The End of Poverty

Waiting for the metro to come in downtown Montreal, I wondered about what I had seen a few minutes ago. A homeless person was standing by the entrance holding the metro door with one hand and begging for money with the other. As people passed by, nobody spoke to him or gave him anything. It was as if having the door opened for you was for once an impolite gesture that intruded on your privacy. I felt awkward as I walked by, doing the same, but wondering at the same time what had happened to him that he had been forced to live on pity? I thought about despair and poverty and how the two mingled alongside a thriving economy; it didn’t make sense. How could poverty exist in an age of technology and innovation? I wondered if I didn’t need to worry about them because they were the exceptions, only a few outcasts and rejects. On the brighter side, most places should be free of poverty right?

Contrary to large cities like Montreal, where homeless people are spread out between metro stations and popular streets, begging for money year-round, in rural cities poverty seems almost non-existent. Most people are sheltered from it due to fewer interactions people have and a smaller population. In cold harsh climates, povertyis scarce because standing outside can be dangerous. Near my residence in South Burlington, Vermont, it is uncommon except in downtown areas and near some main highway ramps during the milder seasons. The homeless have nowhere else to loiter. I used to think that poverty was occasional, but now I knowit is ubiquitous. From rural environs to urban, wherever the backdrop is, homeless people seem to be painted in the overlooked scenery.

As I walked down the street someone asked me for some money which wasn’t unusual, but I felt the urge to inquire more about him. I asked him why he was on the streets and what he needed the money for. He said he was hungry and he had injured his knee so he couldn’t work, and then walked away as he noticed the empty look in my eyes. I knew better than to fall for that. It’s true that he was hungry and that he didn’t have a job, but he was walking fine. I also knew that there are homeless shelters and food shelves in most communities, courtesy of society. I had been to one in Montreal with my father when I was very young. These shelters are not terrible and provide food and places to sleep, probably for a limited time as demand could be high. I sighed because the man needed real help like many others do and to be integrated into society. Homeless people need to work and make a living for themselves.

Nevertheless, I was curious why many of them don’t find refuge in these shelters. Before I was aware of these shelters, I always used to give a little bit of change, if I had any. Whenever I walked by a homeless person I would wonder what their story is. I would hope that God will help them and have mercy to take care of them. In many religions it is a common theme to help those in need, especially the sick, poor, and elderly. Yet, I noticed that not many people do give money. They are either too busy or give only when they feel like it, i.e. when someone performs well.

I found out that some beggars could be rogues and pounce on people’s goodwill. There are some rumors that they sometimes make over $200 a day from begging. I heard from another friend that in India, people with injuries or disabilities in a village, get together and take a van to different mosques, temples, and churches where they stand outside begging for money. These beggars can make up to thousands of rupees a month. Additionally, in China begging can be a job. I’ve heard stories from my aunt that some people mar themselves and sit on the streets to receive monetary pity. Since there is a huge population in China, hundreds or maybe even thousands of people would pass by in crowded areas. If each day a few have pity, the beggars can sustain themselves. I was shocked and my passion to give, changed. Now, I don’t give everytime and almost never do because I feel that something else needs to be done to change things.

If there aren’t opportunities for everyone, are some really forced to survive on other people’s whims? Some beggars fair pretty well but that kind of life can fluctuate and doesn’t apply to all of them. If people are willing to give their change to miserable people, who are in need on such a regular basis, why isn’t there an end to poverty? If people believe a few dollars will help someone, can’t everyone survive because of mutual goodwill and care for each other? Technology and resources right now are more than sufficient to abolish abject poverty. Bringing water and sanitation to all would cost $10 billion dollars a year, a huge step in improving the lives of millions. Ending extreme poverty, or statistically speaking, living under $10 a day, would cost about $50 billion a year, less than 8% of the US military expenditures in 2012 ($645 billion). Jeremy Hobbs of Oxfam notes that “we can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for a few will inevitably benefit the many. Too often, the reverse is true.”

More than three billion people in the world live on less than $2.5 a day and 80% of them under $10 a day (in 2013). Places like Africa where the countries had their traditional economies destroyed through primitive accumulation, have no choice but to join the Europeans and become part of the capitalist system where they are being exploited. The answers given by neoliberalism and its “free markets”, promoted by the Washington Consensus, World Bank, and the IMF are inadequate. Letting the market govern itself and forcing the hands of these new states to privatize their lands, lower taxes, and sell state assets to pay off their debts, will definitely grow the economy, but also have much of the profits be carried off overseas.

I learned from macroeconomics (UVM) that the economy or total output, given by (Y), is equal to the productivity (Y/h) times the total hours ( h )worked. Y= Y/h * h.If productivity goes up due to technology and the economy remains constant, then the hours worked should decrease because society is more efficient as a whole and the wellbeing of people should increase because they have more time for leisure. On the other hand, if the economy increased proportionally to the other two, then either leisure or wages increases, or both. Either way, the wellbeing of people in general should increase as the economy improves given that population growth is accounted for. Yet the hours that people are working have increased. In the 1970s there used to be one person working per household but now it is generally two. Where have the effects of technology and people’s worked hours gone to? It certainly hasn’t gone to the 80% of the world in need.