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Tools for Understanding Poverty
Alex Steffen, 23 Jan 07
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Poverty is another country, one with languages, cultures, assumptions and patterns which are quite different from the ones those of us who live in the wealthier parts of the world take for granted. If we want to think clearly about sustainable development, we need to see more clearly the nature of poverty itself. Here are a few resources that have given us some "aha!" moments:

Gapminder is full of amazing interactive graphics demonstrating big global trends in poverty, health and other aspects of human development.

Global Rich List (which we've covered before) will show you, based on your income, how wealthy you actually are compared to the rest of the world.

Personal revelations of the ways in which a lack of money colors every aspect of one's mental landscape can be like little koans, giving a sudden whack of perception to the back of the brain. I'd recommend, Being Poor Is... (example: "Being poor is feeling the glued soles tear off your supermarket shoes when you run around the playground.").

Shrinking the problem into managable chunks -- by, for instance, describing what it'd be like if the planet were a village of 100 people -- can help us grasp the magnitude of need.

Films offer a powerful window -- whether new looks at poverty in emerging megacities, like City of God, Bus 174 and Tsotsi, or classic explorations of the inner lives of the poor, like The Bicycle Thief or Matewan.

Of course, not all efforts to reframe our understanding of poverty work well (check out, for example, my earlier piece on the Happy Planet Index), but when they do work, they can open our minds to the realities of others' lives in a way that may make us better able to intelligently help.

What resources have changed your understanding of poverty? What books, films, websites or experiences have opened your mind to a different understanding of the challenges faced by the less fortunate? Please leave a comment and let us know.

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Poverty is a tricky subject and not even all practitioners in the field agree on levels and severity of poverty, such as the $1 a day qualifier, or what the best way is to address "elevating" people from poverty.

While too big of a topic to address in this comment, I do want to address that yes, there are millions of people in this world living under $1 or $2 a day. But purchasing power should be considered - does that amount per day buy necessities for day to day living, and for how many people. There are many people in the US who live well above a dollar a day but who are under a certain poverty line comparatively.

Factors that also need to be considered are things such as access to clean water, housing, and sanitation, as well as access to medical care, education, and jobs.

Unfortunately income disparity is rising every year - rich people are getting richer and the numbers of poor are growing, which makes the daunting task of "aleviating poverty" that much greater.

On a final note, consumers in higher income countries (such as the US) should be aware also of the global economic structure - the cheap goods you purchase are cheap because people are living on $1 a day in the country where those goods are manufactured. If you're already buying responsibly for the environment, it might be worth looking into the social and economic aspects of the product as well.

Posted by: Amy Stodghill on 24 Jan 07

What opened my eyes to the depth of poverty was: When I was growing up in India, a music teacher who gave private lessons in our neighborhood casually told us kids that he fasted for three full days a week, his wife for three full days and his kids one full day in order to conserve on resources. He played the flute so beautifully I have yet to hear more exotic and gentle music - and he could belt out other instruments to but flute was his thing. Shame on lack of patronage and it was not a poor neighborhood.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 24 Jan 07

Please note that there are more people living today (i.e., 3.7 billion consumers) on less than $2 dollars per day than existed in total on planet Earth in the year of my birth in 1945.

What scientific evidence suggests that the problems of poverty and hunger are being solved? On the contrary, virtual mountains of data indicate that these problems are getting bigger and more intractable with each passing year.

Yes, more people are being fed now than were fed sixty years ago; however, the number of human beings on Earth has more than doubled in that time period.

Unexpected data from Russell Hopfenberg, Ph.D., and David Pimentel, Ph.D., on human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of our planetary home appear to make clear that humanity is soon to face a huge, distinctly human predicament that is posed by unbridled human consumption, production and propagation activities now overspreading Earth.

Thanks for your consideration of unfortunately unwelcome data. Your comments are welcome.



Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on 25 Jan 07

Dear Colleagues,

Does the mountain pictured above that represents the number of people at different income levels also remind you of the pyramid-shaped world economy?

Consider that the world economy, rather a mountain, has a remarkably similar shape but is a global pyramid scheme in which wealth is now funneled to the millions of people at the top of the economic pyramid while billions of people near the bottom of the pyramid are left with very little.

When I was a boy, having a million dollars put one at the top of the global economy. In those days millions of people were hungry. Now it takes a billion dollars to be at the top of the pyramid..... and billions of people are hungry. One day, I suppose, we will have people with trillions of dollars in wealth. When that time comes, will trillions of people go hungry?

Not so long ago, millions of people were impoverished. Now we have billions who are poor. Will the fully anticipated arrival of humankind's first trillionaire signal the spread of destitution to a trillion people?



Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on 26 Jan 07



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