The Poor Will Always Be With Us

Service to an address by Dr. Rob Watts, Melbourne Unitarian Church, April 18, 2010

Opening Words

From a letter to "The Age"

One can have a great deal of sympathy for Michael Perusco ("Bible bashing the homeless, Abbott style"). When asking Tony Abbot whether he'd join the Prime Minister's goal of halving homelessness by 2020, Tony Abbot responded that he would not, using a biblical quote "The poor will always be with us" and claiming that there is little a government can do for people who choose to be homeless.

Tony Abbot we can presume have never been homeless himself, but perhaps he would care to ask some of them about their 'choice'. After he has done this perhaps he would actually care to re-read the biblical quote of which he is so fond. The full quote is "The poor will always have with you, but you will not always have me" (Matt 26:11). Jesus made the remark indicating a practical and earthly task that will remain whilst prophecising his own forthcoming death. Sadly, this message seems to have been lost on the opposition leader who evidently prefers a less caring divinity.

Reading

From Rev. Martin Luther King's last book "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?"

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils: lack of education restricting job opportunities; poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative; fragile family relationships which distorted personality development. The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development. Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy. Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions. Family assistance stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies. At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing -- they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective -- the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income....

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.

We have come to the point where we must make the nonproducer a consumer or we will find ourselves drowning in a sea of consumer goods. We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution. Though there have been increases in purchasing power, they have lagged behind increases in production....

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay...

Beyond these advantages, a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

Closing Words

The main empirical results ... are: 1) Global poverty rates decline between 1970 and 2006. This is true for poverty lines ranging from $1/day to $10/day. 2) Global poverty counts decline between 1970 and 2006 for poverty lines from $1/day to $3/day. The total number of poor people has declined by more than 617 million if we use the $1/day line and by more than 780 million if we use the $2/day line. For higher poverty lines, poverty counts increased during the early years but are all declining by 2006. 3) Global income inequality has fallen between 1970 and 2006. This is true for theGini coefficient, for a wide variety of Atkinson indexes and General Entropy indexes as well as the 90th-to-10th and the 75th-to-25th percentile ratios.

NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH, PARAMETRIC ESTIMATIONS OF THE WORLD DISTRIBUTION OF INCOME, 2009