There are only two possible reasons that humans live in poverty: either we are unable to eradicate it, or we collectively choose to allow it. Today it is clearly the latter, we have the means to abolish poverty, but we choose not to. The global GDP per capita is now over $11,000 and the world bank estimates that a person needs $700 a year ($1.90 per day) to survive. Meaning, it takes just 6 percent of human output to ensure that every single person has their basic needs met. Despite this, over 700 million people (half of whom are children) live in absolute poverty.
Living in poverty is not romantic, it is not fun, and it is not rewarding. It means a life of hunger, loss, and pain. So why, if we have the ability to end this suffering, do we choose not to?
I don’t ask that question as someone who has the answer, or survey data to present. I ask it is as someone who is completely unable to empathize with those who are actively against taking measures to end poverty or more commonly those who do not ever think about the global poor. Making the world a better place, particularly for the poor, consumes me, and I’m unable to comprehend how people live their lives uncaring or unconscious to the suffering of others.
But I think trying to understand is an important task, because if we are going to end poverty, then we are going to have to persuade more people that we should. And in order to change people’s minds, we must understand their current mindset. Below, I examine some of the reasons why people allow others to suffer and provide a few short rebuttals.
“Not my problem” — The most blunt explanation for why people allow others to live in poverty is that they simply do not care about them. This may be due to pure selfishness, racism, or a medley of the two. These people are the most difficult to convince to take action, you cannot persuade them with data or statistics. They are simply not good people.
“I worked hard for my money” — Some will imply that they do not give because they “worked hard for their money” and thus deserve to spend it on themselves. Beyond this mentality showing a warped idea of deservedness, it also fundamentally misinterprets our current economic reality. Even domestically, our mobility rates are abysmal but across borders they are almost certainly much, much worse. The truth is that a person’s wealth is almost completely a function of where and when they were born.
Can’t/don’t know how — Others may believe that charities are unable to actually help the world’s poor and that donations are eaten up by overhead costs or corruption. While this claim may be true for some organizations, there are many charities that do immense good. In fact, there is an entire movement dedicated to finding the charities that do the most good with their donations, effective altruism.
If you need help finding the most effective charities, check out GiveWell which provides detailed ratings on the per dollar impact of charitable organizations. My personal favorite is GiveDirectly which simply wires your donation directly to poor families.
Beyond personal donations, we also have a pretty good idea of policy changes that would drastically reduce poverty. The most simple are higher taxes to support direct cash transfers and abolishing restrictions on immigration. People who truly want to end suffering caused by poverty should be advocates for higher taxes and open borders.
The default setting — Probably the most common reason that people allow the world’s poor to suffer is that they never think about them. People build barriers in their head so that they never have to justify selfish actions to themselves or others. It appears that these barriers are the default setting for those of us in rich nations. We’ve created borders of many kinds to keep the poor out of sight and out of mind.
Still, no matter how closed our circles we have all been presented with information that shows us that many people still lack their basic necessities. We should be determined to rewire our brains beyond the status quo and intentionally consider and help the global poor.
A look in the mirror
Perhaps I could learn even more about our inhibitions by reflecting within. While I certainly do more than most, I do not do the most that I can. In 2020 my post-tax earnings were about $45,000. I donated roughly $5,000, leaving me with $40,000 to myself. I could save less money, cut food costs, live in cheaper housing, even pick up a second job, and donate much more to the effective charities. I could also have more uncomfortable conversations with those around me about how and why they should be doing more. It’s easy to write this blog post, but it’s harder to say it face to face.
So why don’t I do these things?
I don’t believe that it is “not my problem” or that I “worked hard for my money.” I know exactly how to donate and which charities are the most effective. I do not operate unconsciously and I am constantly thinking about the world’s poor. To me, that only leaves some other type of selfishness or naivety. I think I have partially convinced myself that I can have a greater impact on the world by gaining more power and having a multiplier effect. For example, part of my savings are reserved for a possible election campaign. I have convinced myself that I could win public office and make systems level change. But if I’m honest with myself, these actions probably come more from my own personal desires than an expected value equation. Humans seem to be extremely good at lying to ourselves, and I am no exception.
However, even these lies don’t work all the way down. Choosing to get Chipotle for dinner doesn’t increase my chances of changing the world, it just means that I have $10 less to give to a person that needs it. I have written before about the anxiety I feel about the proper amount to give. I have settled on a minimum of 10% of my income a year. But I know I should do more.
There is a part of me that cannot help but see this as a collective action problem, none of us would have to do that much if we all did a little. If the OECD countries used just 5% of their GNP towards foreign aid they would have a collective $6 trillion, enough to provide every person on Earth with a basic income of $770, and completely eliminate absolute poverty. More targeted spending approaches could send even larger lump sums to the poor.
You could then raise the question beyond the individual level and ask, why do nations allow the global poor to suffer? But to ask the question in this manner would allow individuals to punt and escape responsibility. Every OECD nation is some form of a democracy. If the majority of us cared enough to elect leaders pushing for more foreign aid and immigration — then we could end poverty. The burden falls on us.
I guess I didn’t really provide a great answer to the question in the title and I do not have anything conclusive to say. Maybe someday I’ll be able to update this post with some survey data. But for now I’ll just end with a reminder that there are 700 million people (that’s more than twice the population of the US) that do not have the income to meet their most basic human needs. We can each lift a few of them above the line. It’s time to end poverty.