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Why Are They Poor?

There are ongoing debates over the causes of poverty, directly influencing the design and implementation of poverty-reduction programs that will be highlighted in Chapter 2, “Examining a Barrel of Current Solutions.” Most factors cited as contributing to poverty, however, are related to a few major categories: health, the environment, the economy, infrastructures, education, social factors, and family planning. Examples include the following:

  • Poor health that may be caused by lack of access to affordable health care, inadequate nutrition, low levels of physical activity, chronic diseases, clinical depression, substance abuse, lack of immunizations, and/or the spread of diseases such as AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.
  • Adverse environmental factors, including erosion leading to soil infertility, overgrazing, overplanting, deforestation, natural disasters, drought, water contamination, and climate change.
  • Hard economic conditions such as widespread unemployment, low wages, overspending, or economic failures of governments.
  • Lack of basic infrastructures and services such as roads, sewage treatment, water supply, and electricity.
  • Poor access to education or families keeping children from attending school because the children are needed to work on the farm or in other family businesses.
  • Strong social factors, including crime, domestic violence, wealth distribution, war, discrimination, gender inequities, and individual beliefs, actions, and choices.
  • Lack of family planning, sometimes reflecting lack of access to counseling and related services, and sometimes a result of religious or long-held cultural beliefs.

New forces operating in today’s world are further threatening food supplies, raising food costs, and deepening the suffering of poor people. Major negative forces include the following:

  • High energy prices. The world’s economies in the past ran on cheap oil. The price of a barrel of oil shot up to $140 in mid-2008, causing the transportation, food, and other costs to rise significantly. Oil prices subsequently fell to $45 a barrel, which reduced energy costs but hurt oil-rich countries such as Venezuela and others that depended on higher oil revenues, causing an increase in unemployment in those countries.
  • The rise of China. China’s spectacular economic growth has required huge purchases of the world’s steel, construction materials, food, and other items, causing their prices to rise significantly.
  • Biofuels. The conversion of much farmland to growing corn to be made into biofuels has raised the price of farmland and many food products.
  • Droughts. Long-lasting droughts in Australia, China, and other countries have significantly reduced the output of rice, causing rice prices to escalate, resulting in food shortages and riots in heavy rice-importing countries such as Haiti and Egypt.
  • Dietary changes. People in emerging countries that are experiencing high economic growth are increasing their meat consumption, which has increased the need for grain to feed cattle and pigs, thus moving food prices higher.
  • Global warming. Global warming tends to hurt food production in countries nearer to the equator by contributing to drought conditions.
  • Financial meltdown of 2008. The U.S. economy suddenly turned from strong to weak as a result of loose credit standards leading to overbuilt housing and falling prices where many mortgage holders could not make their monthly payments. Home prices plummeted, banks stopped lending, and major “iconic” companies—Lehman Brothers, AIG Insurance, Citicorp—dove into bankruptcy or bailouts. The U.S. problem spread to all other countries that held “junk” mortgages, and a new mood of cost-cutting rather than spending on the part of consumers and businesses led to a worldwide recession filled with factory closings, lost jobs, and increases in the number of the poor.

The impact of these forces on living costs, credit availability, and joblessness has deepened the level of poverty. In 2008, for example, food riots broke out in Bangladesh and Egypt and required military interventions in Asia. Even in the United States, food banks and soup kitchens reported a 20% increase in visitors, and the number of citizens enrolled in food stamp programs grew by 1.3 million.13

And then there is the vicious cycle of poverty. Unfortunately, poverty has a built-in tendency to persist for generations within the poor and their offspring. Every baby born into a poor family faces a higher-than-average chance of dying at birth or shortly thereafter due to inadequate health facilities and abominable living conditions. If the baby survives, he or she will be exposed to hunger, polluted water, diseases such as malaria and dysentery, and other serious risks. The child, if he survives, is likely to grow up with little adult supervision because of parents who work in the fields or who are too weak to work. The urban poor child will grow up in slum conditions. He will receive either minimal or no schooling. The child will more likely bond with peers as he grows into his teens, many of whom will form gangs for mutual protection. Some children will end up in beggary or burglary or drug pushing. Early sexual intercourse is likely, resulting in young girls getting pregnant because of little parental supervision or ignorance about birth control methods. These young girls then bring into the world their newborns, who have no better chance than their parents of escaping poverty.

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