Saturday, February 19, 2011

Poverty and Obstacles

It is human nature to be able to work — but if this is the case, where does poverty come from?

At the risk of generalizing, poverty is the result of obstacles. If poverty persists in a community, it can only be the result of institutional obstacles — because personal obstacles would not affect an entire community over any period of time.

I’ve tended to focus on the connection between official corruption and poverty. You don’t find impoverished cities in the United States, for example, without finding that important figures in the local government are allowing their work to be affected by bribes or personal interest, or diverting the public wealth in one way or another. But it doesn’t particularly matter what the obstacle is. If you combine enough obstacles, any combination of obstacles can put a person in, or at least close to, a state of poverty.

Cultural assumptions are another important source of institutional obstacles that can affect a community all at once. If you think about it, official corruption couldn’t take root unless there was a culture to support it, with maxims such as “go along to get along” and “You can’t fight city hall.” Folklore about the nature of work and value can influence the material success of everyone in a place who buys into the local story. It is fair to guess that culture has become an obstacle in any town where dissidents and outcasts tend to be doing better financially than community leaders, or where the people who leave town are more prosperous after a decade or two than those who stay.

I don’t mean to sidestep the issue of personal obstacles, either. Illness, lack of skill, or a pattern of being angry about work can easily make one person less successful than another. At the same time, it is a mistake to look too hard for personal obstacles when it is obvious that the real obstacles are the ones that affect an entire community. You can always find flaws in a person. The more prosperous and successful a person is, the more legendary their flaws are. Telling people who are having difficulty achieving success to go look in the mirror is sometimes the right answer, but sometimes it is a way to distract whole groups of people from the corrupt institutions that are profiting at their expense.