29 August 2009

Why should we REALLY care about poverty?

Cross posting from www.omnesunum.blogspot.com

Why should we REALLY care about poverty?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I read Yunis’ Banker to the Poor, and Sachs’ End of Poverty. I’m not trying to argue that we shouldn’t care about poverty; there are many legitimate and compelling reasons why we should care. Rather, I’ve been trying to get at the very core of the issue.

The first level of caring about poverty is somewhat self-serving: we all bear the social and economic costs of poverty to some extent. It could be considered an economic efficiency argument. It’s not efficient that I pay for welfare checks, subsidized housing, and food stamps with my taxes. It would be better, from a market perspective, if everyone could pay for their own food and shelter without externalizing those costs to the tax-paying public. Crime, drug abuse, and illiteracy, which are all associated with poverty, also generate social and economic costs that are externalized to the non-poor public. It is also not possible to conduct trade with the poor. If you are selling widgets and 25% of the population is too poor to afford your widgets, but would really like to have them, then you’re missing out on a large piece of the market.

This first level is a legitimate reason to be concerned about poverty, but what if the poor were all rounded up and put on an island so that their welfare did not impact that of the non-poor public? Should we still care? Suppose that poverty were completely eradicated in your country. Should you still care about the poor in other nations? You are probably thinking “Yes we should still care,” but the reasons are clearly not socio-economic.

The next level of poverty is also somewhat self-serving: poverty damages the environment. The relationship between poverty and the environment has been well studied. Put simply, the wealthy can afford to preserve the environment, whereas the poor cannot. The poor, particularly in developing nations, are primarily concerned with subsistence, so cutting down rainforest for firewood or killing endangered species for food are viewed as necessities of life, not environmental exploitation. Soil loss, species loss, deforestation, and air and water pollution are all more severe in poor countries than in industrialized countries. In poor nations, these problems harm the poor and non-poor alike. Environmental problems in poor countries also affect quality of life in wealthy countries, particularly when the problems are global in nature (such as climate change and ozone depletion).

This is also a legitimate reason to care about poverty, but what if the rich became wealthy enough to effectively isolate themselves in healthy environmental “bubbles?” Should we still care about poverty then? Yes, but not for environmental reasons.

The next level of caring about poverty is more altruistic: it’s not fair. There is clearly a justice aspect to caring about poverty and humans, I believe, are fundamentally compassionate beings. It’s simply not fair that our fellow men, women and children suffer while we do not. Witnessing poverty makes any thinking person sad and angry. Yes, some people ‘tune out’ the poverty they see around them or on television, distancing themselves from any relation to it. If it were a brother or sister in that situation, would they be able to live in comfort while their family suffered? Could they remain satiated while their family was hungry? This gets very close to what I believe is the core or true reason we should care about poverty. Fundamental human dignity requires a certain level of material comfort and that level should be available to everyone.

What I believe to be true reason we should care about poverty integrates all of the above. I believe the purpose of life is to continually advance human material and spiritual civilization. Individuals must develop skills, abilities and capacities within themselves in order to do this. An ever-advancing civilization requires the effort of all everyone. In a society where a significant number of its members are poor, this is not possible. The very poor are not able to develop these skills, abilities and capacities because they are preoccupied with subsistence. They do not have access to education. Their health is too poor to contribute to the advancement of society. If you think of the whole of human civilization as a body, it will not be possible for that whole body to advance materially and spiritually when one part is underdeveloped, feeble or ill.

This reason integrates all of the above. It is unjust to have poor among us and from a moral perspective it is impossible for human society as a whole to advance spiritually while one part suffers. Materially speaking, a healthy and sustainable environment is essential to a continually advancing civilization. Damaging the environment necessarily limits the long-run capacity for human advancement since it serves as a source of our materials and a sink for our wastes. Finally, economically it is detrimental to the advancement of human civilization to have a dependent portion of society. Continual advancement requires that everyone maintains a level of economic well-being such that no portion of society required transfers. Continual advancement also would require a large healthy economy. Having all members of society participating in that economy (buying and selling widgets) provides the necessary strength and stability to perpetuate development.

So why should we really care about poverty? Because we can’t fulfill the purpose of life while it exists.

Comments welcome here or visit www.omnesunum.blogspot.com.


  1. Truth be told, I have never really thought about the economic and environmental reasons to end poverty. I have always thought about it in moral terms. But these are also great reasons and can greatly bolster an argument with somebody who is otherwise apathetic. Everybody needs to realize that in, in the long run, nobody will be well off until everybody is well off.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Silly I can't edit my comments. The above comment was removed to correct a typo. Anyway...

    I think most spiritually minded people also think of it in terms of morality/justice, however, when leaders talk about poverty from a policy or planning perspective it's often framed as an economic, social, and/or environmental problem. I think the uniqueness of the Baha'i perspective is that it adds the "ever-advancing civilization" element that harmonizes them all.

  4. One of the more important reasons to care about eradication of poverty is because it kills the human spirit. It brings on wretchedness of the heart, mind, and soul, and only those who have not experienced it would argue otherwise.