The poor are losers. It’s a refrain we often hear – sometimes from politicians, from the wealthy, and even from governments. The tragedy is that it’s true, only not in the way many elites think it is. Those who are living in poverty are losers in terms of human rights. They are the ones most likely to be murdered, beaten up by the police, sexually assaulted, and driven out of their homes, and the resources devoted to protecting them will generally be far fewer than that spent on protecting the well-off.
The poor are losers when it comes to the political process. They are discouraged and sometimes prevented from voting, and they have little real chance of expressing their opinions in ways that will be heard by the powerful because their “representatives” tend not to listen to people who have neither money nor clout.
And the poor are losers when it comes to the economic system. Increasing privatization forces the poor to buy goods and services on the private market, money that they often simply don’t have. When they look for credit, insurance and other services from private corporations, algorithms weed out the poor and direct them to more expensive or substandard offers. The middle class and the rich have Uber and Airbnb, the poor have a higher monthly car insurance bill and expensive temporary accommodation.
And the poor are losers because they can’t count on the State to give them a break. The lion’s share of public expenditures including tax deductions and special treatment go to the wealthy. Meanwhile, the piddling amounts of welfare given to those in dire need are subjected by governments to death by a thousand cuts as politicians vie with one another to prevent fraud, drug abuse, laziness, and whatever else they deem the poor to be guilty of. Meanwhile, labor market institutions to protect the poor (and the middle classes) such as the minimum wage, employment protections and labor unions are under sustained attack.
If we listen to the dominant voices in our communities it seems that our prosperity and success as a society depend primarily on implementing two sets of policies. The first is to tax the rich as little as possible because this will generate the wealth needed to help the rest of society to live decently. The second is to whittle away at every last food stamp benefit, to reduce the drain that non-wealthy people impose on the healthcare system, and to make the receipt of any form of government benefits as unpleasant and unrewarding as possible.
Sadly for those who seek quick fixes, there is remarkably little evidence to support any of these propositions.
But the question then is whether it’s true that there is little that can be done to help the poor and to eradicate poverty? Happily, it’s not. There are three things we need to do.
The first is to acknowledge that the persistence of poverty in almost every society is a result of political choices that have consciously been made by those in power. The bottom 15-20 percent of our societies live in conditions that we would find abhorrent, largely because our political leaders and we don’t really give a damn because they/we like to think that people (especially those of us who are successful) are fully responsible for their own fate, and because they/we would prefer that public resources be spent on ourselves rather than on others. To move beyond this we need to acknowledge that extreme poverty, which continues to afflict hundreds of millions of people around the world, is effectively a negation of all human rights and that its persistence challenges any notion of a common humanity and solidarity.
Second, we have the financial resources to eliminate poverty and it would cost a fraction of what “coalitions of the willing” poured into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Arguments that we need to cut spending on social protection in order to enable tax cuts for the rich are self-serving and obscene and we need to recognize that. The reality is that even the so-called poorest countries would have the necessary resources if they were to curb corruption, collect taxes, and prevent illicit financial outflows. They don’t, and we in the global north are often complicit in their actions.
Third, we need to make poverty elimination a political issue. We need to reassert a common humanity, shared responsibilities, and the centrality of human dignity.
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