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May 15, 2007

Poverty: Inevitable by Definition?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The minister of a liberal church I wrote about not long ago seems obsessive about poverty.

In a sermon he criticized "hard-core capitalists" (his words) for believing that poverty was inevitable. Apparently he thinks it should (and, presumably, can) be abolished, and world-wide at that.

This brings us to the matter of how poverty is defined. Hard-core capitalist -- well, make that capitalist tool -- that I am, I take poverty to be a relative condition as opposed to some kind of absolute.

Consider someplace in eastern Africa. Manolo owns ten cattle whereas Jimmy has but two. Manolo considers Jimmy poor and Jimmy thinks Monolo is rich. But to most people in developed countries, both Manolo and Jimmy seem poor. Relative reigns.

As for abolishing poverty, as that minister mentioned above desires, the only solution I can think of is the establishment of a "classless" society. That would neatly take care of poverty as a relative condition. All we need to do is sally forth and stir up the peasants and proletariat, then Bingo! the age of human perfection dawns -- right?

(By the way: can the concept of poverty as an absolute be made operational? My formal training in economics is sketchy, so I'm curious if any readers can supply examples.)



posted by Donald at May 15, 2007


So, how does he deal with the verse in Matthew about "the poor you shall have always with you"?

Posted by: Derek Lowe on May 15, 2007 9:19 PM

Is this going to be on the test?

Posted by: Don McArthur on May 15, 2007 10:08 PM

One "absolute" definition of poverty that could work is the inability to afford sufficient food to avoid malnutrition, basic shelter and clothing, and some minimum levels of medical care.

Posted by: Peter on May 15, 2007 10:36 PM

Productive work is the only way to redistrubute wealth without violence or coercion.

Posted by: BIOH on May 15, 2007 10:38 PM

absolute poverty? how about below subsistence level? surely that would qualify.

Posted by: Luke Lea on May 15, 2007 11:44 PM

Well, there's relative (Manolo's ten cattle to Jimmy's two) and then there's relative (Jimmy's two cows relative to Oscar's forty thousand head of cattle, fourteen hundred horses, twelve factories, eighteen houses, fifteen cars ....) and how this connects to the teachings of Jesus vis a vis what to do about the poor who will always be with us.

Posted by: Chris White on May 16, 2007 7:58 AM

Actually, it could be argued that the existence of poverty acts as a spur that goads folks to make the effort to avoid poverty.

Clearly, a society (like ours) that safety nets everybody, ends up with more shiftless behavior than would otherwise be the case.

Posted by: ricpic on May 16, 2007 8:03 AM

Paraphrasing an Indian immigrant to the US, on poverty in the US:

"When the poor people are the ones who have the obesity problems, you know there is something going right."

Posted by: James Dudek on May 16, 2007 10:49 AM

Perhaps some people would have easier consciences if they didn't go to church. One often hears things one doesn't like. Of course, if what one is looking for is a church that tells people what they want to hear, they exist. Poor people are generally not welcome.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 16, 2007 3:16 PM

In America today, being poor isn't about not owning enough stuff, it's about having to be around other poor people.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 16, 2007 3:28 PM

Perhaps some people shouldn't go to church where they might hear things they don't like. Of course, one might look for a church that tells one what one likes to hear. Poor people are generally not welcome there.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 16, 2007 3:44 PM

the people who go on the most about poverty, support political systems that inevitably produce famine and hideous poverty.

Posted by: cjm on May 16, 2007 5:38 PM

There is no poverty in America today.
Adequate food,clothing,and shelter are easily obtainable.

Posted by: Nant. on May 16, 2007 7:11 PM

Poverty will always be with us because that's our natural state. If we sit back and do nothing (i.e. don't produce) we are poor.

Besides - poverty has turned a concept into an industry, a big and powerful one, and those working in it, mostly in government, but also in churches, will always redefine poverty so that it never disappears.

Posted by: Jacob on May 16, 2007 8:27 PM

Sorry I posted twice. Being angry makes me blunder.

You guys don't get around much, I guess.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 16, 2007 11:32 PM

The US will never solve its poverty problems because no matter how much progress we might make, we insist on importing it wholesale from abroad.

Posted by: D Flinchum on May 17, 2007 8:54 AM

You could construct an absolute level of poverty, and people have. Make up some list like a home that keeps out the elements, sufficient nutrition, sufficient water, sufficient clothing, maybe some health care standard, etc. Very few non-mentally-ill people in the US live below that standard.

However, it's pretty hard to make such a standards actually absolute. Presumably access to antibiotics would be part of our health care standards, but before the discovery of penicillin that would have been absurd.

There is some evidence that income and wealth inequality can itself lead to negative social outcomes independent of level of income or wealth - everything from higher home prices to worse health outcomes. That's one of my big reasons for caring about poverty and inequality in our rich society.

Posted by: ptm on May 17, 2007 9:57 AM

Mary - Why are you angry?

The argument here isn't about objectives -- everyone agrees thath poverty should be eliminated or at least alleviated -- it's about methods. What is the best way to eliminate/alleviate poverty?

Posted by: jult52 on May 17, 2007 10:26 AM

Given the original posting, I take it that most of the posters (Prairie Mary excepted) support the idea that God is punishing the poor for their lack of ambition, stupidity and laziness and therefore we can safely ignore the issue ... except to further add to their burdens by pointing out that their poverty is all their fault.

Or, since poverty in the USA does not fall to the extreme depths it does in sub-saharan Africa or Calcutta, that the poor and ministers concerned with their well being should just get over it and shut up.

Ignore statistics (at least 20% of children are regularly at risk of gong hungry) and focus instead on what you assume about the homeless bum in the gutter who must have brought his troubles on himself.

God must REALLY love hedge fund managers.

Posted by: Chris White on May 17, 2007 10:26 AM

The thing about "relative" poverty--what makes it relative--is that different countries exist in differing states of economic development. In other words, capitalism is in varying degrees of expression depending on where you go.

I tend to think of capitalism as just what humans do when they have a measure of freedom. Given the chance, people will choose to: posses things over time; transform those things through some creative process; and freely relinquish those things for some perceived value greater than the things before there transformation. Capitalism and freedom are closely related.

At its heart, capitalism is the process of changing how humans make meaning and give value to things. So capitalism is never content with the status quo meaning-making of any given society. In this sense, capitalism is the process not just of transforming things or even useful concepts, but culture itself. This is ironic, because conservatives love capitalism, but not so much change; and liberals love change (esp. the "benevolent" kind) and large endowments (esp. ones used to study the adverse affects of capitalism) but not so much large corporations. This is of course a simplification.

But what is important to understand, I think, is that capitalism's job is to change what and how we value things. So, at the very least, we can not (completely)dismiss poor fat people for making "poor" decisions that are based on their participation in capitalism. Lots of people make their living off of the poor decisions of the poor...

Underneath this discussion is some idea of the "just needy"; those people who are in need through no fault of their own. It's painfully obvious that we, as a society, cannot come to any consensus on just who these folks would be, but I think most of us would agree that such a category exists.

But in considering this class of people, I think that it is necessary to consider how capitalism changes meaning-making in a society, if for no other reason than to help tame the conversation a bit.

Posted by: The Lock on May 17, 2007 1:30 PM

The homeless bum in the gutter is probably mad. In an earlier age he would have been offered asylum, but that same Left side of politics that bangs on about poverty was the side of politics that decided to abolish the asylums and decant their inmates into the harsh world. You'd not need to be very cynical to observe that they found that pointing at the bum and lamenting his condition was a useful rhetorical tool for their side of politics.

Posted by: dearieme on May 17, 2007 2:28 PM

Yeah Chris, haven't you heard? God wants us to be rich!

Posted by: the patriarch on May 17, 2007 2:32 PM

If anybody in the world who decides to have a kid has a claim to your income, then you pony up first Chris White. How many kids for your income? One, two, twenty, one hundred, a thousand? It doesn't matter--you would have no control over the number. No animal I can think of in nature has offspring and then sits around waiting for all the other animals to feed them. I'm sick of the pity excuse. If you want to be charitable, do it with your own money. Anything else is theft. Its irrelevant what the circumstances are for somebody else's poverty, we have the right to private property, and that means keeping what we have earned. If people would let a few of these derelicts starve, then a lot of others would get the message that no one will take care of them. Watch the behavior change when that happens.

We have spent approximately 11 trillion dollars on the war on poverty and what do we have to show for it? An increasing number of the population dependent on mandated handouts, make-work useless government jobs and programs, and the third world dregs rushing to this country to get more handouts. It has been a disaster for us. Great for the parasites, terrible for the rest of us.

I don't think the rest of us should be burdened so that you can feel moral and pure. Do it on your own. Go save yourself.

Posted by: BIOH on May 17, 2007 3:30 PM

Social programs came about because of the abject poverty of those flailing with no safety net. Letting a "few of these derelicts starve" would do no good towards lessening the number of those in poverty. Pulling the safety net out from under them would almost certainly increase the number of those in abject poverty. Now, you can say that that is fine with you.

That is not to say things like our welfare system can't be improved. Welfare-to-work programs have shown some promise.

A few honest questions for BIOH. Do you really feel that you are being robbed because a portion of your tax dollars go to things like welfare? If we did away with such programs, how much would you expect to "get back" from the government? How much of your tax dollars do you think go to social programs? Are you against taxes in general?

My position is that poverty is basically intractable. We'll always have people in need, whether through circumstance or poor choices or both, so why not try to lessen the impact of that situation on those caught in it and on those who are doing well? Because the effects of poverty are a drain on everyone.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 17, 2007 5:14 PM

As a wise person once said--it's not poverty that needs explaining, since it has been the default state of most humans for most of humanity's existence, it's prosperity that needs explaining.


Posted by: Narr on May 17, 2007 5:19 PM

So Donald, did I miss something when reading the initial posting? As I read it, you went to church and the sermon dealt with how poverty, capitalism and the teachings of Christianity intersect. Your difficulty with the pastor's position that poverty can be eliminated would seem to be twofold; (one) as pointed out in the first comment, is the verse in Matthew about "the poor you shall have always with you"; (two) is whether poverty be seen as absolute or if it is only relative. If it is absolute the pastor may have a point, but if not it would be impossible to overcome.

Since the intitial posting there have been what I would term some fairly extreme responses, at least in this context. [I assume BIOH and your pastor would disagree vehemently about the role of CHARITY in Christianity, for example.]

Odd how some of the same voices that champion the USA as a white Christian nation seem to pick and choose the particular aspects of Christ's teaching they'll ascribe to when their self interest is at stake. "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

Posted by: Chris White on May 17, 2007 5:24 PM

I'm in Charleston, SC tonight on holiday and must apologize for the light posting and comment-reply activity.

Let me just note for Chris and others that I take no theological position on poverty, as I am not particularly religious. The Lutheran minister I cited seemed to think that "capitalists" (the "hard-core" sort, at any rate). take a certain amount of poverty to be inevitable. Because of the stress on poverty-fighting in sermons and is a hot-button issue for him. And because he disparaged those who take what I called a relativiist position on poverty, I jump to the conclusion that he believes poverty can be eliminated.

That's basically it. A little bit of circumstantial data. Some conjecture on my part. No theology (from me). A question is posed. And Zoom! go the comments. What fun!

BTW, while I do hold that poverty is essentially a relative thing, I thought that the comments mentioning the borderline of starvation make a case that, at some point, an absolutist line can be drawn. But that really would be a case of "No starvation !" as opposed to "No poverty!" (Thanks, Luke.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 17, 2007 8:33 PM

Hey buddy, I treat others as I would want to be treated. Nobody should pay a dime to me if I don't perform any productuve work. St. Paul said that he who won't work shall not eat. He met Jesus--did you? I've said it before and I'll say it again, Jesus was concerned with spiritual poverty, not material poverty--THAT'S WHY HE ADVOCATED CHOOSING A LIFE OF MATERIAL POVERTY FOR HIS FOLLOWERS! He thought that material poverty made it easier for people to embrace a more profound spiritual life. That's why he was always talking about how the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and why he said that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than the eye of a needle.

Spiritual poverty, Chris White, spiritual poverty! Not marxist materialism, nihilism, and totalitarianism! I don't need scriptural lessons from someone who obviously has no clue what the Gospels are even about--that's the central message!

And while you are on your Revival kick, maybe you can start imposing the other moral doctrines of Jesus on the poor! You know, the ones that restrict stupid, immoral behavior? But you'll have no part of that, will you? That's why I take your arguments with a grain of salt. I will never listen to a leftist lecture me on Christianity if they do not support enforcement of its morality in its entirety.

Posted by: BIOH on May 17, 2007 11:19 PM

The evidence suggests God does indeed love hedge-fund managers. Most of them are actually a fine body of men and women, so far as I've been able to tell.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein on May 17, 2007 11:25 PM

One final lesson for all you do-gooders. Its a financial lesson in economics. Obviously you don't understand money, and that's what this issue is really all about.

We all know what barter is, right? Money is just a transportable form of barter.

Why do the prices of everything keep going up? Why, its inflation! What is inflation?

Inflation is an increase in the amount of money RELATIVE to the amount of goods and services produced.

So prices go up when the government prints more money than people produce goods and services. That's an inflation of the money supply. The extra cash makes its way through the economy, and people bid up the goods and services. Everything costs more.

But you can have inflation even if the government doesn't print any more money. You get it when the amount of goods and services produced decreases, with no decrease in the amount of money available. People still bid up the available goods and services, and prices increase. Everything costs more.

A quick example of inflation--Let's say you drop by the store on your way home from work, and buy a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk. It costs you $4. You get home, and find out you were ripped off! The milk jug is just painted white, with filthy water inside, and the loaf of bread is just rags wrapped in brown paper. Angry as hell, you go out again, and buy another gallon of milk and loaf of bread for $4. What once cost $4 has now cost $8. In essence, prices doubled. The cheat at the first store got paid for doing nothing. And now you are stuck with a doubling of your cost of food.

See, if you have enough cheats in your society, the amount of goods and services produced drops a lot, but unless the amount of money drops too, it causes inflation. Read the next sentence very carefully: PAYNG PEOPLE NOT TO WORK CAUSES MONETARY INFLATION AND A LOWERING OF THE STANDARD OF LIVING FOR EVERYONE. See, all your do-gooding hurts everybody, can't you understand that? What does inflation do to the working poor, the middle class? It doesn't touch the rich much. Your do-gooding is ruining the value of money FOR EVERYBODY. Money is a form of barter. When you give it to people for doing nothing, you ruin its value, or the value of barter, get it?

But wait, it gets even worse! See, americans don't live in a vaccuum. We now live in a global economy. If we pay someone here $20 an hour to perform a job, and take $10 of it and give it to the government who spends it buying votes from people who do no productive work, the company who hires said worker really only gets $10 worth of work for $20. What's to stop this company from seeing this and moving to a country that has no ridiculous welfare state, pays the worker there $10, and receives $10 worth of work? Answer: nothing! Why are the jobs hemorrhaging overseas? Why, its evil Big Business! No, wait, its evil Big Government and the welfare state!

We have spent 11 trillion dollars, and what do we have? Rotten schools filled with third-world dolts, a HUGE national debt, Tens of millions dependent for their survival on government, who have no savings due to high taxes, jobs rocketing overseas to cheaper labor, cities filled with minority drug gangs, illegal aliens, prisons bursting at the seams, a bankrupt Social Security and Medicare program, etc. The list goes on and on.

You leftists are responsible for RUINING this country! All your do-gooding schemes have failed, and now we are creeping closer and closer to a third-world, totalitarian nation, and one that will be dissolved into others, robbing us of our sovereignty. You have empowered a government which has and will take everything we own, from our rights, to our property, to even the value of the savings we have, robbed of value by inflation.

And all you can talk about is MORE giving money to people because they are failures and do-nothings! Free healthcare, government jobs, more welfare, more, more, more! Hyperinflation, totalitariaism, more, more, more!

You are all insane. And believe me, the blame will fall on you and all the other leftists, no matter what their stripe, once the rest of the public wakes up to what you have done to our country, our money, and our future.

Posted by: BIOH on May 18, 2007 12:05 AM

Chris White, do you have a blog? I've been trying to find out by using Google and have met a lot of very nice, quite reasonable and (egads) liberal people with that name, but none seem to be you.

As for "poverty" or any other category, it's clear that the definition is political rather than objective. I'm retired and living at twenty dollars a month over the "poverty line" which means I don't qualify for any help except SSI and Medicare. I own my little old house, so don't feel poor. Or didn't until my brother, who was living in his truck, had a major heart attack and I didn't have enough money to go to him before he died. Luckily my other brother had enough money to take care of the body and the truck. None of us has children. We're all college graduates. All white. All vote independent.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 18, 2007 2:03 AM

I am afraid that I do not have a blog. Dropping in on this one is about all the blogging I can manage. I should probably start to add comments to your blog, as I do visit it regularly. Here I get to engage in discourse with individuals whose views are often quite different then my own. Most of whom are rational and reasonable and make me think harder about my own views. The handful of rabid, over the top, types is modest enough in number that it adds some spice without killing my interest ...yet. [Yeah, I'm insane and my relationship with God is suspect because I didn't meet Jesus like Paul...]

Posted by: Chris White on May 18, 2007 9:09 AM

I'm sure Michael likes being a matchmaker and a social mixer.

It's easy to be rabid and over-the-top when speaking in generalities, which is why I injected the personal. The real definition of poverty is simply when one doesn't have enough.

I'm so pleased to know you're following my blog.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 18, 2007 12:45 PM

"The real definition of poverty is simply when one doesn't have enough."

I don't mean to be flip, but Donald Trump probably thinks he doesn't have enough casinos. Most struggling students are happy if they have enough money for rent and beer; twenty years later they have a lot more but many feel like they don't have enough.

The root of the argument on this thread is two-fold in my view:

- the question of whether alleviating US poverty, however it's defined, the responsibility of you and me; and

- the conservative faction's perception of a "you owe me/them" attitude on part of the liberal faction, to which a reasonable answer is "I work hard enough; I don't owe these dumbasses anything!"

To be frank, I see poor morons just about everyday. The drunks and drug users; the dopes who buy shiny new things with money they don't have; the grasshoppers who never gave a moment's thought to putting away for the winter; the borderline animals who produce offspring sired by a different primitive every year; and so on....

This isn't the 1930s, when family men stood in winding breadlines; this isn't Victor Hugo's Paris.

I'm all the way with BIOH on this and other topics. Although while I think his no-BS attitude is indispensable, at least here at 2BH I'm more inclined to give the libs the benefit of the doubt as to their good will and sincerity, no matter how wrong in fact they are.

Posted by: PA on May 18, 2007 1:43 PM

In a letter to the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle about a month ago, a communist sympathiser belly ached that "capitalism needs the poor."

Well I disagree. Liberal politicians need the poor more than anyone. Letting educated immigrants into our countries would irk the government workers, as any self sufficient, educated person will not be using, or asking for more government services.

Posted by: Miss Carnivorous on May 18, 2007 3:24 PM

I'm retired and living at twenty dollars a month over the "poverty line" which means I don't qualify for any help except SSI and Medicare. I own my little old house, so don't feel poor... None of us has children. We're all college graduates. All white.

Tell me, please, why you or your siblings has to qualify for ANY of our money, be it Medicare or SSI?

Somebody invested in you years of teaching (colleges). Why were you not able to be productive members of the community? You were working all your life - and all you can show for it is $20 a month above povert level - doesn't it make you feel you applied your talents in the wrong way? Where is your purely American snse of independence?

I can't believe an educated person will be so shameless as to flaunt her being a leach into our faces, as if it's something to be proud of - or even worse, as if it's OUR fault.

And to think this same person spent big chunk of her life COUNSELLING people, giving them guidance. What fools would take you as a role model?

Posted by: Tatyana on May 18, 2007 6:07 PM

Once again: There is no poverty in America. Everyone knows this. Some people have less than others and this is almost always the result of choices, decisions. If you pursue an acting career while I study law, why should I, years later, feel any guilt because you are $20 above the poverty line? I shouldn't and I don't. It's not even unfair.

Posted by: Nant. on May 19, 2007 1:47 PM

Anyone else notice how the entire issue of how economics intersects with religion, specifically sermons by a "minister of a liberal church" with injunctions that parishoners seek to eliminate poverty, presumably within the context of Christian charity, has disappeared? Now it's all denying poverty exists, arguing in favor of 'trickle down" economics and so on. I guess the operative quote comes, not from the Bible, but from the movies ... "Greed is good."

Posted by: Chris White on May 19, 2007 5:10 PM

Thank you for your helpful personal comments. I have downloaded them and will include them in my autobiography as objective evaluations from thoughtful people.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 19, 2007 11:25 PM

Excellent article..I strongly believe poverty could be demolish from the world but for that we have to reform our social practice..I'm not suggesting that Millionaires have to share their wealth with poor peoples,But We have to make sure that in every family should have one earning person with considerable salary..Employment is the only way to demolish poor..So our part is creating opportunity for poor people...

Posted by: sakthi on May 20, 2007 2:25 AM

Mary, don't forget to give us a link to your autobiography, so we can check if our comments really there.
Somehow I think there will be only self-pity and blaming the world for your misfortunes.

Posted by: Tat on May 20, 2007 9:14 AM

It's about definitions.
Poverty:You having less than you think you should have.
Greed: Me wanting more than you think I should have.

Posted by: nant. on May 20, 2007 10:19 AM

it's about You, isn't it?

Posted by: nant. on May 20, 2007 12:46 PM

I agree poverty is relative and will always co-exist in a capitalist economy. While people are born into poverty, their personal drive and decisions will determine if they stay there. The only way to eliminate poverty is to eliminate competition and capitalism.

Posted by: mr. closet organizers on May 20, 2007 2:23 PM

"The only way to eliminate poverty is to eliminate competition and capitalism."
Worked like a charm in the U.S.S.R. and China.

Posted by: Nant. on May 20, 2007 4:41 PM

Hey Mr. Closet: Worked like a charm in the Soviet Union and China.

Posted by: Nant. on May 20, 2007 5:47 PM

I believe this one applies "Unless each man prodiuses more than he receives, increases his output, there will be less for him than all the others", doesn't it?

Posted by: Marquez Day on May 28, 2007 5:33 PM

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