Why is systemic poverty intractable?

Of all human endeavors, with only possibly politics as a rival, the sphere of human activity we seem to have the least control over is prosperity. There are cities, regions, countries, even continents where under-development, unemployment and poverty are endemic. No one wants this, yet no one has a good answer of how to change it, and it goes on year after year, decade after decade. Many feel an uneasy sense that this is somehow needless- there **ought **to be some direct, workable way out of this; yet neither the magic of the free market nor simplistic socialist morality fables has proven the answer. Why is an answer so hard to come by? Is it simply that the economy is the single most complex system we know of? Or something else?

I think suggesting that poverty is solvable is seen by some as being socialist in itself. And that’s part of the problem.
I think a lot of people truly believe that in order for them to be wealthy others must be poor.
And so they are unwilling to even talk about solutions.

There are multiple factors:

First, human are inherently greedy. If you see the Joneses getting 5 cups of rice and you got 4 cups of rice, you feel left out. You may even get so angry that you lash out (violence, theft, etc). And, if you get an extra cup by mistake, it’s most likely for people to keep it. It may range from silent (no one will know, just keep walking) to angry (what do you mean I have to give some back?!), but it’s the most common course.

Second, how do you rationally ration the world’s food most equitably? How do we eliminate as much waste as possible? It’s a daunting logistical challenge. It CAN be surmounted, but it’s certainly no small matter.

Third, human inherently distrust anything that symbolizes any kind of oppression. A giant globe-spanning monolithic organization would be an easy target. And, any time there is a problem (someone steals food, a food truck breaks down, etc), the general attitude will turn sharply against it. “This organization, after all, is controlling us through food. They could cut off our food supplies if we stop agreeing with the UN!!!” and other such statements would be easy to make in most corners.

Fourth, how do you guard all of this against those that would wish power over others? Jibby the Rabid Warlord may take over warehouses or stop all food trucks or otherwise interfere. Is it right to simply slaughter them all or…?

I’m sure others could offer other reasons. These are kind of top-of-the-head.

Absent socialism, that is probably true. Capitalism does depend on systemic inequality.

Of course, “socialism” is not a ‘bad word’ outside of the USA, and is only one in the USA because of the lingering aftereffects of the massive and very sophisticated anti-Communist propaganda effort of the cold war. It is really only Americans, who would even dream that single-payer healthcare and redistributive taxation and welfare, or even some public ownership of industry, takes you most of the way to the gulags.

It takes time, we are a lot richer than 200 years ago. Capitalism seems to work OK, well better than anything else on a large scale.

I don’t buy the argument that the poor are fucked for all eternity, there will always be countries and groups that reach middle class a bit behind others. Witness China, India, Indonesia, Singapore, these were very poor countries not that long ago now look at them.

I’d like to see a cite for that. Not just “inequality”, but the kind of inequality that results in poverty.

Keep in mind many of the people we refer to as poor in the world are only poor because we say they are.
I think some people in hunter gatherer societies who haven’t been stripped of their culture and natural resources have better lives than many “rich” people.

Relative poverty will always exist as long as income inequality exist. For the same reason that as long as people are given “As”, there were be other people who will get “Fs”.

Absolute poverty, however, isn’t an intractable problem. All over the world, even in undeveloped places, the standard of living is going up. In the US, it was normal for poor kids to walk to school barefoot and go the entire day without eating. While I live in a town populated by poor kids, I don’t see them walking around barefoot or walking around with pellagra, and I’m quite happy about this. What this tells me is that there is no rule that says poverty has to be any set thing. It’s all relative.

We could design a society that guarantees basic housing, ample nutrition, and medical care for every single person. We would still have poverty. The people who would be labeled"poor" would still feel stigmatized and demoralized. But their situation and that of their children would be leagues better over what we have had historically. If you don’t have to worry about housing or getting the babies fed, then you can concentrate on getting a job. Then you can concentrate on getting a better job. And your children will be more likely to do better than you did.

Seems to me concluding the problem is intractable guarantees that’s what it will be. But it’s not. Completely alleviating poverty is a pipe dream. But making poverty more dignified isn’t.

It depends on how you define poverty. Relative poverty, if it is just ‘X percent of the average wage’ or some other fairly arbitrary definition may always be with us in some form, but standards of living will go up. Either way, in northern Europe the poverty rate by that standard is lower.

Absolute poverty is going down.


Our standards of living have been going up since the first industrial revolution about 250 years ago started. However it is a (by human terms) slow process. Developing nations can grow fast. Nations like South Korea, Taiwan, etc were as poor as sub saharan africa, now they are middle class nations after just about 40 years of economic growth. China seems to be on the same trajectory (assuming they can keep up the 7-10% growth rates for another 20 years). So entire nations can go from dirt poor to middle class in a generation.


And programs like Johnson’s war on poverty or FDRs new deal did do a lot to help.

So poverty is not something we will always have with us. Absolute poverty is declining, nations are industrializing and standards of living are going up.

A big problem now is resource depletion and pollution due to all the economic growth.

So one answer would be “poverty is being solved, but it takes decades or even a century or two”?

This is entirely untrue. Capitalism depends on each person in a transaction adding value for the other person. McDonalds has a chicken sandwich I want and I have a dollar they want, we exchange the dollar for the chicken sandwich and are both better off.
In Socialism, everybody’s production is pooled and divided, that means for every chicken sandwich you get there is one less for everyone else to have.
Systemic poverty is being overcome the world over, but the reason it persists is because of politics. Private property and the rule of law is what cures poverty but it also threatens the power of those in charge. Thus from the perspective of a kleptocrat it is better to be in charge of a poor country than be out of power in a rich one.

Poverty is defined in terms of some minimum cash flow. Where do they try to specify it in Net Worth?

It is funny that even though double-entry accounting is 700 years old and invented in Italy, Western economists do not seem to be demanding it be mandatory in our schools. Shakespeare is more important. And ignoring Demand Side Depreciation makes sense to economists also.



Exactly. One has but to look at the difference between being poor in the US or other western countries and being poor in many 3rd world nations (or China/India) to see that huge strides have been made. Still room for improvement, but it demonstrates you can have a functioning, even flourishing economy and still not allow the vast majority of your poorer citizens to fall below some set standard of living defined by your society.

Systemic? Horseshit. It depends on no such thing.

True enough that in the US, socialism is still in bad odor, at least with certain segments of society or those of a certain political bent. Ironic, since in effect we are a social democracy with many socialist oriented aspects incorporated into our system…you know, such as redistributive taxation and welfare? :stuck_out_tongue: No, we don’t have a single-payer healthcare system, yet, and we may never have one. Our own system evolved from our own attempts to provide health care to the most productive and largest number of people (a.k.a. the middle/working classes), and is entrenched at this point. Maybe this will change, and maybe not. As for public ownership of industry, sorry, but I think those are usually a disaster except in very vertical applications.

The free market does work to end poverty. I will readily acknowledge that it doesn’t happen overnight, but it does start happening as soon as free market mechanisms are in place. Consider the United States. We began in 1776 with almost everyone in poverty. But once we’d cleared out the British and created a stable government based on protecting rights and property, the USA’s prosperity began to increase. It has continued increasing, with some bumpiness, to this day. The USA has prosperity that no one in 1776 could have dreamed of in any country. As others have said, even poor people in the USA today are rich by the standards of most people.

Or consider Japan. 150 years ago it was basically a medieval society. But it unleashed the power of free markets under a stable government. By 1980 it was the richest country in the history of the world. Or consider West Germany: bombed to smithereens in WWII, just like Japan, but became a world economic power a few decades later.

Now contrast those countries to the world’s least free countries: North Korea, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the like. They’re all dirt poor, and likely to stay that way if they remain unfree.

Yanno, ITR I find that argument really interesting…but I’m seeing correlation, not causation.

If that’s so, then there should be contrary examples: nations that became very wealthy in a span of a few decades, without having a free market, stable government, and strictly-enforced property rights.

The closest thing I can think of is the Soviet Union, while it didn’t become very wealthy, it did manage to move from agrarian poverty to an industrialized society without a (legal, above-ground) free market.

So what does one do, if you live in a remote West VA town…and the only employer (coal mine) has closed? Unless you leave, you WILL be poor. there is no way that you can make a living in a situation like that…unless you are prepared to grow your own food, hunt, make your clothes,etc. If you do that, you will be (monetarily) poor, but have a decent life.

Well, you’re not really rich if you can’t tell others what to do, so . . .

That would be my answer, and I suspect it’s even a case of something like half-lives. In other words, you can get rid of half the poverty in 100 years, and half of what’s left in another 100 years and half of what’s left in another 100. There may be some tiny portion of poverty that can’t be gotten rid of at all - there’s no country in the world without homeless people, for example - but the kind of poverty you see in countries like Africa is being dealt with in a way that I consider fast in the big picture. (But it is certainly slow to the people who will die before being helped.)

The British, along with all of western europe, saw their wealth increase in tandem with ours. I don’t see our independence being a factor. Canada became independent from Britain far later than the US and their wealth is also high income. So independence from the British has nothing to do with wealth from what I can see. The cause of wealth is probably a mix of market economics and advances in science/medicine/engineering/technology resulting in higher worker productivity. That takes time to achieve but a poor country can catch up to rich countries in under 50 years if they work at it and/or are lucky (the asian tigers, Israel, China, etc).

Yeah. That is what is happening around the globe. It does take time though but as I said various nations can and do go from per capita GDP of <$1000 to per capita GDP Of $20,000+ in a few decades. Usually smaller export based nations do that. Sub saharan africa isn’t doing so well at fighting poverty though, I don’t know if the middle east is either. A lot of the growth and poverty reduction seems to come from asia. Maybe advances in IT and communications will speed up Africa’s GDP growth, some countries there are growing fairly rapidly now.

If you look at this chart

It shows the % of people earning 6-30k a year growing rapidly, then starting to decline by the middle of the century. Or so it is predicted. I’m all but certain the reason it goes down is because people start earning more than 30k a year.

Wealthy countries usually grow at 1-4% a year. Developing nations can grow at 5-7% a year, and the faster ones grow at 8-10% a year. If you divide the annual growth rate by 72 that gives a rough idea how long until the economy doubles. If China grows at 9% a year and maintains that pace their economy would double in 8 years. So if they are 9 trillion USD now they’d be 18 trillion in 2022.