There are proven ways to end poverty. We just have to give people a chance.
Five years ago, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, set a goal to end extreme poverty around the world by 2030. You may be thinking that’s nice, but not doable. But maybe it is possible.
I’m not saying that it will happen, but that it is within the world’s power to make it happen. The number of people living in extreme poverty, for instance, is half what it was in 1990. It’s certainly within the power of this country to give most of our citizens a reasonable shot at a secure life.
We are going to have the poor with us always, unless we start seeing poverty as a result of societal, economic and policy choices that support inequality. If we changed how we see poverty, those of us who aren’t poor might move on from either feeling sorry for people in poverty, or blaming them entirely for their circumstance.
We’d be more effective at solving a problem whose impact is always present.
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What’s on the agenda this election season in fast-growing, wealthy Seattle? Homelessness, income inequality, unequal opportunities for education, housing affordability.
Yes, some people will make poor choices. Yes, some people lack initiative. But those individual failings don’t explain poverty or growing inequality on a large scale.
Give people a chance to improve their circumstances and most will do just that.
I was inspired by a presentation I attended in July about poverty that included a discussion of BRAC, a Bangladesh-based organization that fights poverty in several countries. BRAC was founded by Sir Fazle Abed, who achieved success by breaking many of the rules established by governments and by older nonprofit organizations. Kim and Abed spoke together at the annual conference of the anti-poverty group RESULTS in Washington, D.C., in July.
BRAC started in the early 1970s working with the poorest of villagers and using trial and error to find what helped them improve their lives.
The organization targeted women, believing they’d do the most for their families. It gave them money, or sometimes a cow or other investment to help them start producing income. It also gave them a small stipend so they could meet their basic needs while they developed a business.
It added some training to the mix. Later, it saw how families were set back by illness. Many were set back by outbreaks of tuberculosis, so it found volunteers to go door to door asking if anyone was coughing. If TB was found in testing, BRAC made families pay a small amount for medicine and returned the money if the family took the required doses.
BRAC supports families for two years and has moved millions out of poverty, spending a minimum amount of money. Now it operates in 14 countries doing the same work.
At the RESULTS conference, Kim, an American pediatrician, said that the year he was born in South Korea, the World Bank was wary of giving development loans to that country, saying it was too poor to ever pay them back. South Korea has been successful beyond expectations, and so has Kim, a co-founder of Partners in Health and former president of Dartmouth University. Kim is committed to the belief that no people should be written off because they live in poverty.
He’s been working with the University of Washington to measure the well-being of people in every country. His hope is that the measurement will encourage countries to do better by their residents, and that includes the United States.
In this country, poor health, inadequate education, stagnating wages at the low end of the economy, fines and court fees that disproportionately affect the low-income and regressive tax systems are among the many factors that combine to perpetuate, or even cause, poverty. It’s not extreme poverty, but it negatively affects millions of American lives.
The president and the House of Representatives have proposed budgets that would cut programs like SNAP, which provides food assistance, that support low-income families.
Policy choices, not some law of nature, keeps poverty alive. Citizens have the right and the moral obligation to challenge those choices and advocate for better ones.