Enlightened Capitalism

Essays about how to harness people's natural desire to create wealth and improve their quality of life to solve global problems such as war and poverty.

Monday, January 03, 2005

The paradox of poor people in rich countries

For the past century we have been faced with an odd paradox.

There is enough wealth in the world to afford every person a decent standard of living right now, and enough energy to distribute the goods and information to where it is needed. Furthermore, there is widespread agreement, particularly among the wealthy, that no person should be deprived of a decent standard of living.

And yet, even in the richest and most politically liberated countries, there are still millions of people lacking basic necessities.

I am sure every reader has puzzled over this dilemma at some point in their life. When we think of the desparately poor in third world countries, most of us conclude that politics and oppression are to blame. Corrupt governments are keeping the poor down, and preventing outsiders from helping. But what about in rich countries?

Many feel that poor people are themselves to blame; after all, plenty of them do eventually succeed through discipline and hard work. Many of them raise their standard of living and move up, even becoming rich or middle class. So perhaps the ones left behind are simply lazy, unmotivated, or addicted to drugs. There certainly do exist people who are poor by choice. And there are some who are mentally or physically impaired.

However, in my experience in low income, high crime neighborhoods, I have also met and worked with healthy people who are truly victims of circumstance. I hate to use the word "victim", but in this case it truly describes what is going on. I DON'T MEAN they aren't responsible for their situation and life. My point is that many of them are indeed hard working and motivated, and that isn't always enough.

Their quality of life remains unacceptable, in spite of their efforts. What is missing is the coordination of their efforts with their surroundings to produce a higher quality of life. You might call this "adapting to one's environment", or "blooming where you are planted". The fact is, very few people will bloom just anywhere. All of us (relatively) rich and successful people were nurtured, guided, educated, assisted, supported, and protected by well meaning people, on thousands of occasions throughout our lives, and it's difficult to say what would've happened if we had missed out on any or all of that support. Some of us might have committed suicide, others might have ended up in prison, others might have died in accidents or caught some deadly disease.

The fact is, we depend on a certain fit between ourselves and our environment in order to thrive. Just consider the rate at which we leave home. Why do we not remain where we were born? Clearly because we find another environment more suitable for raising our personal quality of life, whether that means lower rent, a better job, more privacy, better weather, whatever. For one person (e.g. my father, the engineer) moving to Los Angeles was a dream come true, for another (e.g. my brother, the poet), moving AWAY from Southern California was the ultimate liberation. Each of them was introduced to a place they liked better than where they were, allowing them to raise their quality of life simply by moving.

Now, what does this have to do with our paradox? Well, the reason there is still poverty in rich countries, after decades of unprecedented philanthropy, is that the philanthropists have failed to fully acknowledge that people come in a variety of flavors. There are some who simply need to be taught to read, and they will earn a PhD on their own at the public library. There are others who only need to be taught to sew, and they will design clothes that are worn by the stars. But how many charitable organisations actually study how best to raise the quality of life of each individual they serve? Would they have recommended that my father move to Los Angeles?

There are some (rich and poor) who will become alcoholics after their first beer, and others with alcoholic parents and drug dealer neighbors who remain clean and sober.

This is not due solely to strength of will. I enjoy having a bowl full of candy on my desk, eating one piece each day. Most of the people I have lived and worked with cannot do this (and with some of them I have to hide the candy or I don't get any). Whereas, I have great difficulty forcing myself to write appointments in my calendar, while others don't seem to mind this. We each have our strengths and weaknesses, and we each succeed and fail in different circumstances.

The key to making an entire group of people, such as the residents of a low income, high crime neighborhood, more successful, is to change the circumstances such that a larger variety of quality of life enhancing opportunities exist. Just how we can do that will be the subject of my next post.


  • At 9:15 am, Blogger tanja said…


    This is an outstanding article and highlights the need for differentiated instruction; as it is termed in education circles. Your key point that resources are not "scare" but scarcely applied is, in my opinion, excellently applied and supported.

    The 21st century is demonstrating new methods of education and communication. Your "enlightented" use of these mediums is contributing to an improvement in understanding for "capitalists." I will certainly keep these ideas in the forefront as I contribute to others in the effort of educating our youth.

    With much appreciation for your writing style, experience and insight.

  • At 12:22 pm, Blogger Jerry said…

    How about posting your number of hits so that we can see how your blog is doing?

  • At 8:34 pm, Blogger kudjoe said…

    poor people in rich countries.....I feel like a lot of things would change if people in general just started to make a small shift in their thinking and decision-making. The root of the ailment in the business world, as in most others, is the divisive and self-preserving way of thinking. I can see that the problems of the world can largely be solved, or begin to be solved, if peopel start thinking that "what's good for me is good for others," and vice versa. But, how do we inspire that change in people? How do we teach that another's true success IS our success?


Post a Comment

<< Home