Real Poverty

This is not to suggest that the poor lack humanity, ambition, and enterprise. Quite the opposite is true, although this is not enough. Despite their ambition and enterprise, they are still poor and caught in a trap, victims of circumstances and institutional failures, especially of the governments. It is precisely why the poor need and deserve a helping hand to climb out of poverty, not a motivational speech. Poortainment leads one to believe the problem of poverty is not so bad after all and that it is improving without our intervention. But take off the rose-tinted designer glasses, and you see that real poverty is worse than we think it is, and it will not improve without our intervention. We should not romanticize the poor and celebrate the human spirit that survives in poverty. Rather, we should mourn the human spirit that is destroyed by poverty, and we should be enraged by the dehumanizing aspects of poverty.

Understanding Poverty

The romanticization of the poor, unfortunately, is not confined to popular culture. The libertarian approach to reducing poverty is just as guilty of romanticizing the poor. To successfully fight poverty it is necessary to understand poverty. One way to gain an understanding of poverty is to listen to the poor describe their experiences. In an unprecedented effort to understand poverty from the perspective of the poor themselves, the World Bank collected the voices of more than 60,000 poor women and men from 60 countries.15 Voices of the Poor reveals that poverty is multidimensional and complex. Poverty is powerlessness, despair, insecurity, and humiliation, say the poor themselves. They talk about domestic violence, which is pervasive, and gender relations that are stressed. Table 4.1 shows some of the ways the poor have described their lives. They feel the new economic opportunities have bypassed them. They want more assistance from the governments and state institutions, and see corruption as a big problem. NGOs receive mixed ratings. The poor rely on informal networks to survive, but these too are fragile. There is nothing romantic about being poor.

As we saw in Chapters 2 and 3, the libertarian view that the poor are perfectly rational actors is used to justify company strategies that in some cases result in making the poor worse off, and the assumption that they are discerning consumers sometimes leads businesses to exploit them. In addition, the romanticized view that the poor cope well with poverty and will climb out of poverty on their own leads to governments treating the poor with

Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one’s dignity and drives one into total despair.

Poverty is like living in jail, living under bondage, waiting to be free. Lack of work worries me. My children were hungry and I told them the rice is cooking, until they fell asleep from hunger.

Everyday I am afraid of the next.

Problems have affected our relationship. The day my husband brings in money, we are all right together. The day he stays at home (out of work), we are fighting constantly.

Men rape within the marriage. Men believe that paying dowry means buying the wife, so they use her anyhow at all times. But no one talks about it.

People place their hopes in God, since the government is no longer involved in such matters.

Teachers do not go to school except when it is time to receive salaries. The children keep playing in the sewage.

The NGOs give resources, they undertake research but there are also negative views because some are covers for businesses.

When food was in abundance, relatives used to share it. These days of hunger, however, not even relatives would help you by giving you some food.

No one helps, not anyone. I would gladly help someone, but how when I am in need of help myself?

This is misery. Our souls, our psyches are dead.

Whenever there is a funeral, we work together—women draw water, collect firewood, and collect maize flour from well-wishers—while men dig graves and bury the dead.

Source: Voices of the Poor. The World Bank, 2000.

malign neglect. Romanticizing the poor results in overemphasis on microcredit and underemphasis on fostering modern enterprises that would provide employment opportunities for the poor. It also results in too little emphasis on putting into place legal, regulatory, and social mechanisms to protect the poor, who are vulnerable consumers.

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