Have You Ever Known Poverty?

The closest I’ve ever come to poverty was when I first moved to Colorado. I left New York with very little and arrived in a new city without a job, without a place to live, and without a friend in site.

It didn’t take too long to find all three, but still I went without more than with for close to a year. I lost more than 30 pounds during the winter because I couldn’t afford to eat as often as I should have. I picked up change off the ground one month in order to feed myself for the weekend. Some days the only reason I was able to eat at all was thanks to the charity of others.

Often I woke up not knowing where my next meal would come from and yet I have never known poverty.

From the Global Issues website

For the 1.9 billion children from the developing world, there are:

  • 640 million without adequate shelter (1 in 3)
  • 400 million with no access to safe water (1 in 5)

I may have scraped up some change, but I had shelter. I may not not have had as much to eat as I would have liked, but I had plenty of access to safe water. I might not have known where my next meal was coming from, but I had a feeling it would come. I have never known poverty.

For the last couple of months I’ve thought about what I would write about poverty for Blog Action Day, but most everything I could think of seemed somewhat hollow. How could I possibly begin to understand poverty having lived my entire life in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet? Intellectually, sure, but can I really understand.

For the last few weeks I’ve watched the U.S. government talk about $700 billion dollars. That’s a staggering amount of money. Last week the stock market in the U.S. lost $2.4 trillian and then gained back about a trillion of those losses at the start of this week. Again, staggering amounts of money. People in this country are losing thousands and even millions in retirement savings and investment portfolios, and yet none are experiencing poverty.

Consider the following two tables, which I’ve borrowed from the Global Issues website

Spending in 1998

Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Cosmetics in the United States 8
Ice cream in Europe 11
Perfumes in Europe and the United States 12
Pet foods in Europe and the United States 17
Business entertainment in Japan 35
Cigarettes in Europe 50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe 105
Narcotics drugs in the world 400
Military spending in the world 780

Estimated additional costs to achieve universal access to basic social services in all developing countries:

Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Basic education for all 6
Water and sanitation for all 9
Reproductive health for all women 12
Basic health and nutrition 13

That’s $40 billion to achieve universal access to basic social services. That’s 5% of the world’s military spending in 1998, 10% of what the world spends to feed drug habits. The numbers are sobering. Seems pretty clear the world has some priorities out of whack.

You and I probably aren’t going to get the people around the world to change overnight. I don’t expect Europeans to suddenly quit smoking or for people around the world to stop feeding their pets. We’re going to continue to drink alcohol and eat ice cream and apply cosmetics. But it’s hard to justify an extra drink on Friday night when the price of that drink is more than what many people around the world live on every day.

Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day

I don’t know poverty and odds are neither do you. You’re reading this post on a computer, which you likely paid for, over an internet connection that you might pay for each month. Maybe you’re reading at work, which means you have a job, or over a free wireless connection while you sip a latte.

I’d like to tell you I know how to solve the world’s economic problems and end poverty instantly. I don’t. I know there’s more to it than to simply stop spending in one place to give to another. But I do know if we’re going to solve the problem of poverty around the globe the first thing we need is an adjustment in priorities.

Those of us living in industrialized countries waste more on any given day than nearly half the world has for basic necessities in a given week or month. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that dynamic.

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8 comments

  1. I must say, it really turns your whole perspective around. In times, when you think everything is bad here in the U.S. remember there someone is always worse off then you.

    • True. I know as poor as some are here in the U.S. they’re likely still better off than many people around the world. That’s not to minimize what happens here, but it does put things in perspective.

  2. I’ve been broke too, as you described it, but I guess you’re right, I’ve never known real poverty. I can’t imagine what that feels like.

    As much as we’re complaining about the bad economy right now, we’re still much better off than most of the rest of the world. We all need to remember that.

    • Things certainly aren’t great here at the moment. People are losing their homes and are having a hard time finding a job.

      Still as poor as I’ve been at time I don’t think it ever came close to how other people have to live always. Even when things were at their lowest for me financially it wasn’t all the difficult to score a free meal. That’s not the case for many people.

    • Thanks David. I really wanted to write this post, because you’d think we’ve made enough progress and have enough resources as a planet where people shouldn’t have to go hungry and should be able to have the basic necessities of life.

      I know the issue is more complicated than moving some money from one place to another, but somehow it feels like we should be able to provide basic necessities for all people on the planet.

      Many of us might complain that we don’t have the money to buy a BMW and have to settle on the Hyndai, but that complaint, while valid, doesn’t really compare to what a significant number of people can’t afford.

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