Poor to Broke: Rethinking poverty solutions

As Mike Todd famously said, “I’ve never been poor, only broke. Being poor is a frame of mind. Being broke is only a temporary situation” This is the place we want to reach. We can’t kill poverty. Get everyone rich, and among them, someone will still be poor. Poverty is relative, but we can stop it overwhelming large swathes of the country.

We have tried doing it the numbers way – where we get an idea of what people are earning, and evaluate their poverty accordingly, and try to fix those numbers. We done that for decades, and I think it is safe to say it is not working. To my mind, it can’t work. It can’t work because poverty is an experience, not a quantity.

When I was a nomad, there have been times when I was out of contact of civilization for days on end. At times, months. Simple rations were easily available on barter, horses ate grass that was free, and I didn’t have money, and I wasn’t poor. I earn a lot more money now. Far more. I am nowhere near the statistic of poverty. But I FEEL poor now, because my expenses outrun my income.

There is no number that can describe this adequately. And then many other factors come into play. How many members in the house? How many earning members? How many kids? How many people with expensive illness/disability? etc. There is no realistic way to get numbers that will reflect all this and still remain comprehensible. It is also unnecessary to quantify experience.

Some may argue, that it gives an idea of what people can afford. But, in reality, it doesn’t. A person earning a lot of money per month, but not giving it at home for the rest of the family to be able to eat blows this theory out of the water. A person with a modest field, cow and a kitchen garden has very few grocery bills. This household will not only run, but save money on the famous Rs.32/- per head or even half of that. A person bartering a goat for two months worth groceries may be poor on paper, but will eat like a king. On the other hand, a person earning relatively decent salary – say the government’s recommended daily wages for at least 20 days a month – may starve if he has a family to feed, travel to and fro for job, etc. A middle class home can be reduced to devastating poverty with the earning member suffering a prolonged illness requiring hospitalization and dying, and this is part of the reality of India.

Clearly, it is futile to understand human experience through numbers.

I think a more practical/experiential approach can serve us better. The idea is not to worry so much about the numbers, or fixing them for people as it is to create systems that will enable people to fix their own problems as per their needs. I am a great believer in systems. An excellent system will function far more reliably than a thousand honest people.

In essence, the government will have to take a more people oriented approach. More research, more psychology, more surveys, more … people. Presenting two ideas, but I dare say once this train of thought is triggered, there will be an avalanche of ideas. It isnt’ rocket science.

Is it time we looked to create opportunities for people to fix their own problems rather than quantifying according to some imposed standard, or addressing solutions to these imposed numbers rather than people’s immediate necessities.

Sponsorship/adoption matching

An example that comes to mind would be forming some system for urban entities like business organizations, educational institutions or individual philanthropists to adopt or sponsor rural entities – villages, individuals, specific activities… and help them achieve a more satisfying existence. In whatever way seems necessary and within the capacity of the assisting entity. Whether it is sponsoring computers for local school, or devising ways to promote agricultural experiences as educational tourism.

Social research would be needed to device effective solutions. But I think we are getting too stuck with numbers and too blind to individuals and their needs.

A method could be devised by way of which entities that can offer assistance on something to another entity can be matched with entities needing help on something. This doesn’t need to be a red tape monument. Not even documents should be needed. In fact, nothing beyond contact information ought to be needed.

This can actually get highly effective aid addressing the problems directly and ending them comprehensively by engaging the strengths of the country and directing them toward the needs, rather than some vague improvement in numbers or dependence on some scheme that costs a lot to the government and helps corrupt middlemen more than people in need.

Psychological interventions

Poverty is a state of mind. When I was dead broke, people still called me ‘madam’ and always addressed me with respect. Not because I was in any way superior, but because I didn’t come across as poor, even when my broke status was public knowledge. I had my education, my skills, and I kept expanding the horizons that would push forward, even while battling others trying to cage me in. I was not poor, I was merely broke – a temporary condition.

It is a matter of self respect and believing that you are not worthless without money. This is important for far more important reasons than silly numbers world powers obsess over. It is important because it prevents one big way of dehumanization and prevents far more serious problems than poverty – problems ranging to Domestic violence to communal conflict. Dignity matters.

Today’s poor are psychological orphans in a country that is an intellectual colony of the west. They simply are not in the loop, and national things are so distant from their reality that they don’t feel hope of eventually being in the groove either. That is big time helplessness.

Some ways this integration can be achieved:

  • Using more indigenous sources for education. The very easiest is literature. We have loads of excellent writers. No reason education can’t comprise of texts from them. At least at a basic level. There is absolutely no harm in kids not knowing international literature till an age it becomes relevant to them.
  • Dignity of labor. We have reduced it to a phrase. Our text books and curriculums fail to incorporate it. An average train driver earns way more than the surplus science graduates struggling to find jobs. Yet, such jobs are never spoken of as possibilities that can be pursued. They are stuff that people do when they can’t get the jobs of ‘merit’. Which is bull shit. When textbooks, curriculums, teachers, media, govt speak of farmers, cobblers, shepherds, etc with as much pride as they do about nuclear scientists, those people no longer remain second class citizens. And yeah, there is a lot of pride in being a good cobbler. Remember the last time your shoe gave you a blister? Every freaking person in the country wears (or should wear) footwear. Every person eats. These providers are at least as respectable as mobile service providers, if not more.
  • Media coverage. There shouldn’t be people in the country whose troubles are not worth reporting. Putting it bluntly. If media organizations cannot accomplish this, they should be categorized as metro media rather than national media. That will create space for truly national media to evolve, which will help far more than poverty levels.
  • Government respect. Notice I am not saying attention. Attention happens even now after significant people die, or people burn things or stop trains. Attention should happen on asking. There shouldn’t be a need for forcing attention from elected representatives. Listening when spoken to indicates that the person speaking matters. This is big empowerment for the poor.

Economic initiatives

The usual suspects. Keep them. It will keep the blood pressures of conservative folks, the west and the UN under control, and as a part of the whole, they will enrich the country. Though they must not be depended on solely. Things like subsidies, poverty line statistics, guaranteed employment schemes, etc are all good. I am not commenting on them, because plenty of good ideas in action, plenty of good ideas suggested already.

Many of these solutions aren’t only helpful for poverty. They have other advantages – be it information, national integration, job opportunities… that is because well being doesn’t happen in compartments. It is all interlinked. Rethinking agriculture related policies and subsidies, improving health care, developing industries and earning opportunities in rural areas… all these end up empowering people and presenting arrays of choices, which get rid of helplessness.

You get the idea – make people experience the abundance of resources at their disposal, the sense that they matter, respect them, and let them loose. Trust them to use these to fix needs they know intimately and we can only guess.

The idea is that if every problem has a solution possible, then poor is merely broke.

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