Is this the best time in history to be poor?

3 months ago Ricardo Hylton 0

On the day this article appears, you will probably learn about the shocking hunger in some forgotten pocket of Mumbai, the dearth of mosquito nets in Zambia, or some vicious act of violence in Kingston. Whether it’s the Donald threatening nuclear holocaust or the war in Syria, there’s bad news everywhere you look. Somewhere in the world there will be a terrorist bombing, a senseless murder, a bloody insurrection.

That is on top of the enduring misery of hundreds of millions who are literally stunted by paucity, living lives shortened by preventable disease and malnutrition. It’s impossible to learn about these catastrophes without thinking, “What is the world coming to?” Is this the worst time in history to be born poor?

Imagine you had the chance to be born at any time in human history. When would you choose? There are plenty of sights that it would be a delight to experience first-hand. The first time our ancestors grabbed a tool or used a wheel. The moment pen was put to paper. Civilisation’s dawn, and the flourishing that followed.

You might choose to sit alongside King Tut in the 14th century, designing Egyptian pyramids or adding the final daubs of paint to the Sistine Chapel, or cram into a 16th-Century theatre to watch a Shakespeare opening night.

However, living to see these momentary highlights would also bring myriad downsides. If you got ill, your medical care might involve leeches and trepanning. A violent death would always feel near. And the probability would be that you would be poor and hungry for most of your life. For the majority of people throughout history, life was hard, short and at times, brutal.

If you had the chance to be reborn, one of the smarter, more prudent choices would be today: right now! At times, it can feel like 2017 has been a bad year, with Trump’s arrival, global terrorism flaring, refugee crises, climate change and race-related shootings to name a few of the gloomier headlines. There is no doubt that our species is far from nailing the task of becoming a fully prosperous, harmonious civilisation. But is this the best time in history to be poor?


More food, less war, higher incomes, longer lives

More food, less war, higher incomes, and longer lives: we live in a golden age, according to a growing school of thinkers. Do they have a point, or are they naively blind to today’s problems?

In 1984 a terrible drought hit Ethiopia. The famine that ensued devastated the war-torn country, killing at least 600,000.

Three decades on, the rains have once again failed the region. This time, however, the dangers are smaller. As researcher Alex de Waal observes, food aid is reaching affected areas and health clinics are treating malnourished children. Far fewer will die.

This story sounds a rare optimistic note in our dark news cycle. Faced with daily reports of conflict, murder and disease, we could be forgiven for thinking we live in an age of misery. But a growing group of thinkers are saying the exact opposite: we have never had it so good. It has even won over Barack Obama, who recently told an audience of young British people that now is the best time in history to be alive.

It is certainly an appealing idea. But is it correct?


But just what does it mean to be poor?

Just what does mean to be poor? There is a mischievous ambiguity to the word poor. Being poor is more than just the amount of money a person has. Is poverty being unable to procure food and shelter? Or is it being unable to access healthcare? Is being poor not having a Smart TV when seemingly ‘everyone’ has one? Or is being poor being 35 years old living in your mother’s loft with no prospect of a mortgage any time soon?

Whatever it means, 2017 can be seen as the continued progress towards a better quality of life for the considerable majority of the planet, alongside technological breakthroughs and political agreements that suggest the good news might continue next year and beyond. Tragedy and misery are rarer than they were before 2017 (we are told)—and there is every reason to hope they will be even less prevalent in 2018. The world is better educated, better fed, healthier, freer, and more tolerant—and it looks set to get richer, too, according to the experts.

By any measure of human development – life expectancy, infant mortality, poverty, literacy, freedom, exposure to violence and disease, etc – we are living in a golden age that is completely unprecedented in the history of humanity. In 1900, average world life expectancy was 31 years old; it is now 71. In 1981, nine in ten Chinese lived in extreme poverty; it is now one in ten. For the last 25 years, 285,000 new people have gained access to safe water every day. If it takes you 20 minutes to read this article, almost another 2,000 people will have risen out of poverty.

The case is compelling. For the 200,000 years or so since Homo sapiens first evolved, if we even survived infancy we would have lived very short lives, in what we now class as extreme poverty, beset by diseases we didn’t understand, unable to read, at the mercy of arbitrary rulers and very likely to die in various horrifically painful ways.

In the last 25 years, however – for the first time in human history – extreme poverty has dipped below 10% of the population, mass famine has been virtually eliminated and mass literacy has become the rule rather than the exception. Anyone alive right now is far less likely to die violently (from either war or homicide) than in any previous era.

This is what the official statisticians and experts from the United Nations and assorted bodies tell me. But isn’t there modern day mass extreme poverty in South Sudan and Bangladesh, for example. Isn’t this extreme enough, capable of matching any caveman’s lifestyle from 1450?

On the one hand…

The Heritage Foundation, that bastion of American conservatism, is not having any of this modern day poverty talk. For them all those lower income people in America bawling poor need to have a glance back into the 16th century when the original American ‘pioneers’ were ‘discovering America’ on hungry tummies alongside wild bison and violent bears.

For them, if poverty means lacking nutritious food, adequate warm housing, and clothing for a family, relatively few of the more than 30 million people [in America] identified as being “in poverty” by the Census Bureau could be characterized as poor. While material hardship definitely exists in the United States, it is restricted in scope and severity. The average poor person, as defined by the government, has a living standard far higher than the public imagines.


According to the Heritage Foundation, “the poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago.” In 2016, he argues, the typical household defined as poor by the government had a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a computer.

If there were children, especially boys, in the home, the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or a PlayStation. In the kitchen, the household had a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker.


The Heritage Foundation continues: The home of the typical poor family is not overcrowded and is in good repair. In fact, the typical poor American has more living space than the average European. The typical poor American family is also able to obtain medical care when needed. The typical family is not hungry and had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs.

Poor families in Western Europe and America, according to this narrative, certainly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill. Their living standards are far different from the images of dire deprivation promoted by activists and the mainstream media. Consumer items that were luxuries or significant purchases for the middle class a few decades ago have become commonplace in poor households. Are these people poor?


Poor is all relative

Needless to say, the invisible aliens do not concur with the Heritage Foundation’s conclusions. The implicit assumption is that the poor are spending money on the wrong things…the implicit assumption is that the poor shouldn’t have those things. This seems to question government assistance for the poor because if the people are not really ‘poor’ in the first place, why are we spending tax dollars on them? It is clear that people are relying on these welfare programs, particularly in rich countries like Americana and Britain where poverty is relative.


How do we decide what poor means?

At the United Nations’ big gathering in late September, world leaders signed on to an ambitious pledge: “By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day.” But just 10 days later, the goalposts shifted. The World Bank – which is in charge of setting the global poverty line — announced it was raising the line from US$1.25 to US$1.90 a day.

What gives?

A lot of people worldwide consume somewhere in the region of $1.25, so small changes in the line can have huge impacts on the number of poor. Andy Sumner and Peter Edward estimate that changing the poverty line by only 10 cents can change the global poverty line by 100 million. That means seemingly small choices or adjustments have a massive impact on the number of poor people worldwide. Is this some kind of con being played on the world’s poor?


Ultimately, picking a poverty line is pretty arbitrary. The main virtue of the line the World Bank has picked is political: It keeps the total number of global poor roughly where it was last month when world leaders at the UN signed up to eradicate poverty by 2030. But it did so by moving the line quite a bit. which is disingenuous at best and deceitful at worst.


A Poverty of Hope

Even in poor ghettoes in Jamaica and Nigeria and Brazil, if you go into many of their homes, and you might find a flat-screen TV, a computer or the latest sneakers. And that raises a question: What does it mean to be poor today?

In the rich world it is even more complicated. Take Kameel J*****n, a 22-year-old single mother who lives in London. At first glance, her life doesn’t look all that bad. She lives in a cozy two-bedroom apartment. She has food, furniture and toys for her almost 2-year-old son, Ja***. She even likes playing a game called Fruit Ninja on her electronic tablet.

Ja***’s father is out of the picture, and J*****n knows she could be a lot worse off. At least she has a job earning £8.50 an hour preparing food in a company cafeteria.

Still, you don’t have to look too far to see that her life is teetering on the edge. Her nice-looking apartment? “It’s kind of not a very safe place to live,” she says. “There’ve been quite a few drug busts here.”

She says she’s scared to let her son play outside. Her next-door neighbor was recently arrested for allegedly murdering someone and stuffing the body in a cupboard.

But this subsidized council housing is all she can afford. Most of her paycheck goes for things like food, diapers and gas. And she says what look like luxuries are necessities for her. They’re also mostly gifts from family or friends. She says she has a car to get to work, a computer to take online college courses, a cellphone to check up on her son.

But there’s one thing J*****N doesn’t have, and the lack of this ingredient makes her poor: that’s a lot of hope for the future.

She says she feels stuck in a never-ending cycle, constantly worried that one financial emergency — like a broken-down car — will send everything tumbling down.

“Poor to me is the fact that I’m working my butt off. I’m trying to go to school. I’m trying to take care of my son, and that’s just not enough,” she says.

And it’s this frustration and despair that those who work with struggling families say is the true face of poverty today — that it’s not just a lack of material things.

It used to be that if you were poor, you just didn’t have the basic things, like maybe you didn’t have a washer and dryer, and you were able to get by. Now what I see with families is if you’re poor, you’re poor in every avenue: emotionally, lack of support, fragmented kinfolk; lives and families ripped apart — by drug abuse, domestic violence and mental illness.

Social workers say they see lots of stressed-out families, with kids paying the price. The strain of living with adults who are overwhelmed by life or who don’t have the skills they need to raise children because they themselves came from troubled homes.

And that’s a big difference for poor families today. They might have TVs and mobile phones, but researchers say they can be more disconnected than ever — from neighbors, work, family, all of the social networks that help people through life.

Is this the best time to be poor? It certainly doesn’t seem so. Were these emotional and mental issues around in 1345? Not according to my history books.


For better or worse

So is this this the best time in history to be poor? Without a doubt, say the optimists. The evidence speaks for itself: life expectancy is up, poverty is down, healthcare is improving, democracy is spreading and major international warfare is getting much more rare. Cars and planes let us travel widely, and the internet plugs us into global events – all of which helps us break down prejudices and come together as a species.

There is a reason, however, why this is a debate being held in rich countries: in America and Germany and France and Britain. Because there is no chance in hell anyone actually living in Jamaica or Haiti or Sierra Leone or the favelas of Rio are contemplating this somewhat pedantic query. This is because the immediacy of poverty, its awful stench is so pungent that the people there are more likely to question when will they next eat rather than count their blessings against some 12th century Scotsman.

In addition, cars and Netflix and the Internet are useful, but they also isolate us, make us lonelier. Incomes may be rising, but so is inequality, which sows anger and division. And don’t forget the two great dangers of our age, potentially more destructive than anything we have ever known: climate change and nuclear weapons. As the rewards seemingly pile up, so do the risks.