New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Poverty Is a Lie

June 09, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, David Swanson, Economy, Politics

Why Aren’t We ‘Raising Hell’ for Sustainability, Peace, and Prosperity?

by David Swanson

Yes, yes, poverty exists, just as war does, and the two feed off each other.  When I titled a book War Is A Lie I meant that the justifications offered for wars were false and that the idea that we must always have wars is false.  Our government doesn’t market new poverty campaigns in the same way it does wars.  It markets campaigns to dismantle healthcare and pension systems or to eliminate foreign aid or to restrict organizing rights.  But our culture pushes the false notion that poverty must always be with us.

The fact is that our nation and our world are capable of environmental sustainability, peace, and the eradication of poverty.  We’ve spent a decade racing headlong away from these goals in response to dramatic crimes that killed 3,000 people.  The fact that 10,000 people have died from perfectly preventable causes in Africa alone every single day for those 10 years somehow gets lost in our self-obsessed, short-sighted, fear-driven, greed-excusing, corporate communications system.


A good book to read on poverty in the land of the unequal and the home of the pompous is Ending Poverty As We Know It: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage, by William P. Quigley (2003).  Quigley says there are 30 million people here working full-time but earning poverty wages, plus another 15 million out of work or working part-time who want to work full-time.  Of course, unemployment has increased of late.  Wages have not.

Overwhelmingly, Americans believe that anyone who wants to work should have the chance, and anyone who works full-time should earn enough to be self-supporting.  Quigley proposes amending the U.S. Constitution to establish that pair of rights, and he lays out how those rights could be enforced to the advantage of us all.

One problem with this scheme is the extent to which our government nonchalantly ignores the Constitution.  We don’t just need a better Constitution, we also need it to be enforced.  A second problem is that Quigley writes as if the Constitution must be amended through Congress, whereas it could also be amended through the states and a Constitutional Convention (concon).  (There’s an upcoming conference on the subject.)

Quigley’s book is particularly great on the encouraging strains in US tradition and the near-successes of the past, including the Employment Act of 1946 which nearly established the right to work (meaning the right to work and not the lack of the right to a union as established by so-called “right to work” laws in the states).  The Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 came close to establishing the right to work for a living wage.


A useful book to read on global poverty, especially extreme poverty of a sort not seen in wealthy countries, is The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, by Jeffrey Sachs (2005).  At least the second half of it I can wholeheartedly recommend.  The first three or four chapters are economic theory seemingly devoid of awareness that the wealthy world exploits the poor, and of awareness that the natural environment is in trouble — trouble often caused by population growth and prosperity.  Sachs suggests that once extreme poverty is overcome, a rise to greater and greater prosperity is quite easy.  He even seems oblivious to negative trends in health, wealth, and well-being in his own country, the United States.  He credits geography and technology for the success of wealthy nations, as if that eliminates the possibility that wealthy nations exploit the poor, and then claims that the poor nations can succeed by following the same path, regardless of geography and regardless of the natural environment.  He focuses on England to depict a golden age before World War I, while for much of the world it was no such thing.  He denounces as racism the idea that smart (or at least clever) decisions in England created the industrial revolution, but is perfectly willing to blame the third world’s bad decisions for its poverty.  He blames restrictions on trade for any damage, but never blames the importation of low-priced products.  Outsourcing is good.  The environmental and human and cultural costs of shipping stuff around the planet goes unconsidered.

But start the book in the middle and it’s a valuable resource with a few debatable flaws.  More than that, it’s a powerful and illuminating first-hand account of efforts  — some of them quite successful — to alleviate human suffering on a major scale.  Sachs’ stories of his role in economic planning in Bolivia, Poland, Russia, China, India, and Africa are extremely instructive.  What George Soros did in Poland providing fax machines, copiers, and other resources to nonviolent rebels and reformers is a lesson in how we should relate to the Arab Spring, in contrast to the militarized approach of the U.S. government.  The concrete lessons Sachs recounts establish the need to eliminate foreign debt, cease imposing destructive economic policies, and avoid wars.  The collapse of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars were avoidable and predictable results of failing to learn these lessons, Sachs suggests.  When it comes to concrete cases, Sachs blames all the forces he dismisses or avoids in his opening chapters.  Thankfully, it’s as if he didn’t read them himself.  Importantly, Sachs establishes with extensive evidence that poverty in Africa and Asia is not the result of political corruption that prevents donated funds from reaching their intended recipients.  Instead, poverty is the result of insufficient funds being donated.

In his closing chapters, Sachs lays out a plan to eliminate extreme poverty in a period of 20 years, which he says can be done for what we have already committed to investing but have not invested: 0.7% of GNP.  We spend about 7.0% of GNP on the military and wars.  We’ve lost another mammoth chunk to the Bush-Obama tax cuts for millionaires.  We could eliminate global poverty while comfortably eliminating U.S. poverty without feeling any pinch, and while strengthening our own economy and improving our lives. We could do so in the environmentally sustainable manner that feeds the second half of Sachs’ book.

I understand why our government doesn’t do so.  I don’t understand why we can’t find the decency to raise hell about it.

David Swanson is the author of War Is A Lie and Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union. He blogs at and, where this article originally appeared.

0 Comments to “Poverty Is a Lie”

  1. Having accepted that poverty is the norm in our world, and that 10.5 million $millionaires form a wealthy plutocracy that controls our world, the next step is to realise that this means that 6.8 billion people are relatively poor, of which 5.5 billion people are absolutely poor. What a tribute to 500 years of capitalist enterprise!
    The assurances offered by Sachs as to how easy it will be to alleviate poverty and safeguard the continuance of free market capitalism are not to be taken seriously.
    For example, once the 1.3 billion poor Chinese begin to demand the benefits of the economic expansion directed by the People’s Republic, the global economic and political situation will change radically. Once the 1.2 billion poor in India call a halt to the luxury of the ‘maharajahs’, there will be revolutionary changes.
    What is more, when the global poor majority realise that the living standards enjoyed by the ‘developed world’ are not for them simply because all the resources have already been consumed, and there is no drinking water available, no fuel oil, no coal, they will not be pleased!
    We have to work out what to do to alleviate poverty while promoting no growth, no exploitation, sustainable agriculture, steady state economy, social businesses, cooperative societies.

    go to……chapter on Development.


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