the many who get blisters on the Walk for Hunger. Walking will certainly have physical benefit for the walkers, and knowing that money has gone to some of the less fortunate of society will be a kind of spiritual benefit; it will make the walkers feel good, and that is fine. But I do hope that the hoofers will recognize that the effort they endorse by their feet will not end poverty even if it were repeated every day for ten years. If that is a disturbing comment, more troubling will be my invitation for the walkers to consider that their effort may even contribute to the status quo of continued poverty. Large numbers of people convinced that their individual acts of beneficent walking will end poverty, diverts the focus from the systemic problem which creates the basis for poverty. Feeding the belief that by individual acts an immense systemic problem will be corrected becomes a kind of drug that shelters them from seeing reality. If large numbers of people continue to think that they are bringing an end to poverty without disturbing the fundamental economic system in which we live, the space tourists who have millions to waste will applaud.

The question raised in the interview was What causes poverty? or something very close to that. The answers for the most part came from people who were convinced that those whom they called poor are so mainly because of their own failures. I will not recount the tired reasons we have all heard for many years. I would rather change the question a bit, and hopefully raise the possibility that there may be some different answer

The changed question: Why/How is it that some people are made poor? That is the way Bishop Romero thought about the poor; he used a Spanish phrase which translates into those who are made poor, and that is a HUGELY different question. In a time and place when there is so much affluence floating in space, why are some people made poor?

Before I move to the made poor idea, I want to acknowledge that some of the reasons given by interview respondents to the question of what causes poverty are true. There are lots of individuals whose life styles account for or contribute to their status of poverty. That truth aside for the day, I want to think about the changed question; that question refuses to place the blame on the individuals who are poor, but changes the focus to consider the conditions, assumptions, practices which make them poor. It assumes that neither the largesse of multiple million-dollar donors, nor the actions of thousands of individual walkers are the way out of poverty.

Poverty, as a condition that traps many more people than is necessary into a life constrained by economic limitations and hardships, cannot be understood without reference to the economic system which is the context within which people become poor. Here are some descriptions of dynamics which insure that some will be made poor.

–            The system is based on an implicit assumption that some must win and some must lose. In the midst of historic affluence it is assumed that there is not enough money to be shared so that none need lose.

–                             The winners gain resources unavailable to those who lose; the accumulation of resources enhances the probability of further winnings for those who win.

–                          The resources gained include money, those things which money can buy, community status, influence, and power. There is a consistent effort to convince everyone that the achievement of this status is based on hard work and merit.

–            The cumulative effect of gathered resources makes future winning more certain for those who have, and provides insurance against any set-backs becoming disastrous for them.

–                               For those who lose, the lack of resources increases the probability of further loss; with herculean effort those who are made poor, might be able to barely make ends meet. There is a consistent campaign to convince everyone that those who do not win are those who by poor habit, lack of hard work, and slothful character do not merit achievement. They are simply losers.

–                      Those who “have not” encounter lessened opportunity and increased obstacles to success, with little to provide a safety net against ultimate disaster.

The Cumulative Effect

The bold outline of the dynamics described above can be followed to illustrate a cumulative web of connections which functions to create a powerful system which cements both wealth and poverty into positions which allow a few to travel in space while the many have no space. It also leaves a vast majority in the middle, walking to express their decent discontent with the fact of poverty, and hopefully a developing disdain for conspicuous affluence.

Finally, the millionaires will probably continue their space rides though I shall continue to find them appalling!

The Walkers for Hunger will continue their walking, and that is good, but I hope there may be an increased realization that they must also join in a cloud of protest which insists on changes in the fundamental system which creates and allows poverty to exist in the midst of plenty.

The question “What causes poverty?” hopefully will receive more and more answers which refuse to criticize those who are victimized, but will focus on the system which victimizes many while rewarding some on a basis which is not always merit.

What causes poverty is no puzzle. The puzzle is why we let it happen.