Combating ‘an intractable human problem’
February 6, 2004
OFTIMES when economists of international agencies speak on the urgency of winning the war on poverty, the ordinary observer thinks immediately of the teeming masses of emaciated bodies that are victims of famines, wars, ethnic strife and disease in countries of the African continent and in some states of Asia. And although it is true that the poorest people on the planet are found in the Third World, middling poor countries as well as highly industrialised nations also witness levels of poverty that are almost unbelievable. In 1996, when the representatives of 179 countries pledged to halve the world’s hungry by the year 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) assessed the number of poor people at 842 million or 15 per cent of the world’s population. Of that figure, 798 million were in developing countries, 34 million in middling poor states and 10 million in industrialised countries.
A report in the January 8, 2004 online edition of The Christian Science Monitor makes some startling disclosures on the poor of the United States approximately 40 years since President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared “an unconditional war” on poverty in America. “Today that war is not over, and there’s a question as to whether the US or poverty has the upper hand. Big-screen TVs are blowing out the doors of retailers, but 34 million Americans still live below the poverty line. The US GDP is roaring ahead, but the nation still has the worst child-poverty rate in the industrialised world…. In his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, LBJ both proposed a legislative program and challenged the country. The legislative war on poverty was to be a multipoint program aimed at getting Washington, the states and local authorities to work together. It included a massive expansion of the food-stamp program, job training, youth employment and special aid for Appalachia, among other things. Hospital insurance for the elderly - today’s Medicare - was part of the effort. The challenge was an appeal for cooperation at all levels of US politics to help solve a truly national problem. ‘If we fail…then history will rightly judge us harshly,’ said Johnson.”
The story in The Christian Science Monitor continues: “…the next few years saw the nation make its greatest gains since the end of the Depression against an intractable human problem. The poverty rate fell steadily for almost a decade, bottoming out at 11.1 percent in 1973. And that was it. Since then, the poverty rate has seesawed up and down, largely following the state of the economy. It hit highs of 15.2 percent in 1983 and 15.1 percent in 1993. It declined in the go-go 1990s, then began rising again: In 2002, the latest full year for which the Census Bureau has figures, it was 12.1 percent. That’s almost 35 million in poverty, 12.1 million of them children.”
The difference between the poor and unemployed of the United States and the poor and unemployed of the underdeveloped countries is the safety net of food stamps, shelters, soup kitchens and possible skills training to wean persons off welfare systems. And, despite the realities of a jobless economic recovery, the Bush administration is touting the importance of more persons becoming small entrepreneurs in the delivery of goods and services.
Time and again in this column, we have endorsed the philosophy of poor, unemployed persons being assisted with loans and the basic techniques of operating small businesses. In the 1990s, the World Bank set aside millions of US dollars for the sole purpose of providing mini loans of US$100 so that persons in poor countries could become “multipliers of prosperity”. At a time when multinational businesses are shifting manufacturing jobs to those countries where labour and tax laws allow them to make the most profits, the unemployed or underpaid will have to find creative ways of earning if they are to escape the “intractable human problem” of the poverty trap.