Poverty 101

A lot of my professional career has been spent in dealing with the problems of poor people. Indeed for most of my life prior to graduating from university, I shared a practical solidarity with the poor by being one of them. My parents were working class people, who migrated to this country because quite simply, there was nothing for them to eat at home. So when I speak of poverty I feel that I can make statements safely and with some authority, I therefore propose a taxonomy of poverty.

Firstly: the nature of poverty.

There is absolute poverty; this is quite simply not having enough to eat or drink, lacking a roof over your head, clothes to cover yourself with and the like. This is the nature of poverty in third world countries.

Relative poverty; this is quite simply not having as much as the man next door. It used to be called by the old name of envy, though in these politically correct times it could mean living in a society with a high Gini coefficient. This forms the bulk of poverty in modern western countries.

The causes of poverty.

Resource deprivation: This is when one has lack of access to resources to alleviate their predicament. This can happen through theft, denial of work,lack of capital or income. Poverty of this kind is alleviated by directing resources to the deprived. Most kind hearted people feel that the way to fix poverty is through resource access.

This however poses problems, because by and far in Western countries the biggest cause of poverty is:

Resource misallocation: This is where resources are available but are used in ways that maintain relative deprivation. Charity directed towards the poor of this type, tends to buy them little luxuries, which once used, leave the individual in the same state that they were in before. Poverty of this kind is only temporarily ameliorated, it is never cured at all.

It is this-- resource misallocation—type of poverty, that forms the bulk of the Western World's poor. It is indeed the most fascinating type of poverty. I have as one of my patients, a person who won more than $600,000 in the local lottery, and who after two years, and orgy of consumption, is back on social security. Indeed, it seems to be a reasonably common phenomenon. Approximately one third of lottery winners are in the same predicament as my patient. Now if a one off gratuity of $600,000 cannot relieve poverty, how much will?

Rude behaviour

Over coffee this morning, my wife asked if people interrupt their consultations with me when their mobile phone rings. She had been reading an article in the paper about the general level of rudeness in society. She was quite aghast when I replied that it happens all of the time. Most people excuse themselves before answering the phone, however a significant bulk don’t, expecting me to stop the consultation so that they can carry on with their personal life: In a nutshell they are rude.

The point of the newspaper article was that there is a growing problem of rudeness in society, a point which I totally agree with. Rudeness if considered is really a lack of consideration to others. Whereas tolerance aims to put up with disagreeable behaviors, courtesy aims to make one tolerable. In other words, courtesy is an effort to please society.

However pleasing society otherwise known as social conformity has been under cultural attack in the West for most of the last century. Amongst our “creative types” the escape from social conformity has been the hallmark of personal maturity and growth in authenticity of the person. Hollywood and most contemporary literature idolises the rebel and scorns the conformist.

So is it any surprise then that people who have been conditioned to do their own thing without regard to others, do. Also as we keep being reminded standards are arbitrary and who are we to impose standards on others? Good modern multicultural man is tolerant.

In our current society we have reached a situation where we have a synergy between broad tolerance and self assertion which I believe is contributing to the expansion of boorish and rude behaviour. Whereas previously this behaviour was confined to the lower classes--with the better behaved affluent, insulating themselves by postcode and employment type-- now, through the rising level of affluence, these people are increasingly coming in contact with each other.

What this means for the genteel is that their interaction with society is less pleasant. While I do not think that there will be a “war” between the classes on this matter life will become rather less pleasant. The rude and the obnoxious abound.