Friday, June 3, 2011

Destitution Beyond the Numbers

"America’s poorest are, as a group, about as rich as India’s richest," according to an article posted by Sharon Secor — The Haves and the Have-Nots. Ms. Secor speaking of "[t]he utterly divorced from global reality American definition of poverty," writes, "How we define poverty here in the US is at best insensitive, at worst insulting, to those who truly do endure poverty -- those who watch their children starve to death before their very eyes, whose children die of illnesses that could be treated with medications costing a mere handful of pocket change."

She has a very valid point, but is missing something.

Dorothy Day was careful to make distinctions between traditional, rural poverty and modern, urban destitution, as did Ivan Illich. "Modernized poverty," he said in Toward a History of Needs, "appears when the intensity of market dependence reaches a certain threshold" and "deprives those affected by it of their freedom and power to act autonomously, to live creatively; it confines them to survival through being plugged into market relations."

What we now have is the globalization of this modern, urban poverty.

Theodore Dalrymple, who "first started thinking about poverty... as a doctor during the early eighties in the Gilbert Islands," expressed some similar thoughts in his article Sympathy Deformed. "Much of the population still lived outside the money economy, and the per-capita GDP was therefore extremely low," he notes. "It did not seem to me, however, that the people were very poor. Their traditional way of life afforded them what anthropologists call a generous subsistence; their coconuts, fish, and taros gave them an adequate—and, in some respects, elegant—living."

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