World Poverty Day: why does it matter?

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Image Description: Globe made half of dollar bills and half a wire frame
Article by Anjali Kawa

1 in 10 live on $1.90 or less a day. Today, the 17th of October, is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Poverty is a permanent feature in our media, yet its constant presence in papers and the 6 o’clock news often amounts to little. It is difficult for anyone to write about poverty realistically, as most journalists have (likely) never suffered through what millions across the world do. It is important to persistently cover this crude feature of our global community. I hope this post contributes to this vast library on the topic positively. With $280 trillion in the world we have to ask the questions: why is poverty so widespread and how can we end it?

Is poverty really as big a problem as it is made out to be?

If we take the UK as an example, a report in 2017 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (a policy research charity specialising in social issues such as poverty) showed that 14 million people in the country live in poverty. Poverty is thought to be alien to the UK, a country always listed in the top ten largest economies, but this statistic shows that the size of an economy doesn’t negate the problem of poverty in a country. Exploring the impact of poverty in your own country is sometimes the best way to have a tangible grasp on what is actually happening in the world. The JRF estimated earlier this year that the reversal of 2015 cuts to public spending would pull 340,000 British people out of poverty. This clip from a recent Prime Minister’s Questions shows the Tory government to be blind to the impact its cuts will have on thousands up and down the country. Poverty is not what we envision it is to be in our glossy Slumdog Millionaire-esque perceptions -it is much more close to home.

Do the richest really have a responsibility towards the poorest?

Too often, we hear people question why those with unnecessary amounts of wealth have a responsibility to alleviate poverty, and the simple answer is that their wealth is often built off the backs of those who live in poverty. The best example of this issue is the use of sweatshops in LEDCs/the Global South by global market leaders such as Nike and H&M. Recent climate change studies have proved the earth is deteriorating much faster than predicted and it is important to acknowledge that is those who live in poorer areas of the world will suffer first, even though they contribute the least to the growing problem. Even if you are not ‘literally a communist’, you cannot deny the imbalance of wealth in the world. A Credit Suisse report shows 0.7% of the population control 46% of the world’s wealth. In simpler terms this means 36 million people own $140 trillion. Putting this down to ‘hard work’ and ‘ambition’ is naive. Ha-Joon Chang calls this the L’Oreal Principle: the myth that people who earn millions of pounds per annum must be ‘worth it’. Poverty is the result of hundreds of years of various colonial and class hierarchies and in 2018 it is vital we work to undo these. Whether we talk about the ‘richest’ in the sense of individuals or the economically largest nations, the wealthiest economic actors have a duty to help those in hardships. We have to delete the notion that ‘it’s about envy”, as Mitt Romney said in 2012, from the world’s hard drive.

Why do we even really need to eradicate poverty?

This question would not (hopefully) be posed seriously by anyone, but we will explore it anyway. The most basic answer is the moral one. It is unthinkable to allow millions to live in abject poverty while the rest of us continue our 24 karat gold lives. There is no way to lay this out logically; it is a natural instinct most of us have with any luck. There is also, however, a convincing economic argument against poverty. It has been claimed by economists that when wealth becomes concentrated in a population, resources are too, and this leads to an ‘inbred’ elite reducing innovation and preventing developments in industries. Financing people’s education will not only pull them out of poverty but allow a flood of more talent to enter the market, improving everyone’s life. The Kuznets Hypothesis is, at a simple level, the theory that once a country begins to develop economically, inequality increases, but then decreases rapidly. There is also a version that suggests economic growth at a certain point will cause an improvement in the environment. It seems that giving more people ample resource to live a life of quality will mean society improves in general. Shock horror.

Whether or not you are financially able to contribute to the plight of those who live difficult lives because of poor (and often politically charged) economic decisions, is beside the point. It is important to learn more about poverty and the proximity it has for all of us. It is no longer just images of children carrying buckets of water, but also it is the family of four living on your street who struggle to get through the week. Poverty is very real and is becoming increasingly unsettling that many of us seem to assume it is part of the furniture in our global home.

Getting involved in your own homes and cities is a good place to start before we attempt to dismantle the corporations that control our world. Looking into local grassroots charities in your immediate boroughs or towns can do so much good. National endeavours such as the Child Poverty Action Group in the UK, or Feeding America are as important as international ones such as World Vision or Oxfam. This article was not intended as a ‘doom and gloom’ picture of our world, but as encouragement for people to act somehow to alleviate the stresses on people near to and far from us. Small actions, like donating to food banks or volunteering for local charities, are always going to be a positive thing.

Recommendations by the Risen team for learning more about economic inequality:
  • Economics: The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang:
Chapter 9 is the most relevant to this article but the entire book is incredibly useful and accessible.
  • Social Class in the 21st Century by Mike Savage:
Not entirely applicable to the issue of poverty, but still a good read to understand how class is much more complex than the basic Victorian structure.
  • Poverty Inc:
A documentary that looks at how aid sometimes does not always have the best intentions. 
  • Article from the NY Times : Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs
A couple years old but an interesting look at economic equality in the US.
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
A book that follows 8 families as they struggle to pay their landlords following the 2008 economic crash. 
A little more off-piste but definitely worth the watch. Focusses on the growing property crisis in the financial centre of the UK.

*I would encourage you to find these books in your local bookshops and have avoided using Amazon links here, as Jeff Bezos is the model for everything I have discussed in this article: grossly rich because of the poor conditions his workers endure.