Most of us know that numerous commendable charities exist that work to save the lives of starving children who they can feed for pennies a day. Other organizations, especially those addressing poverty in less utterly destitute places, focus more on investing in long-term solutions like changing society, turning around economies and uplifting entire communities. The long-term investments require more upfront, but if successful they will save more in the long run, just like the cost of teaching a man to fish today will cost less than just continuing to donate fish to him. Regardless, the fact is at the least we can save children’s lives for pocket change a day if not do more with it to end poverty.
However, based on my experience growing up in the United States, it seems to me the typical person in the first-world does not donate much to these charities that can save starving kids for pennies a day, nor to the ones that work to find long-term solutions. Instead, we needlessly hoard luxurious cars, expensive fashionable clothes, and bigger screen televisions, which not only puts us into a self-destructive debt, but leaves the question: How many starving children could have been fed with the extra money spent on luxuries?
But I do not think the typical person is so callous, so uncaring, so sociopathic that they would really prefer to wear a prettier shirt and let a child die than feel the joy of saving a child. So why do we do it? Let me try to guess what I think are the main reasons.
Commercialism – I think commercialism and excessive consumerism are perhaps the main reason we fail to provide more help to the needy. Unfortunately, businesspeople and corporations can get lots of money by convincing us to foolishly spend our hard-earned money on needless luxuries or other junk that we often cannot even afford. We are bombarded by billboards, TV ads, magazine ads, newspaper ads, junk mail, spam email, sales calls, and other advertisements. We put ourselves into debt for junk we do not need. People who earn enough income to not only live comfortably themselves but also help others end up in debt, unable to help others and in need of financial help themselves! We spend more but end up less happy and less secure. This is not a selfish choice, a callous choice or a sociopathic choice; this is a stupid, self-destructive choice. We cannot only blame the advertisers and businesspeople for the stupid, self-destructive choices inspired by commercialism anymore than the drug user could only blame the drug pusher. We also have to blame ourselves for our own self-destructive choices. We need to stop it.
Denial – I think denial is a common reaction to an overwhelming problem. This is especially true of problems that only bother us emotionally from our acknowledgment of them. Some kid we never met starving to death or suffering hundreds of miles away or even on the other side of the earth does not have any effect on us if we do not know about it. But because we are not sociopaths, we sympathize with them. Their pain hurts us. However, we choose to ignore it, to suppress our knowledge of it like a child suppresses memory of traumatic events. We keep it out of our mind to avoid being overwhelmed by the painful feelings of such a massive, overwhelming problem that calls for such overwhelming action to fix it. This is common, but I don’t think it is healthy. If we can be brave enough and honest enough to truly acknowledge a major problem like this and admit how incredibly terrible it makes us feel, then we can start making choices based more on reality and doing our part to work to fix it. And I think facing life’s obstacles and horrors like that will make us stronger and happier.
We don’t want to give it all up – Most of us would otherwise be willing to give up a portion of our luxuries or time to save lives. But that creates a slippery slope. If we admit to ourselves that it makes sense to buy a not-quite-as-luxurious car and fight poverty instead, then it blatantly follows that it would make just as much sense to buy an even less luxurious car and fight poverty that much more. I think it would be too blatantly inconsistent to give up a little bit, but at the time we fail to get ourselves to give it all up. Is it any surprise we choose to ignore poverty almost completely rather than take a so-called ‘vow of poverty’ and live with no luxuries? For some of us, the only solution may be a very drastic change to our excessively materialistic lifestyle. But also we have to remember that we do not just have to send all our extra money to another continent. We could invest it into our own children’s education or into starting our own local nonprofit. We could just work less and spend more time with our families or volunteering with friends. I think that would help end poverty and make us happier.
What do you think? We’re not sociopaths, so why do we behave like sociopaths when it comes to poverty? When it costs less than a buck a day to save the lives of children, why don’t we? Please post your comments about this blog post and discuss inaction on poverty in this thread at the Philosophy Forums.
My good friend sent me the following quote from an article in his local paper:
A family of four in England tips the scales at a combined 1,100 pounds. They can’t–don’t want to?–work, so they live off taxpayers, collecting the equivalent to take-home pay of $42,000, on top of the “free” universal health care for assorted ailments linked to their morbid obesity. The family, of course, is grateful for the government’s generosity with other people’s money. Not exactly. “What we get barely covers the bills and puts food on the table,” says the father in demanding bigger government handouts. “It’s not our fault we can’t work. We deserve more.” We wish we could say this isn’t typical of people on the dole everywhere.
The information provided leads one to condemn that family and the policies that allow them to collect the money they get without working. Of course, without more specific information I cannot comment on that specific family. For example, they could have some weird illness or injury through no fault of their own. Or, if two or three of the family members are children, I think $42,000 is too little to securely raise children and would advocate for more for the children. But they could just be lazy people who could take care of themselves but who choose to not take care of themselves and leech off the working class.
Regardless of what that specific family does, there are many people in this world who do simply leech off the working class. That includes families who could work and take care of themselves but instead choose to take advantage of charity and anti-poverty assistance. Even more, it includes rich people who leech off the working class taxpayers from government spending such as the executives and share-holders of bailed out companies and the industries who receive large subsidies, contracts and favors from governments, such as the military industry and the private-owned prison industry.
Yes, let’s condemn those people who use resources meant for the needy who do not need them. They take advantage of probably well-intentioned but poorly administered anti-poverty programs. They misdirect funds to themselves that could have helped relieve actual poverty. They are not poor but are people who could live out of poverty without the assistance they lazily choose to take. They leech off of the working class, a form of legalized stealing or sometimes outright fraud. But perhaps even worse they make the general public skeptical of anti-poverty campaigns, programs and spending.
These lazy, greedy people and what they do raises an age-old wisdom I often point out on this blog: We need to find efficient, effective ways to help people help themselves. We need to teach people to fish, not unconditionally give them fish.
There is a major poverty problem in our society that needs to be fixed and that we would all benefit from fixing. There are many honest, hard-working people who are in poverty, near poverty or at risk of falling in poverty not from laziness or their own bad decisions but because of corruption in society and other external forces that could throw you or I into poverty just as easily and unfairly.
But with the limited funds currently going to solve the problem, it seems that we can only afford to give fish to hungry people rather than teach them to fish. In yet another analogy, we are spending $10 a day to scoop water out of a sinking boat rather than investing $100 today alone to fix the hole in the boat.
Doing and spending less in the short-term to solve problems like poverty costs us more in the long-term. But it also leaves room for those lazy, greedy people to take advantage of the inefficient, ineffective and short-sighted system. And by making the general public more skeptical, people want to put even less resources towards scooping water out of the sinking boat than we do now and even more unwilling to invest the big money now to fix the hole entirely.
In other posts, I have pointed out the fundamental, inherent flaws of government spending. I also wrote in my last blog post, “Ideally speaking, I see a society in which nobody suffers from poverty, where people don’t go hungry and homeless down the street from an overstocked grocery store and a vacant house. In that ideal society, neither taxes nor government spending would be needed.”
The less poverty we have, the less anti-poverty campaigns we have for lazy people to misappropriate. The less poverty, the less anti-poverty government spending.
So we can almost all agree that we need to reduce poverty as much as possible and ideally eradicate poverty entirely. We need to invest in doing that. To do that we need to change the methods we use to be more cost effective in the long run rather than the short run. We need to make sure the resources of anti-poverty campaigns and programs help those truly in need help themselves. And we need to NOT let those other greedy, lazy people misuse, misdirect and misappropriate resources and scare the general public into reducing the funding, efficiency and effectiveness of anti-poverty campaigns.
Please discuss the above blog post in this thread at the Philosophy of Politics Forum.