Global Agenda: Poor and dead

From a long-term perspective, it is clear that pouring money into welfare and forcing people to be more self-reliant will not solve the roots of the problem.

April 26, 2007 21:23
3 minute read.
Global Agenda: Poor and dead

global agenda 88. (photo credit: )


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First, a couple of corrections. The last two columns cited articles that appeared on a blog called "The Gates of Vienna" and were written by Paul Weston - whom I, for no apparent reason, called Paul Weldon. More substantively, the March 23 column quoted the old saw that "The rich get richer and the poor have babies." I suggested that while the rich are indeed getting far, far richer, the second half of this adage is no longer true in developed countries where birth rates have plummeted in most cases to well below demographic replacement levels. In passing, it may be noted that the starting point of Weston's analysis of European demography and his central tenet regarding the rapid levelling out of the relative numbers of Christian/indigenous and Muslim/immigrant young men, is the woefully low birth rate of the native Europeans. However, it is not true that it is not true that the poor have babies. You just have to look for them - the poor, I mean. In most of the less- and undeveloped world, notably the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, most people are poor and have lots of babies. Conversely, most of the developed world clearly does not have babies. However, not everything in demographics is determined by political geography - meaning that the discussion has to go beyond the level of nation states and their relative level of development, as defined by economic and social statistics. Clearly, there are groups of rich people in poor countries (think of India) and there are many poor people within the borders of rich countries. Nor are these latter all immigrants. A riveting piece in last Sunday's (April 22) New York Times reported on the sharp rise in infant death rates in the Deep South of the United States. As anyone who has crossed the Mason-Dixon line knows, the South is a different country in many ways - socially, culturally and certainly economically. The further south you go, the more this is true - and this article focussed on families and communities in Mississippi. The overall picture that emerges is horrifying from many points of view. For instance, it is clear that the standard policy prescriptions of both Republicans and Democrats have totally failed and, indeed, have made things worse. But the key points, in the context of the foregoing discussion, are that in these areas of the supposedly rich and developed US, poverty is ingrained, in practice hereditary and that poor women do indeed have babies. The American experience is by no means unique. Poor young women (including many teenagers) in many British cities are caught in the same vice of poverty and deprivation. Once again, the result is towns, cities and sometimes whole regions that are poor, despite being located within the borders of a country that, at the national level, is rich and developed. In other words, there can be pockets of "third world" within "first world" countries. Not only is this possible, it actually happens. And not only does it just "happen," it is in fact the norm in most rich countries. What is most striking is that the phenomenon is not only normal, it is ubiquitous and its extent is steadily expanding - there are more poor people in rich countries and their condition, in relative terms and often in absolute ones, is getting worse. But the most extraordinary thing of all is that nothing meaningful is being done to stop the growth of poverty and its side-effects (bad health, crime etc). From a long-term perspective, it is clear that both the main solutions attempted in recent decades - namely, pouring government money into welfare and, conversely, slashing government involvement and forcing people to be more self-reliant - have had no impact on the roots of the problem. Why these supposed solutions have failed, and what else could be tried and might succeed, is a larger topic. But one obvious question arises from the foregoing: How does the majority of the population in rich countries accept and even ignore the existence of large-scale and growing poverty in "their" countries? The answer is encapsulated in a remarkable Rabbinic saying - remarkable in its overt cynicism and brutality but, as an objective observation of how societies function, entirely accurate: "The poor are considered dead." So long as they act dead, by keeping out of the sight and hearing of the rest of society, they are able - and tacitly encouraged - to continue their miserable existence, even to the extent of passing on their wretchedness to their children.

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