May 30, 2024

Why is it so hard to escape poverty? - Ann-Helén Bay



Published May 15, 2023, 1:20 p.m. by Jerald Waisoki


Why is it so hard to escape poverty?

It's no secret that poverty is a major problem in the world today. According to the World Bank, about 10 percent of the world's population lives in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.90 a day.

There are a number of factors that contribute to poverty, including conflict, natural disasters, and low incomes. But one of the biggest obstacles to escaping poverty is culture.

Culture plays a significant role in shaping people's attitudes and beliefs about poverty. In many cultures, poverty is seen as a personal failing or a punishment from God. This can lead to a feeling of hopelessness and resignation, which can prevent people from taking the steps necessary to improve their situation.

In addition, culture can also create barriers to social mobility. In societies where poverty is seen as a stigma, people who are born into poverty often have little chance of moving up in the world. This lack of mobility perpetuates poverty, as it becomes harder for people to break out of the cycle of poverty.

So, what can be done to address the role of culture in poverty?

One way to start is by changing the way we talk about poverty. Instead of using language that reinforces negative stereotypes, we can use language that empathizes with those who are struggling. We can also work to create more inclusive societies, where everyone has a fair chance to succeed.

Ultimately, culture plays a powerful role in shaping our beliefs and attitudes about poverty. By raising awareness about the role of culture in poverty, we can start to create the changes that are necessary to break the cycle of poverty and build a more just and equitable world.

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Imagine that you’ve been unemployed and seeking work for months.

Government benefit programs have helped you cover rent, utilities, and food,

but you're barely getting by.

Finally, you hear back about a job application.

You receive your first paycheck in months, and things seem to be turning around.

But there’s a catch.

Your new job pays just enough to disqualify you from the benefit programs,

and not enough to cover the same costs.

To make things worse, you have to pay for transportation to work,

and childcare while you’re at the office.

Somehow, you have less money now than when you were unemployed.

Economists call this demoralizing situation the welfare trap—

one of the many different poverty traps affecting millions of people

around the world.

Poverty traps are economic and environmental circumstances

that reinforce themselves, perpetuating poverty for generations.

Some poverty traps are tied to an individual’s circumstances,

like a lack of access to healthy food or education.

Others can affect entire nations,

such as cycles of corrupt government or climate change.

But the cruel irony of welfare traps in particular

is that they stem from the very policies designed to battle poverty.

Most societies throughout history employed some strategies

to help people in poverty meet basic needs.

Before the 20th century, religious groups and private charities

often led such initiatives.

Today, these are called welfare programs,

and they usually take the form of government-provided subsidies

for housing, food, energy, and healthcare.

Typically, these programs are means-tested,

meaning that only people who fall below a certain income level

are eligible for benefits.

This policy is designed to ensure aid goes to those who need it most.

But it also means people lose access as soon as they earn more

than the qualification threshold,

regardless of whether or not they're financially stable enough to stay there.

This vicious cycle is harmful to both those in poverty and those outside of it.

Mainstream economic models assume people are rational actors

who weigh the cost and benefits of their options

and choose the most advantageous path forward.

If those in poverty know they'll gain no net benefit from working,

they're incentivized to remain in government assistance.

Of course, people work for many reasons,

including societal norms and personal values.

But income is a major incentive to pursuing employment.

And when less people take on new jobs, the economy slows down,

keeping people in poverty

and potentially pushing people on the cusp of poverty over the edge.

Some have suggested this feedback loop could be removed

by eliminating government assistance programs altogether.

But most agree the solution is neither realistic nor humane.

So how can we redesign benefits in a way that doesn't penalize people for working?

Many countries have tried different ways to circumvent this problem.

Some allow people to continue receiving benefits for a given period

after finding a job,

while others phase out benefits gradually as income increases.

These policies still remove some financial incentive to work,

but the risk of a welfare trap is lower.

Other governments provide benefits like education, childcare, or medical care

equally across all their citizens.

One proposed solution takes this idea of universal benefits even further.

A universal basic income would provide a fixed benefit to all members of society,

regardless of wealth or employment status.

This is the only known policy that could entirely remove welfare traps,

since any earned wages would supplement the benefit rather than replace it.

In fact, by creating a stable income floor below which no one can fall,

basic income might prevent people from falling into poverty in the first place.

Numerous economists and thinkers

have championed this idea since the 18th century.

But for now, universal basic income remains largely hypothetical.

Although it's been tried in some places on a limited scale,

these local experiments don’t tell us much about how the policy

would play out across an entire nation— or a planet.

Whatever strategy governments pursue,

solving the welfare trap requires respecting people’s agency and autonomy.

Only by empowering individuals to create long-term change

in their lives and communities

can we begin to break the cycle of poverty.

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