Beggaring the poor

A few nights ago, I was visiting the home of an old family friend. After dinner, talk turned to the state of things in our country (I’m from the Philippines). At some point in the conversation, I mentioned something about how the government is not doing enough to help the poor.

“It’s the poor’s fault they are poor,” answered the old family friend. My eyebrows shot through the roof.

I’m sure we’ve all encountered this before. Some of us may even espouse this notion: that poor people are poor because they are lazy, they are ignorant, that there is something inherently defective in their individual characters that makes them fated to be poor their whole lives.

A study by the World Bank found that, in 2012, at least one in eight people in the world were extremely poor; i.e., living on less that USD1.90 per day (the international poverty line). Yet this international poverty line has been criticised as being extremely too low, arbitrary, and does not reflect the real-world basic needs of people.

Some have called for revising the poverty line to more realistic levels. When the World Bank released a study using USD 5.50 as the poverty threshold, the number of poor people in the world increased to 46%. Nearly half of the world’s population. One in two people. Can half the world’s people be poor simply because they’re all lazy, ignorant, or have an innate individual character defect?

Unfortunately for half the world’s population, the fact is that the world system is designed in such a way that the poor, who are already vulnerable, will generally continue to be poor. Why do we say so?

The dominant global economic system is capitalism, and its current form is what we call neoliberalism. Under neoliberal capitalism, wealth and power are concentrated into the hands of a powerful political-economic elite while the majority of the world’s population are mired in poverty. In fact, in 2018, 26 of the world’s richest people owned as much as the world’s poorest 50 percent, as opposed to 46 the previous year.

Wages for the world’s workers are also extremely low, and families are barely able to make ends meet. The ILO reported that worker’s wages grew by only 1.4% in 2017. This growth, though, was rendered useless by inflation, which rose 2.19% the same year. Because wages are low, it’s harder for families to meet their basic needs and spend money for education and health and other necessities. Many workers fall into debt, with no way to pay for them since wages are low. And so it becomes a vicious cycle. In contrast, the 2208 billionaires of 2018 made a combined amount of USD 2.5 billion per day, or USD 1.1 million daily for each billionaire.

Since wages of ordinary workers are low, this can–and should–be supplemented by provision of public services like free education and medical services, food subsidies, and others. Unfortunately, this is not to be. Governments around the world are cutting back on public spending on schools, hospitals and other services which poor people need in order to improve their lives.

True, quite a number of rags-to-riches stories abound. Yes, we shouldn’t discount individual efforts on self-improvement. But these are more exceptions than the general rule. Imagine a farmer who wakes up at 4am and is already tending the fields before the first rays of the sun appears, or the worker who is already awake in at the same time of the time in order to be on time at work or risk having the day’s pay cut in half. To say they are simply lazy or ignorant would be a great insult to the industry of these people.

But the current system doesn’t really care, as long as the elite get their share of the profit. It does not work for the poor, it only works for those in power. Meanwhile, the poor are deliberately disadvantaged and intentionally beggared.

As I left the house of our old family friend, I was reminded of the fact that a lot of work still needs to be done, not only for people like old family friend to understand why the current system doesn’t work, but also to make sure that this rotten system is replaced with a new one.

Photo: AFP