Poverty: A Causal Definition

What is poverty, real poverty? —and by that I don’t mean a description, but its essence, its cause.

Any on-line search of «types of poverty» will throw a significant amount of descriptive definitions: urban, rural, nutritional, patrimonial, structural, chronic, recent, relative, absolute and more. This is a sign of interest. Poverty is obviously a top concern nowadays.

In examining poverty, defining it, classifying it and describing it there is an implicit recognition, that of believing that wealth is possible. The more we know about poverty, it is correctly assumed, the better equipped we´ll be to improve the lives of many people provided that we can come up sound and lasting solutions.

The contribution I wish to make to the cure of poverty is a simple one, to propose a «causal definition of poverty» —not a description, not a new classification, but a definition conducive to substantial and practical solutions.

This is the causal definition I propose:

Poverty is an undesirable situation, possible to cure, that affects individual persons who have a very low probability of satisfying their needs using means and resources earned or created by themselves.

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This definition contains the following elements that, I believe, point in the direction of a solution:

• Poverty is an undesirable situation —it is not an acceptable condition. Moreover, it creates a legitimate concern to resolve it. It provokes those reactions so familiar to Christians, compassion, mercy, generosity and, in general, charitable actions. We should help the poor, those in need. And this responsibility falls into those who have the means and resources to help the poor.

• Poverty is a curable situation —this is the explicit recognition that we have the knowledge, the ability, the means and talent to find satisfactory solutions, albeit within our own human imperfection. Moreover, history has shown that it is possible to remedy poverty —the last two centuries have shown indubitably that it is possible to prosper and reduce poverty.

• Poverty is a personal situation — it affects individuals, not groups. It is an undesirable and remediable situation, suffered by individuals who can be grouped for study purposes in one or more categories, but at the risk of loosing the specificity of the concrete situation of each person and his or her family. This personal specificity is a vital consideration to the solution.

• Poverty is the low or null personal ability to satisfy needs, specially basic needs, by the person himself or herself —such as food, housing, health, education, and others. It is a matter of low personal competence, ability or capacity, only possible to be correctly understood on an individual basis.

• Poverty is caused by the inability of the person to autonomously generate means to satisfy those basic needs —the key point of the proposed definition, understanding poverty as something that is a consequence of the lack of personal power to earn the means needed to meet those needs. Poverty is a consequence, a symptom. The problem is this personal condition of inability.

This is the heart of the causal definition that I propose, that of being a personal and individual situation caused by the lack of skills, talents, and capacities of a concrete person to produce the means that may translate in an income that will serve to satisfy al least a minimal set of personal needs.

It is on this last element —the core of the proposed definition— that I want to elaborate a little more.

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If what causes poverty is the individual inability to generate means to solve such undesirable situation, it will be helpful to consider that these means may have two origins, the external and the internal.

Poverty can be mitigated with external means that the person does not generate personally — these are the works of charity, the handouts and assistance that others give so that the needs of the poor person can be met, including welfare programs. They are admirable actions, full of good intentions, and they solve some immediate problems, but they do not address the root of the problem, which is the individual inability to generate enough means to satisfy those needs.

That is the external origin of the ways to remedy the situation of each poor person —the altruistic and charitable efforts of good people trying to help others in need and that are specially welcomed when urgent situations present themselves, i. e. floods, earthquakes. This is the Christian belief in good samaritans.

But there are also other means —internal sources to solve poverty. These are the ones created by the persons themselves, they are the central key to the solution. Internal sources that solve poverty and that, not surprisingly can be provided externally also, as a charitable action that will make the person capable of earning his o her own living.

Depending only on external sources that help the poor is a short-term remedy —unless it becomes a long-term series of handouts creating then an undeniable and undesirable dependency problem that doesn´t cure poverty.

But if the poor person becomes capable of autonomously producing resources that take him or her out of this condition, then the problem will have been solved —hopefully for a long time and without the dependency problem. This is the real and sound poverty cure.

Poverty, causally defined, is based on addressing the capacities of the poor person to develop his o her abilities sufficiently to autonomously produce the means required to satisfy the needs of the person and family —and hopefully even make him or her a creator of capital.

Recognizing that the real solution is in the internal personal resources, that is the personal capacity to generate resources to remedy the initial condition of poverty, now I point out some situations that have a direct bearing on the success or failure of personal efforts to overcome poverty.

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The most orthodox way to examine the capacity or inability to generate one’s own means indicates that its causes can be classified in two broad categories.

First, situations outside personal control —things like a civil war could alter personal circumstances with such intensity as to become a serious cause of poverty, or a society with no rule of law and no effective protection of personal rights, specially property rights; there is also corruption restraining personal initiatives with very high costs. These are external causes, outside of personal control and whose net effect is the severe limitation for the creation and development of personal abilities, and even blocking opportunities for those who do have the capacity to generate their own income.

But there are also personal causes, such as the lack of basic education that allows knowledge necessary for the development of simple jobs; or the health conditions that impede work; or personal attitudes such as laziness that hinder work effort. Plus, of course, some others.

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The central point, in this attempt at a causal definition of poverty, is to emphasize the individual aspect that underlines the personal capacities to generate income and create wealth. Understanding this, it can easily be concluded that there are three levels at which poverty can be combated successfully:

One. The creation and maintenance of a economic, political and social environment that facilitates and rewards personal efforts —in general, it is a stable environment with reasonable confidence in the future.

Two. The personal improvement of each poor person, considered individually, raising their human capital, that is, their ability to fend for themselves and be autonomous.

Three. The understanding that external aid to the poor is a temporary and not a basic remedy, which should focus on extreme cases of poverty.

In short, there is no poverty to be solved in general, there are poor persons who need to be helped individually, in order to be capable to solve their individual poverty by themselves.

Note from del editor

This is a free translation of a column published in 2009, in ContraPeso.info.


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