Sunday, June 02, 2013

We don't really understand poverty!

Source: The Economist
The Millennium Development Goals, set by the United Nations in 2000, set their benchmarks for 2015. Now the planning is heating up for a new set of goals/benchmarks for a following period. A high level commission has just published its recommendations for the global future reduction of poverty. The Economist has also published a lead article on the reduction of poverty, from which I drew the above figure.

I find it hard to imagine what it is like living on $1.25 a day or less -- the current definition of poverty. I am perhaps better able to do so than most Americans. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, living on $84 per month in 1965-66; we married in 1966 and lived as a couple on $166 per month for the next year. I suppose that came to about $5 per day in current purchasing power parity today. That would be a middle income for China and high income for India or Sub-saharan Africa.

Of course, our income was also higher. We had good medical attention provided by the U.S. government and money was banked for us to be provided on return to the United States. My standard of living was much like that I had as a graduate student on a teaching assistantship from 1959 to 1961. Still I lost 30 pounds during the Peace Corps years. I can not really imagine what it would have been like to live on less than one-third of the PCV income.

From 1970 through 1977 I was a health planner, working primarily in Latin America. Over those years I occasionally saw people suffering from the worst aspects of poverty. The most memorable were malnourished children, many of whom would soon die. I still have an empathy sharpened in those days. But that is much less than a real appreciation of what poverty is like.

I wish more Americans had real empathy for the suffering of others, including the suffering of others in Africa, Asia and Latin America. If you don't understand poverty I fear you can't appreciate the importance of eliminating poverty. If you don't empathize with the poor, it is hard to make the intellectual leap needed to support the reduction of poverty.

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