The Fruits of Civilization (53-2) Poverty


The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty. ~ Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw

Poverty and inequality are disturbingly widespread. 1 in 5 people live in absolute poverty. Even in rich countries, such as the US, 1 in 6 people live in (relative) poverty. ~ Ha-Joon Chang in 2014

Globally, poverty is worse than reckoned. World Bank estimates are widely used in the international community to figure poverty. The World Bank uses an arbitrary ‘dollar a day’ to define poverty, which is not a reasonable metric for basic human needs. A study of children in Vanuatu found that only 5% lived in poverty according to the ‘dollar a day’ standard, but 17% live in poverty when considering basic needs.

The current international poverty line seriously underestimates global poverty levels. If the World Bank had used a poverty line grounded in basic needs, the number of poor people in the world would increase by as much as 30%. ~ English sociologist Christopher Deeming

Over 45 million Americans were impoverished in 2016 (14%). That rate is much higher for teenagers and the elderly.

Abject poverty grossly understates the inequity of American society: 43% (140 million) barely get by. The so-called ‘middle class’ – working to do their best – is on the bleeding edge of poverty.

The only explanation that makes any sense are structural shifts. ~ American sociologist Deborah Thorne

Many older Americans are a single financial mishap away from destitution. From 1991 to 2016, the number of Americans aged 65–74 who filed for bankruptcy leapt 204%.

The people who show up in bankruptcy are always the tip of the iceberg. ~ American law professor Robert Lawless

Inequity has widespread societal effects beyond the sheer economics of depriving people of income, education, and employment opportunities because they were not born into the right family. Inequality is the wellspring of property crime, and it takes a severe toll on the health of the underclass.

Economic insecurity has led to widespread anxiety within the population, with greater numbers of households struggling to stay afloat. Hopes and dreams for many ordinary Americans have been getting further and further out of reach. ~ American sociologist Mark Rank

Millions of poorly educated Americans will have a shorter life span than the previous generation as they succumb to despair. Meanwhile, in the top 1/10th of 1% now owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%. 58% of all new income is going to the top 1%. ~ Bernie Sanders in 2016

If you handpick services and goods where there has been dramatic technological progress, then the fact that poor people can consume these items in 2014 and even rich people couldn’t consume them in 1954 is hardly a meaningful distinction. That’s not telling you who is rich and who is poor, not in the way that Adam Smith and most everyone else since him thinks about poverty. ~ American economist Gary Burtless

American men in the top 10% of income earners on average live 14 years longer than those in the bottom 10%. For the wealthiest American women versus the poorest 10%, the longevity gap is 13 years. Life expectancy in the US is dropping because of economic stress on the vast majority of its population.

The immense wealth in the United States stands in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live. About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty. It has the highest youth poverty rate, and the highest infant mortality rates. Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies. ~ United Nations in 2018

Geographically, American poverty is becoming more isolated and more concentrated. In 2000, 11.4% of all Americans lived in high-poverty neighborhoods; a rate which climbed to 14.1% in 2014. For black Americans, those figures are 80% higher.

America is evolving into durable islands of wealth and poverty. ~ American economist Benjamin Austin et al

There is a 35-year difference in life expectancy between the richest US neighborhoods and the most deprived. ~ American sociologist Abigail Sewell

Racism is a significant factor in American inequity. Despite ostensible legal equality, blacks and other minorities suffer abiding indecency from the white majority. This animosity affects education, employment, financing, housing, and other aspects of life. The economic consequences, which go back for centuries, are profound.

The historical pervasiveness and contemporary persistence of racism in America is a scandalous state of affairs to race-based economic inequality. ~ American law professor Paul Campos

The racial wealth gap is deeply rooted in American society. ~ American economist Caroline Ratcliffe

A lot of social, educational, and economic resources are tied to neighborhoods. Concentrating poverty has consequences for the quality of life now and in the future.

The poor often behave in ways that reinforce poverty. Scarcity leads to attentional shifts. ~ American psychologist Anuj Shah et al

Being poor means coping not just with a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources. The poor are less capable not because of inherent traits, but because the very context of poverty imposes cognitive load and impedes cognitive capacity. ~ Indian behavioral economist Anandi Mani et al

Poverty is a grind on the mind.

When you’re poor, money is not the only thing in short supply. Cognitive capacity is also stretched thin. That’s not to say that poor people are less intelligent than others. The same person experiencing poverty suffers a cognitive deficit as opposed to when they’re not experiencing poverty. It’s also wrong to suggest that someone’s cognitive capacity has gotten smaller because they’re poor. What happens is that your effective capacity gets smaller, because you have all these other things on your mind, you have less mind to give to everything else. ~ Indian economist Sendhil Mullainathan

In 2015, nearly half of American children lived in poverty. Impoverished American youth are the poorest in the developed world. (Child poverty is at a higher percentage than grown-ups because indigent adults breed regardless of their economic condition. On that score, Malthus was on the money.)

Child hunger is a recipe for wasted life potential and societal degradation. 33% of American teenagers did not get enough to eat in 2015.

Food-insecure teens sometimes resort to extreme measures to cope with hunger – from saving school lunches for the weekend or going hungry so younger siblings can eat to stealing or trading sex for money to buy food. The stress of hunger and poverty takes a tremendous toll. ~ American sociologist Susan Popkin


One outcome of the stresses that come from inequity has been a rising rate of suicide. In 2016, 45,000 Americans killed themselves; most had no mental health issues. Suicide is a leading cause of death in the US.

As the most vocal and vigorous proponent of capitalism, the US is noteworthy in its exaltation of wealth and its indifference to inequity; but the trend is universal. 70% of the world’s populations live in countries where economic disparity is growing.

Rising inequality is widespread across rich countries in spite of differences in national policies and in spite of aggressive welfare policies in some countries that seek to limit it. ~ Scottish American economist Angus Deaton