Fri | Dec 2, 2016

Poverty and the myopic view

Published:Thursday | October 2, 2014 | 12:00 AM

It's frightening to think that despite the wealth of information available at our fingertips, so many educated Jamaicans are of the view that poverty alleviation is possible if the thousands who are poor have ambition, work hard and are determined to succeed. Forget about the critical role of the state where human, social and economic development is concerned.

Many supposedly hard-working people are so empowered to postulate this ludicrous notion because, according to them, they dreamt big and worked hard. Ha! What's even more dangerous is those who once lived in poverty or in a poor community helping to perpetuate this narrow-minded perspective and misguided solution, when the most difficult thing some of them have done is to stand at the altar to say 'I do'.

The idea that people are poor because they do not work hard enough is an absurd one. You don't get rich by just working hard without the means to realise your full potential. I don't deny hard work is crucial to success but we must agree and appreciate it is not the panacea. People cannot rid themselves of poverty without the right opportunities and support public and private sector.

An understanding of poverty is imperative to rid ourselves of this myopic view. The UN Economic and Social Council (2001) describes poverty as a "human condition characterised by the sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security, and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights". Therefore, as the World Bank explains, poor people are unable to provide shelter; they are sick and unable to purchase medicine, they lack the power to negotiate, they are without a job and their children don't attend school (and where they do, it is irregular and thereby affects the quality of their output).

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner for Economics, in his book, Development As Freedom, and Peter Uvin, in his book, On High Moral Ground: The Incorporation of Human Rights by Development Enterprise, argue that we should be concerned (as the end and means of development) with "the expansion of capabilities or substantive human freedoms for each person". Sen posits that each person, rich or poor, has "the capacity to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value" but must be facilitated by the necessary institutions and social arrangements needed to provide them with (equal) opportunities for their advancement. This is based on the idea that "despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers perhaps even the majority of people".

Thankfully, the Government understands its obligation in this regard and has been creating opportunities and instituting social-protection initiatives such as PATH for the poor to have greater access and improve their livelihood. Another important consideration in the discourse on poverty alleviation is inequality. Notably, the initiatives around gender equality and women's participation in decision making are important in this regard. Likewise, the reintegration of teen mothers in the education system, as Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller highlighted on Tuesday, September 30 at an IMF Seminar.

Another important consideration where poverty is concerned is inequality. In Europe, for example, according to The European Anti-Poverty Network, "the least unequal societies ... tend to have the lowest levels of poverty. This is primarily because these governments choose to give priority to ensuring adequate minimum income levels and ensuring good access to services, through the social protection system and through guaranteeing minimum wage levels. They are usually the most effective at redistributing wealth through the tax and other systems".

It is evident, therefore, that the institutions of the state must provide people with equitable access to resources and opportunities for self-determination. Governments must ensure "the removal of major factors that limit freedom" (Sen) such as poverty, poor economic opportunities, and systematic social deprivation.

We desperately need to stop pretending people are poor because they don't work hard. If we are honest, we can agree that people who are poor do not have the same opportunities as those of us in the middle or upper class. If hard work and ambition is really what gets people out of poverty, then Downtown would be one of the most economically prosperous places in Jamaica and hardworking young Jamaicans like me could easily afford a house.

I encourage you to challenge yourself, as painful as it might be, to unlearn what you have been prejudicially led to believe about people who are living in poverty. Poor Jamaicans are some of the most hard-working people I know. If you don't believe me, just ask your rich friends who hire them as helps.

Let's use our collective power to ensure the Government provides real opportunities for economic empowerment and self-determination for the poor.

Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.