Poverty, at first glance, is an incredible issue. What gets our hearts about poverty is not really that people do not have money. I mean really, who has heard of someone dying from lack of money. Money is an imaginary thing that we created and use, in agreement with each other, to exchange for what we really need. What is really at the heart of poverty is not the lack of money, but the lack of what that money can get: food, shelter, and the rest of Maslow’s pyramid.
What I think we really mean when we say poverty needs to be alleviated is that we need all people to have access to what they need to live and possibly what they need to flourish. We need a world where, in fairness, we all get the rich benefits of this amazing and beautiful planet.
What we miss when we struggle against poverty is that we address the issue one step away from the real needs people have. And that step is a misleading step, because we move into the realm of the imaginary. We created money, we created the rules money follows, and we must take responsibility for the consequences of those choices and acts of creation. The system we created for money depends on some people having very little of it. We might move the dollar a day living of some poor people of this world into two dollar a day living – doubling their earnings. But that does not take them out of poverty. They still can’t get adequate food and shelter. We might move the bar on what it means to be poor, but moving the bar isn’t sufficient in addressing the needs we have collectively to care for ourselves as a whole.
Poverty, given the economic crisis we entered, is likely to get a lot more common in the US (and abroad). It is time for us to move beyond measuring health and wellness in dollars. What we don’t see when we look at people and perceive them through the filter of money – as having it or lacking it – is what that person really is and offers. Or what that community or country is and offers.
What if we look for something closer to what matters most to people? Do people have food? The right kinds of food? Food with the right micronutrients to support high quality brain and body functioning? Do people have access to clean water? Adequate sanitation? Do people have heathcare that addresses emergencies, preventive medicine for known diseases and health concerns? Do people have sufficient shelters? Disaster care for natural and man-made emergencies? From there, do they have access to education, integrity in governance, civil and legal process for getting their concerns met? And continue up the Maslow chart…
I think Americans might be shocked at how we rate in the world if we look with these measures.
And these measures need to be taken at the individual level and mirrored at the community level. What keeps communities healthy? Do communities have what they need to sustain themselves? Do they have healthy flows? Are they resilient to crisis? Are communities enabled to learn and evolve? For thousands of years communities flourished without using fiat currency. Were they poor? No. Do so-called developed nations have vibrant healthy communities? Yes, but it is not a given. Do so-called developing nations have vibrant healthy communities? Yes, some do, but it is not a given. However, I see this measure – of vibrant healthy communities – as a more critical measure of what is going right than the measure of money.
So I choose to hear poverty as a lack of access to vital resources and glaring unmet human needs rather than lack of money. Sometimes addressing financial concerns, empowering entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs can help those lacking what every human needs and deserves. But sometimes we need to recognize the way the system we put in place, to mediate our interactions, is the very thing that undermines a given portion of the members within that system.
So what can we do? Well, we must continue our charity and social change efforts to address poverty. Those are the things that help people now and in the near future. For the long term, we need to evolve healthier systems that don’t leave people out, that have a human heart woven into every fiber of the system – enabling compassion for others bound by our common humanity. We must stop our vain efforts to prop up a system that dooms some people to scarce access and limits their resources to prop up someone else’s egoic needs elsewhere.
We need to evolve systems and practices that reveal the invisible elements of power dynamics at play and transparently offer fairness – for every human being. We must strive for greater balance between individual needs and free will with community and group needs – groups at both a local level as well as groups across the seas and plains.