Poverty doesn’t just hurt the poor. Obviously they have the most direct experience, but it’s also true that poverty in society is taking money, time, and even happiness away from you in ways that most of us haven’t realised.
Anyone who knows me has probably heard a rant or two about the moral issues involved. But I wanted to shift the focus for this blog post, to how growing poverty and inequality affects you directly as well. So let’s begin our journey into 5 reasons why poverty is making you poorer too, how we can all save so much money, time, energy, and heartbreak, by being a part of the solution to poverty in the world.
“You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give” – anon.
1) We Have Missed Out on Half a Million Geniuses
While IQ is not the best measurement of competence or future success, allow me to use this as a rough way of showing how many people, how many smart ideas and potentially genius solutions, we’ve missed out on.
Roughly 2% (1 in 50) of the general population has a genius IQ. The Philippines passed a population of 100 million earlier in 2014. That means the country is home to roughly 2 million geniuses, or to use the more scientific term, nerds. Fortunately you don’t have to be a genius to do the simple numbers: a minimum of 24.9% of Filipinos live in poverty (this truly is a minimum, I have so many issues with the official poverty count) so of 100 million people, roughly 2 million are geniuses and 1 in 4 are poor. We find that roughly 500,000 geniuses live in poverty, almost entirely blocked from an education, from the places and tools they need to make real change. And given IQ is by no means the best measure, we’re generally missing out on the input of millions more hard-working, innovative people who don’t show up on IQ tests.
Think of all the problems in our communities; crime, traffic, pollution, poor city planning causing floods year after year, growing health problems, and all the other issues that plague the Philippines (like many other countries). And now think of the logic of holding down half a million of the smartest and most capable people in the country.
While this argument is very simplified, the general point I think still stands. I live in Payatas and worked with a variety of different charities previously, and every day you can see how hard-working, intelligent, and creative the poor really are. Ultimately, poor people aren’t the source of our problems, with the right opportunities they are the solution.
2) Discrimination Drags Down Innovation
Leading off from the how many geniuses we’ve missed, it’s worth mentioning that virtually no discovery was made by some wacky genius sitting alone in his laboratory shouting Eureka. Collaboration drives innovation. Whether we’re talking Einstein, Edison, or Electric fans, the major innovations came from groups of people working together – and importantly groups of people from difficult backgrounds.
In almost every field this is the standard procedure. Most people who know me in the Philippines know me from the football world, so here’s an example from football. Soccernomics argues Western Europe has traditionally dominated football because it had a large number of countries in a small amount of space; if an innovation cropped up in one area it quickly spread to others, who further improved it, and so on.
More politically and philosophically, without that framework Europe wouldn’t have gone through the Enlightenment either. And this underlies Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel too, whereby Diamond argues the close-knit geography of the area gave Europe advantages in producing guns, germs, and steel, the things needed to conquer the rest of the world (a quick side note that while Diamond’s theory of how some societies developed quicker than others thousands of years ago is certainly interesting, I think it holds almost no relevance to how countries exploit and take advantage of others now, as in why people are rich or poor today).
So whether it was Edison ‘borrowing’ the lightbulb, Alexander Graham Bell ‘borrowing’ the telephone, or even Einstein ‘borrowing’ the Theory of Relativity, almost every great discovery relied on collaboration. One part of all this ‘borrowing’ of ideas was stealing others’ intellectual property is something only recently made illegal, largely at the behest of multinational corporations. Check out the controversy over TRIPs (Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property rights) if you want to get angry about the richest nations in the world successfully banning poor countries from producing their own AIDS medication and forcing them to buy expensive Western drugs instead, all while flagrantly ignoring the rules of making an acronym.
But to cut a long story short, diversity and collaboration have been at the heart of every major development. But we’re now divided so rigorously by class, whether it’s walls around a subdivision or slums hidden away in small corners of the city so no-one else has to see. Modern discrimination has moved from sitting at the back of the bus and using a different fountain because of your colour, to using a different elevator because of how much money you have. By excluding and sometimes actively discriminating against such a large portion of society, we miss out on a large source of input.
3) A Safety Net for the Poor is Also a Safety Net for the Middle Class
No man is an island, and while the Philippines is thousands of them, it’s got far more economic, political, and personal might by drawing in as many sources as possible. Instead things are more unequal than ever and the more unequal things get the more it squeezes the Middle Class.
This pattern is happening all across the world; countries are more than ever divided by lines of class as the top of the pile run away with things. The wealthiest 1% of the world’s 7 billion people now own almost half of the world’s wealth, and what determines whether you’re part of this lucky 70 million people at the top of the pyramid is the random event of where you were born. And if inbreeding has taught us one thing, it’s that keeping everything in one small group doesn’t produce healthy offspring.
In real terms almost everyone is poorer now than a decade or two ago, meaning that when you adjust for inflation you have less money now than you did last year, and the year before, and the year before that. To give this argument a more economic feel to it (if economics could feel anything), just consider how great inequality precedes great economic crashes – even in ancient civilisations (Karen Armstrong). The modern recession was another symptom of this disease and many economists believe another big recession is on the way because so little has changed.
Joseph Stiglitz, former Chief Economist at the World Bank, argued that inequality is holding back recovery from the current recession and he’s backed up by fellow left wing nutjob Paul Krugman who writes that inequality was ‘probably’ a large part of causing the crisis.
So if you don’t want to read through the economic articles, and not even economists want to do that, let me summarise it: large amounts of inequality is bad for the economy. The Middle Class gets squeezed on both sides and any one of us could now be bankrupted by the next medical emergency or economic downturn. Yet when the economy inevitably crashes, the rich somehow get richer while the rest of us are picking up the bill. By properly helping the poor, we aren’t just giving them a safety net, we’re providing a safety net for the Middle Class too.
4) Reducing Poverty Also Means Reducing Crime
Much crime is caused by desperation; a child steals a loaf of bread because he’s hungry, a young man holds up a passerby because he doesn’t have the money to pay for his parents’ medical bills, and people are still in jail today for just sleeping on the streets (a ‘crime’ known as vagrancy). A surprising amount of crime is caused by a lack of what are supposed to be basic rights.
Manila’s Reception and Action Center has recently come under fire for its treatment of kids, but to those who have regularly visited the place, recent conditions are nothing new. But we shouldn’t call people who sleep on the streets or steal food to survive criminals. As a society we have made their very survival a crime when they can’t get basic needs any other way. And while the child is the one paying for the crimes, we’re the ones footing the bill.
And that bill is huge. Across the world the cost of putting someone in jail is skyrocketing. In the United States it costs at least $20,000 to keep someone behind bars every year. In 2012 the Philippines spent almost P60 billion on crime prevention and suppression. As a further example, Freakonomics raised a controversial storm when it showed the link between abortion and a sudden drop in . The data showed that abortion had meant that young mothers from typically poor neighbourhoods didn’t have a child they didn’t want to take care of/couldn’t take care of, and so less kids grew up unloved and eventually turned to crime. Abortion is a non-starter in the Philippines right now, but a Catholic country should really embrace the connection still, and given that 40% of Filipinos live in slums (Homeless International) it’s quite likely that the biggest way we could reduce crime is by reducing poverty – and we’d all save a whole load of money in the process.
5) Helping Others Makes Us Happier
So far most of my arguments have been economic, i.e. it’ll save you money because it will bring cost-saving solutions or decrease crime and other related costs. This is absolutely true. But for most of us there are some things that are more important than money. Imagine you’re 90 years old, breathing your final breaths and looking back on your life. What would you be proud of? What would you regret?
One recent viral article shows the top 5 regrets of the dying, from a nurse who spent years caring from people in their last moments.
She said her patients wished:
- They’d been true to themselves, lived their lives the way they wanted
- Hadn’t worked so hard
- Had the courage to express their feelings
- Stayed in touch with their friends
- Let themselves be happier
You’ll notice that not one of those regrets is about money. No-one looks back on their life and wishes their bank balance was higher. What matters to us most is meaning, and that’s why giving to others makes us happier, because it gives us meaning. For a potentially life-changing read on that check out Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.
So when it really comes down to it, once we have our basic needs met money doesn’t contribute to our long-term happiness – unless, as recent studies show, we’re giving it away.If you want to be truly happy, if you want to find meaning, you learn to serve others and in doing so we find the best way of maintaining long-term happiness is to give to others, whether in time, finances, or better yet both.
There’s a final link I want to share regarding happiness, then, showing it isn’t some hippy cop-out for not being successful. Instead modern research shows that being happy gives you a competitive edge. It’s called the Happiness Advantage; those who are happier achieve better results as a consequence of being happy. Check out Shawn Achor’s funny and inspiring TED talk on that here: http://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work
In a world where we more often disconnect from others, there are (happily) ways we can rewire our brain to see the world more positively. And perhaps the most important one is socialising, sharing our thoughts and goals with others, and caring for others.
So for the sake of our wallets, our productivity, and our happiness, helping other people truly does help ourselves. Personally I believe that no child should have to sleep on the streets or steal just to have something to eat. But if the moral arguments were enough there would be no poverty in the first place. So hopefully we can all see a bit more about how reducing poverty will also save you a whole load of money, time, and will make you happier too.
With that in mind I’d like to end by saying that just giving money away of course won’t help. Good giving isn’t handing out a few bucks to a homeless as you walk past and get on with your day, it’s getting to know people and genuinely caring about them. In knowing their situation you don’t just have a better chance of making a difference for them, but a difference in you too. On a systematic level foreign aid isn’t failing because there isn’t enough money involved, it’s failing because we’re not being smart about charity. I have an upcoming article about that, but basically if you want your giving to have good impact, find a charity who are the experts in their area, who have a clear vision and plan to achieve that vision, and a successful track record behind them.
One way you might want to help right now, then, is by getting involved at the Fairplay for All Foundation. We have just begun open source education, where anyone can teach anything, and any person is free to sign up for the classes they want (read Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society or John Holt’s Instead of Education for more on the concept). So if you have any hobby, language, skill, or interest you want to teach (or learn), get in touch.
And to give money you can also go here to support the building of the Fairplay Academy: https://www.justgiving.com/FairplayForAllFoundation/
For more information email us at firstname.lastname@example.org