Poverty

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Poverty

To understand our current sins of earth-savaging, overconsuming, and overpopulating, we
have to look at facts that are, like the sun, too painful for our direct gaze. Instinctively we look
away.
Poverty
“The poverty of the poor is their ruin,” says the Book of Proverbs. And the ruin is not just
material. Poverty rapes and kills the spirit of the poor. We underestimate its complexity and
cruelty. There are four dimensions of poverty:
(1) Material limit. Poverty does mean a lack of material necessities. For the one billion people in
“absolute poverty,” the most basic essentials are critically lacking and death is fastening its grip on
them. Note, too, that fewer than 3 billion people could eat as we eat, i.e. on a North American
diet. We are almost 3 billion beyond that now. Limits have already been passed.
(2) Poverty strips the human spirit of its two indispensable prerequisites, the two things we cannot
do without. They are, I submit, respect and hope. The opposite of respect is insult and, as
Aristotle said, insult is the root of all rebellion. Respect is the recognition that our humanity is
valued at its worth, that others recognize that humanity is a shared glory and our possession of it
is acknowledged. Poverty turns the goodness of the world into a taunt for it denies the poor the
ecstasy of life that is their birthright. It is galling and killing to be so disvalued.
Insult is treatment that implicitly denies that we matter. African-Americans in the United States,
for example, eat insult with their daily bread. As law professor Derrick Bell says, there is no white
person in this country who at some level does not think blacks to be inferior, and there is no black
person who does not know that and resent it. Given the persistent record, the same could be said
for the often subterranean but ever active belief of men that women are inferior and that their
disempowerment is the law of nature. Women have noticed this and felt the stigmatizing pain. The
result is called feminism and its success is the last best hope for our bi-gendered species.
Hope is also best described by its opposite. Its opposite is paralysis. Only hope activates the
human will. Only possible good motors our affections and stirs us to action. Without hope, we are
catatonic. Even Sisyphus had to be hoping for something or he would have left that rock where he
found it. Poverty suffocates hope for it repeatedly shows possibility to be illusory. Infants reach
for hope starting with their birth and the infants of the poor already show with their eyes that
there is no hope for them. Hunger and pain have already told them that their humanity does not
count.
The stripping of respect and hope from the poor is well systematized. Capitalism from its start had
poverty in its train. Serfs in the feudal, pre-capitalist system did often have a kind of paternalistic
social security. They were part of a unit that shared the essentials out of a kind of practical
necessity. With the dawn of modern capitalism, the serfs were cast out to look for work and
security. Capitalism had two choices from the beginning, either to correct its deficiencies and care
for those who were cast out by the blind mechanisms of the market or to embark on the
systematic vilification of the poor, implying that their plight was their own doing and not an
indictment of the system. Capitalism embraced the second alternative with passion.
The Statute of Laborers in 1349 in England made it a crime to give alms to the poor. In modern
terms this meant cutting off welfare from these “lazy drones” who opted freely for idleness. This
same spirit emerged in The Poor Law Reform Bill in England in 1834, which said explicitly that
the main cause of poverty was the indiscriminate giving of aid which destroyed the desire to work.

Again, there was nothing wrong with the system, only with those left out by the system. Of this
1834 bill Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli would say decades later, “It made it a crime to be
poor.”
In the United States, 19th century writers like Herbert Spencer said that poverty was the direct
consequence of sloth and sinfulness. One writer said: “Next to alcohol, and perhaps alongside it,
the most pernicious fluid is indiscriminate soup.” Cotton Mather had set