Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day -- Absolute Poverty

It's been another three weeks and I felt like flexing my writing muscles again, so I saw the announcements about Blog Action Day and went to the website. Since it is an important topic that needs more focus than beauty pageants can give it, I decided to give it a try. The problem is that I am absolutely no expert on the topic. In fact, after thinking about it for a bit I had very little knowledge of what poverty really is. It has grown to become one of those big ideal words of bad things in my head like unemployment, genocide, starvation, illiteracy.

I have really been damned lucky in my life. I've always had a place to live, never had to go starving, almost always had a job, never been persecuted due to any protected classes, and I've always been able to read and been around people in my life that can do the same. When I grew up my parents never had a lot but they were never truly impoverished and I was pretty lucky to never really experience that.

At the same time all of this fortune also makes one not so observant of not having a job (well right now for me that's kind of an issue, but my prospects are better than most) or lacking the ability to read, or being homeless, or experiencing discrimination, or what true hunger really feels like.

It seemed that my ignorance was showing.

One good place to fix displays of stupidity is to research. I started at the base level with the Wikipedia article and scaled outward. The definition of poverty depends on the setting of a threshold that must be achieved in order to self-sustain, so the first thing that the article does is to differentiate between absolute and relative poverty by classifying these thresholds.2 An absolute poverty threshold is defined in terms that do not vary between human beings, whereas a relative poverty threshold takes into account the economic and cultural situation of the society that you live in.

I've decided to focus on absolute poverty, since relative poverty will bring into the conversation philosophical arguments that betray the actual crisis at hand. Where relative poverty varies from country to country and depends on being able to define a standard of living, absolute poverty is defined as the inability to provide for 2 of the following life necessities (according to a UN report by David Gordon):
  • Food: Body Mass Index must be above 16.
  • Safe drinking water: Water must not come from solely rivers and ponds, and must be available nearby (less than 15 minutes' walk each way).
  • Sanitation facilities: Toilets or latrines must be accessible in or near the home.
  • Health: Treatment must be received for serious illnesses and pregnancy.
  • Shelter: Homes must have fewer than four people living in each room. Floors must not be made of dirt, mud, or clay.
  • Education: Everyone must attend school or otherwise learn to read.
  • Information: Everyone must have access to newspapers, radios, televisions, computers, or telephones at home.
  • Access to services: This normally is used to indicate the complete panoply of education, health, legal, social, and financial (credit) services.
It seems to me that many of these basic necessities should be at least achievable no matter what society you ascribe to. However, some disturbing things came to light when I started looking into each requirement on the list.

A BMI of 16? That's practically anorexic. Recently there was a mandate by many fashion boards to prevent models from modeling if their BMI was under 18. Median BMI in the US is around 24. Keep that in mind when you look at David Gordon's charts at the end of that talk to see how critical the situation is. There's something wrong with culture where we can eat whatever we want when we want while models do hunger art to "entertain" us knowing full well they're getting paid well enough to recover afterwards when poor people out there are starving for real and don't even have the opportunity to get the job to earn the food to keep them well.

It gets worse. We as a society can drink water sold in bottles but outside of the US there's many places where 10% or more people don't meet this standard (some places like sub-Sarahan Africa are at 48%). It also looks like I'm preaching to the non-impoverished: 95% of the worlds computers are in 20% of the people, and this creates an information gap in science and education that is much more disturbing than the disappearance of the middle class that we seem to fret about in the US. The housing crisis is a big ticket item in the US, but the unspoken conclusion of the financial situation is the eventual increase in homelessness that it will produce; already 700,000 to 2 million people experience homelessness on any given day in the US (something many of us do see), but that's only 2% of the world total. Finally, in a country with a 98% literacy rate, we don't see many people who are illiterate, whereas the moment we step out of our borders the rate is at 82%. Some places in the world have 50% literacy.

Keep in mind that these issues are also within our borders, and I don't make light our our own poverty problems in the US. I'm looking at absolute poverty here, where there are no houses not made of mud or clay, no running water or water resource for miles, with a lack of food, employment, education, clothing, health care, and information. These are people who don't have a society from which to ask for assistance. Honestly, it's hard to picture such a dire situation in the United States. We have running water and electricity in this country. Libraries are open to whomever want to enter, and after filling out the right forms you can use their computers, which 98% of you are able to do because someone taught you to read. People here do provide food and shelter to those in need (although more need to take the call to arms).

I guess the point is that I'm not alone for not seeing many of these issues. I live in a country that comparatively has not seen absolute poverty (at least not yet, depending on the markets), and have lived my life never truly being at the point where I was deprived of any of the above. Therefore, I have no true focal point.

And neither does the world. Interestingly enough, people argue so much over the statistics that I couldn't find an absolute answer to how many people suffer from absolute poverty. I guess that it's a hard question, mainly because of those 8 conditions above no one seems to have drawn up the necessary Venn diagram and counted the intersections. One way to estimate the problem is the World Bank's threshold of extreme poverty, which is living on less than $1.25 a day (based on 2005 Purchasing Parity Power). No matter what part of the world in which you live, it seems difficult to be able to maintain 7 of the 8 conditions above on a salary of less than $37.50 a month. (Wow, I have $40 in my wallet currently. How much money do you have in your wallet? Could you live on only $40 over the course of a month? Anywhere?) From the World Bank:
Using improved price data from the latest (2005) round of the International Comparison Program, new poverty estimates released in August 2008 show that about 1.4 billion people in the developing world (one in four) were living on less than $1.25 a day in 2005, down from 1.9 billion (one in two) in 1981.
I guess we're doing better? It still seems pretty horrific that 25% of people in the developing world suffer from extreme poverty. I'd be willing to bet that at least the majority of those suffer from absolute poverty, per my arguments above. Do we see any of these people? How about in the US? In my research today, I couldn't find a US indicator of extreme poverty by the World Bank rules, because here we define it at less than $10,000 a year, which is more than 20 times the World Bank standard. Using that threshold we have 6% "extreme" poverty. Again, I don't want to lessen the horrible situation of the impoverished in America; rather, I simply want to convey how hard it is to find people who experience extreme poverty by World Bank standards and how incomprehensible of a problem it is.

In that same talk by David Gordon where we got the 8 requirements for human sustenance, there's a summation statement (oddly enough in the middle of the talk):
Fundamentally, poverty is a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society.
This is pretty profound. I couldn't even imagine how it feels not to be able to provide for my most basic needs, and there are so many people at this critical level. Not only that, the purpose of society is to assure their members that these choices and opportunities are being met, that it is possible to satisfy these 8 necessities. Anything less of that is inhumane and undignified. And to think how large this problem is.

Really, 1.4 billion? I can't imagine 1.4 billion dollars, let alone 1.4 billion suffering people that need that money on a daily basis. And I had to research how bad the problem is? It's no wonder that those in absolute poverty feel voiceless in society and why it's important for the relatively wealthy to speak up and act on their behalf and for the support of their welfare.


Anonymous said...

Amen to the acknowledgement of the staggering level of poverty here and around the world.

Don't forget, though, that there are many towns on the border of Mexico that are geographically American but are essentially shantytowns with dirt floors. I've seen them, and it's unimaginable.

Most of the world's poor are children, and there are so many children right here in the US who go hungry on a regular basis - either from lack of food or from lack of food that has any nutritional value to nourish their hungry brains.

Kudos for the research.

Whitemist said...

Thanks for the breakdown. The part that is true is that in the US you generally do not see extreme poverty that you would see common place in the developing nations or undeveloped nations. The part that your study does not show is that there is a percentage of people who experience those extreme poverty conditions IN the US for short periods of time. I have worked with some of those and they are in our neighborhood, cleaning our buildings and they are NOT illegal aliens. I have grwn up in similar situations to you and have been surprised by what we do not know or see.

Lisa Rosenberg said...

If you take your last definition of poverty in lacking dignity, then unfortunately a lot more are in poverty than just those defined by the world bank.

We are very fortunate in this country. I've ended up in some sticky situations, but I've never been destitute. If nothing else I could move in with my family (which I've had to do).

I've had enough brushes with tipping over into the unlucky side of life that I've simply decided that I must protect myself better and I have the luxury of doing so. I am building savings, I have a job, I have marketable skills. I am mobile. And if worst came to worst I'd take a job that is "beneath" me to survive until I could get something else.

A lot of people even if not in the poverty you describe are trapped. If you have low education (you can read, sure), no real skills then you have no protection. Also, you probably live in a high crime area with a lack of services or very high cost services and you are more likely to run into the law. There is a certain cycle of poverty in the US that can be hard to break away from.