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Redefining Poverty

This is a continuation of the thoughts I began in last week’s post on Ebola, which was really more about people, and I continue here, with one more at some point this week (or next) to wrap up my ramblings.

By the way, if you are worried about Ebola bringing on a pandemic, I urge you to go read this, by a man who has much more solid credentials than I do.

I was reading Jerry Pournelle’s blog, Chaos Manor, and came across this:

“I am working on an essay about income discrepancy and how the income of the top 1% is rising, but that of the middle class is not rising or not rising much, and that of the working class is about the same as it was many years ago. Of course I grew up in a different era, and I see things differently.

For one thing, the poverty level now includes access to and ownership of stuff that my middle class family could never have afforded: like cataract operations that don’t lay you up and render you unable to drive at night. I drove Robert Bloch (author of Psycho among many other great stories and movies) to the big Studio Invitational opening of Star Wars because Bloch’s cataract operations rendered him unable to drive at night; that was half a lifetime ago; he wasn’t upper 1% but he was upper middle class, and he couldn’t afford better cataract surgery. I can, and so can almost everyone else now. I’m aware of this because it looks as if I’m going to have to let them do that to me. Niven and my friend Michael Galloway have had theirs done, and it was relatively painless and over in a day (a day for each eye), and they drive all right…

When I was growing up, and during the great boom periods following World War II, no one on earth could have afforded the radiation treatments that cured my brain cancer in 2008. I have more teeth than almost anyone my age when I was growing up. My income may not be growing as rapidly as that of Bill Gates – indeed, it’s not growing faster than inflation, another incentive for me to finish Janissaries – but I can buy things with what I have that Bill Gates could not have afforded back in the 1980’s. My iPhone is more powerful than all the computers anywhere when I first started playing about with the IBM 650. Anyway, there is more to income discrepancy than gets written about. Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton wrote a bit on the subject; it’s not something to be ignored; but it’s just not true that the rising tide in America doesn’t float all boats. Much of what comes as entitlements to those in poverty would have been thought wealth beyond the dreams of avarice when I was growing up…”

For one thing, as he mentions, access to healthcare that was unheard of a mere century ago is now taken for granted. Leaving aside the issue of paying for it (and you can walk into any emergency room and it is illegal for them to just let you die because they don’t think you can pay, something that again, wasn’t possible a hundred years ago), anyone has access to drugs, antibiotics, and surgery that would have looked like magic two hundred years ago. And that upward curve shows little sign of slowing down.

On a daily basis, I see articles about growing new organs, mapping the genetics of the human biome, and simple things like 3-D printed casts. We take for granted that everything can be cured, even to the point of anger when we run up against a truly hopeless situation. This hasn’t always been the case. If you know history at all, you know that death stalked our land even as it does Africa today.

Cholera, Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Diptheria… If you read historical accounts you know they were once considered inevitable outcomes. Some came every year, causing the vacation spots like Wolfeboro NH, a touristy little village I am very familiar with, to spring into being. People fleeing the hot, humid, disease-ridden city came to the cool, seemingly healthier countryside in search of respite from death.

Ebola rages in Africa because they are unimaginably poor to most who live in America today. Can you imagine going without enough water to clean, even to boil for sanitization (sterilization isn’t possible under most of their conditions) of basic medical supplies like needles? As I’ve mentioned before, families of the stricken provide most if not all their care, including the final rites of washing and preparing the body for death. This menas they are in constant contact with a highly infectious body. Ebola virus is relatively fragile. However, the ability to clean, to avoide handling a ‘hot’ body – those are luxuries they do not have.

Here in the US, no one goes hungry unless they (or their parents) choose to do so. There are so many programs in place that it’s hard to fend them off if you hit a rough patch and people know about it. If you reach out for help, it is there. Here, being ‘poor’ might mean choosing between having internet and paying rent, one month. We have more wealth than we understand, sometimes, I think, than we can understand.

So what to do about the poor in Africa? I have no suggestions. At this point in time it seems that the aid we have sent over there, the millions to feed starving children, or the WASH program to teach basic sanitation (how to wash hands, dig latrines, wear shoes, etc) disappears into thin air. Warlords, petty government officials, and a sheer scale of corruption I suspect we have trouble even comprehending wrap a web around the poor who are held up like a banner calling out for more. They are the beggar’s sign, while the pennies falling in the bowl are scooped up by a plump hand before it ever reaches the truly needy.

Nor do I think that  young people who, overwhelmed by the pity of their hearts, make touristy trips to try and ‘help the people’ are the answer. A superficial balm to their ownselves, but nothing lasting in their wake, besides a strengthening of that beggar’s image as being pitiful. Do I think we ought to cut Africa off and let it fall into the ocean? No. But I don’t think we need to continue with endless handouts and interventions, either. If there is a path out of their madness, they must find it themselves. We cannot force them into democracy, freedom, and happiness. It has to be their choice. Until then, when someone here in the US rants about poverty, I will look sadly toward those distant shores and know where true poverty lies. Not here.

0 thoughts on “Redefining Poverty

  1. Going to put in a caveat on all those support programs. Start off well-off, and hit a rough patch, and WHAT “support programs”.

    I got a surprise layoff last year, and was told I was not eligible for Medicaid OR Food Stamps. But they WOULD provide my wife and daughters with free “reproductive services”. Insulin ? Not so much. . .

    1. Yeah, I know that families (unbroken) and single men fall under the rader of ‘support programs’. It doesn’t defeat my point of poverty comparative, but it is an underserved problem. The programs are geared toward broken families and children, sometimes to the point of unfairness.

  2. I agree that young people making trips to Africa probably don’t provide a whole lot of real help, but I do think it’s a good thing for them to go anyway. It gives those young people a look at what real poverty is, and I think broadens their horizons in ways that just seeing the situation on TV or in a video will never do.

  3. I dunno. A doctor of mine went to a part of Africa and taught the tribe to make yogurt to feed to pregnant women. Cut the infant mortality rate by over %50. As far as I know, they are still doing that– because you don’t need western infrastructure to do what he taught them. It’s not all hopeless.- and there are some places in Africa that are much better than what they used to be. But that is mostly the work of Africans, not Westerners.

    Also, Mother Teresa, outside of looking like a sweet person, did make permanent and positive change in India. It was a small change, as how the dying are treated in certain areas, and how health treatment is done, how dirty water is managed. We know that a recent flood (in one of those insanely poor cities) did not cause an epidemic thanks to the small but strong structures that Mother Teresa built. But doing the typical western habit of dumping care and money on the problem just fund the forces that are largely responsible for the sustained damage.

    We are hobbled by our lack of understanding. We have logs to clear the logs out of our eyes before we can help another in need.

  4. Sometimes I feel that we as a nation owe Liberia. We did found that nation and abandoned it.
    My solution is extreme. I know this.
    I would give every nongovernment employee a copy of “The Rights of Man” and the Declaration of Independence translated into their own language, an AK – 47, and 1500 rounds along with the advice “if you want better you must take it for yourselves.” Keep the UN out and let them choose.

      1. Not randomly, just wholly. Bad government is predicated on monopoly or near monopoly of force and ignorance of the natural rights. Fix that and you’re home free so to speak

        1. One thing to remember is that in the era of the Revolutionary War, the literacy rate in the US approached 90% for men and women. Education is key… I like your idea of giving them the Declaration.

          1. The Declaration grows out of Paine. If you wanted to be truly inspired, set up a Usaian (Rev. S. Hoyt pres.) mission to teach them to read from the scripture.

  5. Mr. Pournelle is right about what is available today. But i also recently read about a survey showing that 99% of households had a color TV and 98.5% had a refrigerator. I don’t remember the per centages for other items we take for granted but it does demonstrate that while “relative to the rich” poverty is an issue, absolute poverty is not. What we are calling poor in this country would be unheard of riches in rural India, China, and most African villages.

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