Sunday, December 26, 2010

Poverty: What It Is and How to End It

On the first day of January, Arizona will join 16 other states that have a higher minimum-wage levels than federal law requires. The purpose of Arizona’s 10-cent increase is commendable: to raise the average income of many of the lowest wage earners in the state. But, as usual, the result will be incomplete and the goal--to ease the rate of poverty in the state--will remain elusive.

In the first place, not every worker is covered by the minimum-wage law. Many people with developmental disabilities work for charitable organizations funded by government subsidies and/or government contracts. These groups aren’t required to pay disabled people a living wage in exchange for semi-skilled labor. Also exempt are people who receive tips, such as many hotel and restaurant employees.

And even though wages are set to go up for many low-income workers, the prices of many goods and services make it impossible for a family of any size to subsist on a minimum-wage income. Even those few extra dollars each week will barely make a ripple in the great need so many families face today.

So, how do we solve the problem of poverty? How can the current economy produce enough well-paying jobs so that workers and their families won’t have to struggle just to pay for the basics, let alone enjoy any of the extras that provide them with some small measure of choice in their lives and their futures?

The best way to answer that question is to define the condition of poverty. Thus, the important question:

What is poverty?

The Oxford American Dictionary (Avon Books, 1980) defines poverty as:

  1. being poor; great lack of money or resources.
  2. scarcity; lack.

My personal definition of poverty is more to the point:

Poverty is a lack of access to one or more of the basic goods or services necessary to enjoy a dignified existence.

In the first chapter of my book, The World I Imagine: A creative manual for ending poverty and building peace, I explain the difference between needs and wants. I also include a short list of many of the basic goods and services required for a decent life. Sadly, millions of people in this country and billions around the world spend their entire lives in this condition of need, with little or no hope of ever being able to change or improve their situation in life.

I remember hearing the term “war on poverty” when I was a young woman. President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the term in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. The rest of the ‘60s was marked by a concentrated effort to improve the lives of many people who’d previously been ignored by both public and private economic programs.

Unfortunately, the clash of economics and politics created a system that has spawned a class of multi-generational dependents who seem to have lost hope of ever breaking the cycle of poverty. That’s why I published my essay collection on the issue in The World I Imagine.

Throughout that book, I explain innovative ways in which we can develop and implement creative ideas for educating and training everyone to the extent of their abilities and interests, then match them to the various jobs that need to be done to run a successful economic system. Then, of course, the powers-that-be must ensure that all the basic goods and services necessary for a dignified existence cost no more than half the amount that the lowest-paid full-time worker is able to earn. That will ensure that no one lives in a state of poverty, and everyone will have a bit more than just the basics and, thus, at least a small measure of choice in their lives.

In fact, in a later essay, which I plan to include in my next book, I explain that if we can tackle the twin issues of providing universal education and universal employment, then we’ll have the means necessary to solve all the rest of the problems our society faces at this dangerous time in world history.

Most importantly, we must be ready to develop new and creative ways of managing resources, always keeping firmly in mind the vital goal of ending poverty as an acceptable social policy.

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