Conservatives often try to denounce or reject the idea that rich and poor even exist at all. No one really creates arguments to deny that poor people exist, or that rich people exist. Instead they reject the concept of a need and transpose it with a want. They claim need is subjective, and that we cannot determine subjective concepts for other people. This is the intellectual foundation for denying poverty and alleviation for inequality and the poor. But need really does exist. Food and shelter really isn’t a want.
At the end of the twentieth century, the World Bank sent out a team of researchers to record the views of 60,000 women and men living in extreme poverty. Visiting seventy-three countries, the research team heard, over and over, that poverty meant these things:
• You are short of food for all or part of the year, often eating only one meal per day, sometimes having to choose between stilling your child’s hunger or your own, and sometimes being able to do neither.
• You can’t save money. If a family member falls ill and you need money to see a doctor, or if the crop fails and you have nothing to eat, you have to borrow from a local moneylender; he will charge you so much interest that the debt continues to mount, and you may never be free of it.
• You can’t afford to send your children to school; or if they do start school, you have to take them out again if the harvest is poor.
• You live in an unstable house, made with mud or thatch that you need to rebuild every two or three years, or after severe weather.
• You have no close source of safe drinking water. You have to carry it a long way, and even then, it can make you ill unless you boil it.
Along with these material deprivations goes, very often, a humiliating state of powerlessness, vulnerability and a deep sense of shame or failure.
Along with these material deprivations goes, very often, a humiliating state of powerlessness, vulnerability and a deep sense of shame or failure. Extreme poverty, as defined by the World Bank, means not having enough income to meet the most basic human needs for adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, health care or education. In 2008, the Bank calculated that this requires a daily income that is the purchasing power equivalent of about US$1.25 per day in the United States. This is not the foreign exchange equivalent of US$1.25, which might not be so bad, because as everyone who travels from a rich country to a poor one knows, the currencies of rich countries often have much greater purchasing power in poor countries. The World Bank’s definition takes that difference into account: the poor earn only as much as will buy, in their currency, the quantity of necessities that $1.25 will buy in the United States. The bank estimates that 1.4 billion people have less income than this.
In industrialized countries, people are poor by comparison to others in their society. Their poverty is relative – they have enough to meet their basic needs and usually access to free health care as well. The 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty in developing countries are poor by an absolute standard: they have difficulty meeting their basic needs. Absolute poverty kills. According to UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, 8.8 million children under five years old died from avoidable, poverty-related causes in 2008. That comes to 24,000 –
think of it as a football stadium full of children – dying unnecessarily every day. (The number of children dying has been falling steadily since the 1960s but still remains far too high.) Millions of adults also die because of absolute poverty. Life expectancy in the rich nations is now seventy-eight years; in developing countries, it is around fifty. When absolute poverty does not cause death, it still causes misery of a kind not often seen in the affluent nations. Malnutrition in young children stunts both physical and mental development. Millions of people on poor diets suffer from deficiency diseases, like goiter, or blindness caused by a lack of vitamin A. The food value of what the poor eat is further reduced by parasites such as hookworm and ringworm, which are endemic in conditions of poor sanitation and health education. Death and disease apart, absolute poverty remains a miserable condition of life, with inadequate food, shelter, clothing, sanitation, health services and education.
This is the ‘normal’ situation of our world. At least ten times as many people died from preventable, poverty-related diseases on September 11, 2001, as died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on that black day. The terrorist attacks led to trillions of dollars being spent on the ‘war on terrorism’ and on security measures that have inconvenienced every air traveller since then. The deaths caused by poverty were ignored. So whereas very few people have died from terrorism since September 11, 2001, approximately 30,000 people died from poverty-related causes on September 12, 2001, and on every day between then and now, and will die tomorrow. Even when we consider larger events, like the Asian tsunami of 2004, which killed approximately 230,000 people, or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed up to 200,000, we are still talking about numbers that represent just one week’s toll for preventable, poverty-related deaths – and that happens fifty-two weeks in every year.
Some facts about affluence
We can juxtapose a picture of ‘absolute affluence’ against this picture of absolute poverty. Those who are absolutely affluent are not necessarily affluent by comparison with their neighbors, but they have more income than they need to provide themselves adequately with all the basic necessities of life. After buying (either directly or through their taxes) food, shelter, clothing, basic health services and education, the absolutely affluent still have money to spend on luxuries. The absolutely affluent choose their food for the pleasures of the palate, not to stop hunger; they buy new clothes to look good, not to keep warm; they move house to be in a better neighborhood or have more space for the children to play, not to keep out the rain; and after all this, there is still money to spend on home entertainment centers and exotic holidays.
At this stage, I am making no ethical judgments about absolute affluence; I am merely pointing out that it exists. Its defining characteristic is a significant amount of income above the level necessary to provide for the basic human needs of oneself and one’s dependents. By this standard, the majority of citizens of Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the oil-rich Middle Eastern states are all absolutely affluent. There are also hundreds of millions of affluent people in countries like China, India and Brazil, although there is also extreme poverty in those countries. These affluent people have wealth that they could, without threatening their own basic welfare, transfer to the extremely poor.