What Do the Poor Want?

Consider the poor of the earth. There are millions upon millions. They tend to be concentrated in limited areas, in slums, in awful resettlement encampments that often become permanent. Places where the rich want to store them, out of sight. People in these places believe that nothing will ever change for them, because nothing has ever changed, for them or their parents. They feel hopeless. Most are victimized by criminals, foreign governments, foreign corporations, and corrupt local politicians whom they are powerless to avoid.

The cycle of wealth needs to be broken
more than the cycle of poverty.

This is what we see in poor places all over the world. In the Asian countryside. In South American shantytowns. In Eastern European slums. In Haiti. Now, ask yourself: Is there any real difference between the poor in these places and the poor in the US?

There is, some Republicans will say. They will claim that our poor are “takers”. They are lazy, have no ambition, and want only government handouts. Whereas, those others, well they…

If there is any one thing that the poor all over the world want, and want badly, it is work for which they are fairly paid. It’s as simple as that.

The poor all over the world want
work for which they are fairly paid.

Now, here’s an irony. Take any population of poor people. All of them need goods and services. What prevents them from supplying these things for each other, and thus bootstrapping themselves out of poverty? If everything were already set up, the stores, the food, the schools, and so on, even within the limited area in which they live, there is no reason this population of perfectly normal people couldn’t provide themselves with all the work and income they need to live an improved life. What is it that prevents this happier outcome?

The problem is not laziness, either here or in some far off place. There are lazy people, of course, but the proportion of such types is about the same no matter where you are, no matter the social class. More than one wealthy family has been ruined by a profligate son. MLK said that someone without boots can’t lift himself by the bootstraps. The Republican faith that the poor are automatically lazy is total nonsense.

The poor cannot simply decide to break their bonds and become more affluent. The possibility just isn’t there. It will take some sort of organizing, and seed money. Here’s a possibility: an informal currency of the type being used all over the world, a sort of step up from barter, since they don’t have enough official currency. But what the poor need most is a permanent change of situation.

The poor cannot simply decide to break
their bonds and become more affluent.

Look at Haiti. It’s now three years since earthquake destroyed the main city of Port au Prince and killed several hundred thousand people. There were worldwide pledges of funds to not only help them recover, but to “build back better”, in the words of Bill Clinton, speaking about a fund that no longer exists. But not a lot has been built, let alone built back better. Half the pledged funds didn’t arrive, and many of the rest were wasted, as usual, with no benefit for the locals.

Haiti has been unreasonably poor since Thomas Jefferson crushed the young republic by tying up all their money in boycott, and France (ironically) sued them for the value of their lost colony, a debt that wasn’t cleared until the middle of the 20th century. (Unfortunately, Haiti failed to counter-sue for centuries of unpaid slave labor.) Haiti lived through 19 years of US occupation and decades of cruel kleptocratic rule under the Duvaliers, and only began to assert themselves as a free democracy under Bertrand Aristide. But the rich didn’t want all that messy democracy among the poor, so the US Marines invaded again and kidnapped Aristide and parked him in Africa. He has only recently returned, and has kept a low profile, but the rich still blame him for everything not to their liking. Meantime, they still reap Haiti’s riches, while the lot of the poor has not improved.

What works to help the poor
is to give the gift of control to them.

What works to help the poor, in Haiti and everywhere else, is to give the gift of control to them. Partners in Health, with its long history of health care for the very poor in rural Haiti, has been exemplary in this way from the beginning. In March they will open a new teaching hospital in Port au Prince, which is planned to become self-supporting in ten years. (Good luck!) It will provide 800 positions of importance to Haitians. (It’s worth remembering that the doctors in training at Haiti’s previous teaching hospital were simply tossed out and the school closed, their entire facility taken over for barracks for the US Marines who kidnapped Aristide.)

The cycle of wealth needs to be broken more than the cycle of poverty.

Here’s what happens again and again when government and commercial interests decide to “help” in a poor place. To begin with, neither governments nor corporations ever try to deal with the situation at an appropriate scale. Poor people need to work. They don’t need a gigantic new dam, or a new government building complex. But it’s the dam or complex they get, if anything. So these monster organizations move in, set up mighty goals without asking a single local what they need or want, and pursue their own pre-established goals using workers they brought with them. They work for their own profit, not for the local poor. All the real money from a big new hotel, or a new factory, always goes to the foreign owners and the local rich people. If the poor benefit at all, it’s only enough to lift them into a slightly higher level of poverty. More often they are further impoverished because their land is stolen and their environment raped, a process in full swing in Haiti today.

It seems to me that most poverty is caused not by the poor, but by the rich.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “but the proportion of such people is the same no matter where you are”… A prof of mine said something similar about idiots. This is a golden rule, I think

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  2. First thing is to cut off all the overseas manufacturing and their crappy imports and employ AMERICANS to produce again.

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    • Easier said than done. It’s very hard for most people to pay $100 for something made in the USA when the same item made in Bangladesh goes for $25. The discrepancy will moderate when workers in Bangladesh are paid decently, and when all expenses (such as environmental costs) show up in the item’s price.

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      • The problem is that the Bangladesh workers will be underpaid for decades and at the same time American workers are getting paid 1980 wages. You can never have prosperity when not enough people can buy the products they need creating the need to replace them thus creating jobs.

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