Why isn't poverty history yet?

Sunday 21 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Conservatory

The issue of world poverty was once dominated by number-crunching development economists and worthy aid organisations, but in recent years the likes of Bono and Bob Geldof have made it a sexy subject. In July 2005, hundreds of actors, musicians and celebrities performed at ‘Live 8’ concerts around the world in order to hold the G8 to UN Millennium Development Goal 1.A - a commitment to halve the number of people living on less than $1 a day by 2015. So what happened to ‘Make Poverty History’? China has reduced its population in poverty from 452m to 278m. China, Brazil, and South Africa are now aid givers. But sub-Saharan Africa has made barely any progress. Adrian Lovett, director of the anti-poverty movement One, fears it may become even more difficult as money that could be going to Africa is poured into European bank bailouts. Poverty ‘over there’ may be less of a worry than poverty ‘over here’.

In the UK, child poverty is said to affect one in three children, one of the highest rates in the developed world. In the US, where the poverty level is set at a yearly income of $23,050 for a family of four, 12.2 per cent of Americans lived in poverty in 2000, and 15.1 per cent in 2011. The majority of Americans can expect to spend at least one year of their lives below the poverty line. Shocking images of Americans living in tent cities, even storm drains, have become familiar. While this is of course shocking, some detect a certain schadenfreude about what happens when a society commits itself to the bottom line of material advancement. Should we care about those who try but don’t make it anywhere? And is it fair to expect much interest in global poverty when some feel charity begins at home?

Poverty is relative, as indicated by the different definition in the West. And some feel inequality is the real injustice, that the poor are condemned to stay poor because the rich have pulled the ladders of social mobility up behind them, with CEOs paid hundreds of times more than the immigrant labourers cleaning their toilets. Would we make a real step towards abolishing poverty if we ironed out the differences between people first, and created a fairer society rather than worrying about creating a richer society? And is putting the spotlight on the very poorest people in the world something of a luxury for the relatively well-off in the developed world, too far-sighted to notice the poverty on their doorsteps? Or is it a moral imperative for us all if we are to create a truly equal world? Is concern for poverty, at home or abroad, just liberal hand-wringing? Can poverty ever be history?

Daniel Ben-Ami
journalist and author, Ferraris for All: in defence of economic progress and Cowardly Capitalism

Brian Hill
film director, Century Films; director, Drinking for England, Feltham Sings, forthcoming Storyville 'Why Poverty?' documentary Welcome to the World

Jonathan Portes
principle research fellow National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR); senior fellow, UK in a Changing Europe; author, 50 Capitalism Ideas You Really Need to Know

Para Mullan
senior project manager, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; FCIPD

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Para Mullan senior project manager, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; FCIPD
Recommended readings
Rule of law can rid the world of poverty

Poverty is on the retreat. Despite the global economic downturn, the World Bank and UN reported this year that the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped in every region of the world for the first time since record keeping began. Though progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals has been uneven, we should be heartened that we have already reached, three years before the target date of 2015, the first of these eight goals.

George Soros and Fazle Hasan Abed, Financial Times, 26 September 2012

For the Marxists ye have with you always

Capitalism was supposed to destroy the middle class, leaving a tiny clique of oligarchs ruling over a vast proletariat. In fact, capitalism has enlarged the bourgeoisie wherever it has been practised.

Daniel Hannan, Daily Telegraph, 11 August 2012

Millennium Development Goals Report 2012

The report presents the yearly assessment of global progress towards the MDGs, highlighting several milestones – three important MDG targets have been met well ahead of the target date of 2015. The report says that meeting the remaining targets, while challenging, remain possible – but only if Governments do not waiver from their commitments made over a decade ago.

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2 July 2012

Rethinking Child Poverty

This short paper argues that the current measure of child poverty is inadequate. It fails to acknowledge that poverty is about much more than a lack of income

Centre for Social Justice, 12 May 2012

Poverty and Inequality

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National Institute Economic Review, 1 November 2011

3D Poverty

“Poverty and social exclusion mean much more than low income…”

Sonia Sodha and William Bradley, Demos, 2010

Uneven progress of UN Millennium Development Goals

The truth is that poverty has fallen, but progress has been uneven, and most of the goals are off-target to meet the deadline.

BBC News, 20 September 2010

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