"Poverty" – In Need Of A Few Distinctions

You can't measure wealth by cash alone

One of the articles in Exploring Our Interconnectedness (IC#34)
Originally published in Winter 1993 on page 6
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Many in the West misjudge our planet’s diverse peoples by comparing them with northern European and North American cultures. The following excerpt from the October-December 1992 issue of Edges, published by the Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs, points to the often-overlooked quality of life in communities that have kept their distance from the commodity economy.

I could have kicked myself afterwards. Yet my remark had seemed the most natural thing on Earth at the time. It was six months after Mexico City’s catastrophic earthquake in 1985 and I had spent the whole day walking around Tepito, a dilapidated quarter inhabited by ordinary people but threatened by land speculators. I had expected ruins and resignation, decay and squalor, but the visit had made me think again: there was a proud neighborly spirit, vigorous building activity, and a flourishing shadow economy. [For more on Tepito, see IC #30].

But at the end of the day the remark slipped out: "It’s all very well but, when it comes down to it, these people are still terribly poor."

Promptly, one of my companions stiffened: "No somos pobres, somos Tepitanos!" (We are not poor people, we are Tepitans).

What a reprimand! I had to admit to myself in embarrassment that, quite involuntarily, the cliches of development philosophy had triggered my reaction.

"Poverty" on a global scale was discovered after World War II. Whenever "poverty" was mentioned at all in the documents of the 1940s and 1950s, it took the form of a measurement of per-capita income whose significance rested on the fact that it lay ridiculously far below the US standard.

Once the scale of incomes had been established, such different worlds as those of the Zapotec people of Mexico, the Tuareg of North Africa, and the Rajasthani of India could be classed together; a comparison to the "rich" nations demanded relegating them to a position of almost immeasurable inferiority. In this way, "poverty" was used to define whole peoples, not according to what they are and want to be, but according to what they lack.

This approach provided a justification for intervention; wherever low income is the problem the only answer would be "economic development." There was no mention of the idea that poverty might also result from oppression and thus demand liberation. Or that a culture of sufficiency might be essential for long-term survival. Or even less that a culture might direct its energies toward spheres other than economic ones.

Binary divisions, such as healthy/ill, normal/abnormal, or, more pertinently, rich/poor, are like steamrollers of the mind; they level a multiform world, flattening out that which does not fit. That approach also fails to distinguish between frugality, destitution, and scarcity.

Frugality is a mark of cultures free from the frenzy of accumulation. In these cultures, the necessities of everyday life are mostly gained through subsistence production. To our eyes, these people have rather meager possessions – maybe a hut and some pots and a special Sunday outfit – with money playing only a marginal role.

Instead of cash wealth, everyone usually has access to fields, rivers, and woods, while kinship and community duties guarantee services that elsewhere must be paid for in hard cash. Nobody goes hungry.

In a traditional Mexican village, for example, the private accumulation of wealth results in social ostracism – prestige is gained precisely by spending even small profits on good deeds for the community. Such a lifestyle only turns into demeaning "poverty" when under the pressure of an "accumulating" society.

Destitution, on the other hand, becomes rampant as soon as frugality is deprived of its foundation – community ties, land, forest, and water.

Scarcity derives from modernized poverty. It affects mostly urban groups caught up in the money economy as workers and consumers whose spending power is so low that they fall by the wayside. Their capacity to achieve through their own efforts gradually fades, while at the same time their desires, fuelled by glimpses of high society, spiral toward infinity. This scissor-like effect of want is what characterizes modern poverty.

Until now, development politicians have viewed "poverty" as the problem and "growth" as the solution. They have not yet admitted that they have been largely working with a concept of poverty fashioned by the experience of commodity-based need in the North. With the less well-off Homo economicus in mind, they have encouraged growth and often produced destitution by bringing multifarious cultures of frugality to ruin. The culture of growth can only be erected on the ruins of frugality, and so destitution and dependence on commodities are its price.

In societies that are not built on the compulsion to amass material wealth, economic activity is not geared to slick zippy output. Rather, economic activities – like choosing an occupation, cultivating the land, or exchanging goods – are understood as ways of enacting that particular social drama in which members of a community see themselves as the actors. The economy is closely bound up with life, but it does not stamp its rule and rhythms on the rest of society. Only in the West does the economy dictate the drama and everyone’s role in it.

It seems my friend from Tepito knew of this when he refused to be labelled "poor." His honor was at stake, his pride too; he clung to his Tepito form of sufficiency, perhaps sensing that without it there loomed only destitution or never-ending scarcity.