Poverty in America! Ha! They have 50″ plasma TV screens, iphones, the internet, air-conditioning, and most have such an abundance of food that they’re obese!”
This is more-or-less the argument I’ve heard occasionally concerning poor people in America. Often this argument is made by conservatives or libertarians, and they typically mean no harm. In fact, I don’t find it offensive at all. I don’t think poor people should either. They simply mean it to come across that while it might be true that there are plenty of people relatively poor in America, comparing to abject poverty (also called absolute poverty) that one would find in Indian, Africa, etc., American poor people don’t have it so bad.
And their statements are absolutely true. Poor people in America are rich, relatively speaking. The icon of the burger-toting poor American is familiar to us all (as illustrated in the comic below). Whereas the starving fly-covered Ethiopian boy remains the antithetical trope.
As pointed out by Robert Rector, a prominent authority of poverty, welfare programs and immigration in America , these”poor” Americans have it quite good for the following reasons:
“Consider these facts taken from various government reports:
- Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, at the beginning of the War on Poverty, only about 12 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
- Nearly three-quarters have a car or truck; 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.
- Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television.
- Half have a personal computer; one in seven has two or more computers.
- More than half of poor families with children have a video game system such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
- Forty-three percent have Internet access.
- Forty percent have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV.
- A quarter have a digital video recorder system such as a TIVO.”
These are the living conditions which show that compared to the poor in third world countries, Americans are not so poor after all.
Sometimes the comparison isn’t just lateral between nations. Often people compare time periods. They say things like “we have never had it better than we do today”. And it seems to be true. The GDP per capita of all nations has been on the rise throughout the decades.
An inventor/futurist, Ray Kurzweil, has been famously quoted as saying “A kid in Africa has access to more information than the president of the United States did 15 years ago.” (CNN). And knowledge is power, right?
This compare the-present-to-the-past method is also very true. Scale the time period that your comparing back even further and you have more stark results (e.g. 1800s to 2000s). Indeed, we’ve never had it better.
Though unoffensive to my ears, this position is a poor one to take when the logic is put under the lens. Both the lateral example and chronological example, while true, are unconvincing. I’ll explain why.
Lets get the chronological comparison argument out of the way first.
- We Will Always Never Have it Better
Assuming humanity doesn’t wipe itself out or nuke itself back to the Bronze Age, as technology progresses the present will always be the best time to live in. It has always been so. And as mentioned above, the greater the distance between two time periods, the more extreme the relative quality of life appears. Some might say, well wait, what about comparing World War I or II Europe, or even medieval Europe when the bubonic plague was rampant to, lets say, a more peaceful period like the Pax Romana era. Isn’t the past sometimes easier on the average person? Perhaps that is the case when comparing certain time periods and regions. But I think the overall trend is that it is getting easier on the average person.
This is due to technology and the ever increasing accumulation of knowledge, called the Ratchet Effect, as discussed in a previous post- Dual Inheritance Theory: Cultural and Biological Evolution Combined. All new knowledge is technology.
One could imagine that even a generational difference of a Neolithic tribe could have produced meaningful technological differences that aids the newer generations. Think of a new mushroom that a young girls discovers upon foraging that ever after the tribe now consumes. Although a small technological feat, the know-how to identify said mushroom (etc. physical features, location, etc.) is potential enough to make the tribe sustain itself more easily. This knowledge passed on ensures future generations will benefit as well, adding another food source to the cornucopia. Thus a newer generation can have it better than the last from mere fungi.
As long as humans have been intelligent enough for the Ratchet Effect to take place, this has always been so. New technology will always ease up the load on succeeding generations.
So it makes no sense to compare with the past. Of course it appears we have it better now. And if one does want to compare, what is the appropriate time gap? 5 years? 15 years? 30 years? 1000 years?
2. Happiness is Relative to Those Around You
But what about comparing laterally in the same time period? Isn’t it fair to compare poor people in Kenya with Canada in 2016?
Well, if it seems odd to compare poor with today and poor with 100 years ago, shouldn’t the same hold for different countries?
Just as deciding what’s the appropriate chronological distance to compare lifestyle quality of the poor/rich class is difficult, so too is deciding what countries to compare. Is it fairer to compare poor people of industrialized countries with each other? Separately, we could compare developing countries?
This approach is favorable, however even comparing countries of the same economic or industrial bracket has its problems. Different cultures (e.g. USA vs. UAE), different economic systems (e.g. USA versus Denmark), and different histories between nations all make a high potential to skew the results.
The only solution seems to be comparing poor within a nation. And even then–regions, cities, and provinces/states, with their own cost of living, cultures, and average salaries could have differing standards of living. For instance, take making $10 an hour in Missouri to making $10 in California. Obviously, though getting paid the same, the hourly rate gets you farther in Missouri.
The problem with comparing poverty (relative or absolute) is that human psychology works in a way that we only truly care about those around us.
What if I told you that there is an alien race called the Pleiadians which enjoy advanced technology that we can’t imagine which puts their entire existence on another much higher plane? Their lifestyle makes us look like poor scrounging rats. Would you care? Unlikely, though we’d be curious about said technology and culture.
How about a more realistic scenario. Johnny Depp reportedly made 30 million dollars to make The Pirates of the Carribbean. Do we care? Not a chance because for most people Hollywood actors are in another world.
Now lets say that three of your closest friends have just reached phenomenal success. One became a University Professor at Cambridge, the other played the stocks and made 3 million dollars in two days, and the last friend’s newly published book just reached the New York Time’s Best Seller list. Meanwhile you are stuck at your menial job pushing papers or something. Would you care? Most likely, yes. While most people would likely be happy for their friends, there would most certainly at least be a tinge of jealousy. Even if you were completely comfortable with your lifestyle and making more than enough to live on, the people in your life, with their newfound success, gives you a feeling of relative poverty.
Human psychology works in a way that people don’t give a shit about Hollywood stars making millions of dollars, but if oour friend or family member happened to make a million bucks, we would care. Proximity of wealth comparisons is the key. People in our immediate surroundings or network will be measured against oneself.
That is why most don’t care or react much to abject poverty, war, and disasters that happen in far away places.
This is a useful evolutionary adaptation if you think about it. Does caring more about a distant people who either are wealthy or poor do you individually any good?
3. Equilibrium of Happiness
Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, makes a cogent argument about how hard it is to measure wealth’s effect on human happiness, and happiness itself, for that matter. I’ll try to summarize. (And if you’d like more details, check out Harari’s article here or check out the book.)
Essentially, what he argues (as it pertains to this discussion), is that although wealth and humanity’s overall standard of living is increasing, it may not have any real bearing on humanity’s level of happiness. This is because all humans’ experience of happy moments or contentedness eventually returns to a base equilibrium once the happy moment has passed. As anyone knows after getting a promotion or receiving some present, we are happy but for a fleeting moment until our base neutral level state of mind returns.
Thus any achievement of human “prosperity” that has ever occurred, either macro or micro, human beings’ state of mind goes back to its base and is the reason for our insatiability of always wanting more.
The controversially question then is whether this applies to those who are in abject poverty. When basic needs are not being met, does the “happiness meter” fluctuate the same?
I believe it does. Imagine that the whole world had the living standards of the worst third world conditions you can think of. Would humans not have the same pendulum movement of happiness that we do now. Just as being rich doesn’t give you everlasting happiness, neither would having poor living conditions give you everlasting unhappiness. Just as in ages past infanticide and a short life expectancy was commonplace and thought of as matter-of-fact, so too would any vile living conditions we could think of be considered as matter-of-course.
Now add in a neighbor that is visibly living easier and you have a problem. The jealousy of perceived betterment is the real issue.
Thus the reason its a poor argument to compare fat Americans that have a car, cable TV, the internet, and an Xbox to fly-ridden, starving Ethiopian that lives in a straw hut is because it doesn’t take into account the homeostasis of happiness and our psychology to measure our self-worth with those closest to us.
What it ultimately comes down to is ‘dignity’. If the poor of America or Africa feels that they lack dignity in their communities, then tensions will arise. And this is what ought to be compared, albeit certainly a challenge to measure.
Interestingly, in Europe a term is used which does address dignity, called social exclusion.
Levitas et al. in their report The Multi-dimensional Analysis of Social Exclusion define social exclusion as such:
“Social exclusion is a complex and multi-dimensional process. It involves the lack or denial of resources, rights, goods and services, and the inability to participate in the normal relationships and activities, available to the majority of people in a society, whether in economic, social, cultural or political arenas. It affects both the quality of life of individuals and the equity and cohesion of society as a whole.”
However social exclusion could be measured, or accurately determined, in any set community ought to be what addressed in the poverty debate.
BUT, and this is a big BUT, this is changing due to greater inter-connectivity. Due to greater ability to travel and the internet, humans are increasingly able to compare themselves with each other over vast distances. Although just hearing or reading about inequality does little to move the masses, if personal relationships form between the haves and the have-nots (or especially if national borders were to cease to exist one day), it seems likely that comparing poor between third world and first world countries would rise and perhaps become a more legitimate argument. Still, technology would have to get to the point where we could not only experience reality (via VR or something) in another community, but also allow for seamless social and business interactions to flourish to the same extent that the physical community around currently does. Only then would comparing our virtual community with our own living conditions make any sense. Though that future may not be too far away.