20 July 2009

Poverty, Choice and Responsibility

[Jenius Thanks to Janine Mendes-Franco for picking up two of My posts, including one by request-for-review. I'm always honored to be selected for Global Voices Online.]

Many people in the States don't "get" poverty. They don't "grok" its impact. Not on the economy, but on the individual. These folks tend to think of poverty as "laziness" or "freeloading," depending on how close they are on the political spectrum to "brain-dead Republican."

Many people here don't "get" poverty either, but We have far more examples to deal with--relatively--what with a lower income per capita than Statesiders. So along comes an article that literally spells out examples of the high cost of poverty.

Take food, for example. By being poor, living in low-cost housing in a dilapidated urban center or semi-isolated outskirt and possibly without a car, you pay more for food because you're buying in smaller "convenience" stores rather than in supermarkets.

Washing clothes? When you're poor, you can't afford a washer, you end up paying more for washing clothes at a laundromat, where you also pay for drying them. Too poor for a bank account? Pay fees to get checks cashed or to pay bills. Too poor for credit? Forget car loans to help you move around more easily and mortgages to take you away from the run-down or far-off parts of town.

Now in the senile fashion of Reaganites who think the poor would be better off if they had more money, many folks see the problems of the poor as solely one of money. But as the article points out, it is also one of time. Time to get from home to work and back without a car, waiting for buses that run off schedule. Time to provide for services that others get in the comfort of their home: clean clothes, paying bills by phone, mail or Web, deliveries.

And the cumulative effect of all this is a burden on the emotions. Being poor sucks and it sucks at your will and soul. To be working hard and still be poor is even more damning, as it shreds your pride and dignity for avoiding handouts while running on a treadmill of despair.

Now I agree that a lot of poor people--a high percentage of them--CAN overcome poverty. It isn't easy, the bar is set high (higher than for middle-class, certainly), but it isn't impossible. At least in the U.S. of part of A. it is easier than, say, Burkina Faso. (Or not. Depends on how legal and moral your path up and out of poverty may be.)

In any case, poverty is a system than can be defeated. What seems odd is that those who wish to profit from the poor do so by strengthening the system instead of making it useless or irrelevant, For example, payday loans that used to be 800+% a year interest instead of 24%. (See the article, page 3.) Once the system changed from 806% to 24%, almost all the payday loan places closed. Why? Isn't 24% profit enough? 

Where's the payday loan at 10%? Hell, banks trumpet a 3% interest on your savings as if it were gold bricks heaved into your pocket, so wouldn't a 10% interest rate be a better option than just saving your money? Risk? Of course there's risk: some people might not be able to pay you back. But managing risk to secure profit is not rocket science, it's business.

Yes, it is easier to become part of the system rather than buck it, but it comes down to the choice of whether you want profit no matter what or profit that also benefits others. Call it by its new moniker: corporate social responsibility. Corporations are hurtling dizzily to embrace that trend to remake themselves from "profiteers" to "pioneers," however, are they rushing at the poor with similar zeal? Grameen Bank centered its lending policies on low-interest microloans to poor people, some as small as $10, and look at what they have accomplished: A worldwide banking profit leader and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Uh-huh, you say, Microloans in the Third World. Over here it's a whole different ballgame, Jenius. Oh really? Allow Me to coin a phrase (pun intended): Put your money where your mouth is. Has any bank, or any company for that matter, actually tried to provide Our poor with that most precious of commodities: options?  That is what Grameen Bank did and that is what the article says is the true chain that weighs down the poor: the lack of options.

Coming up with options for the poor is demostrably good business. For those who say that helping poor people is bad business because you are simply reducing your customer base, I have two responses: until We evolve into a higher species, there will always be poor people and Grameen Bank.

And I'll toss in one more, free of charge: anyone can launch a Grameen Bank. Think about it... and you'll know how right I am. Again.

The Jenius Has Spoken.

No comments: