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Poverty and Privilege: Background Information

Poverty Defined

The Causes of Poverty and the Search for Solutions

World Poverty, 2010
From Opposing Viewpoints in Context

Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times—times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation—that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.

—Nelson Mandela, Speech in Trafalgar Square (London, England), February 3, 2005

Poverty is a multidimensional human problem with many causes and contributing factors. It is experienced on every continent (except Antarctica, only because it does not have permanent human residents) and by all races. It is directly related to health, education, housing, political opportunities, and other issues. Likewise, poverty worsens people's social status and diminishes their involvement in their communities and in the larger sphere. These human development factors are critical to understanding poverty. They are also critical to solving the immense problem of poverty.


Many people throughout the world are in poverty because they are unemployed or underemployed and live in areas where economic opportunities are severely limited. Natural disasters, war, and other factors contribute to regional economic difficulties, but poor health and nutrition coupled with low education compound the cycle of poverty. The United Nations' (UN) International Labour Office (ILO) estimates in Global Employment Trends (January 2009,—-dgreports/—-dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_101461.pdf) that in 2008 there were approximately 190.2 million unemployed people in the world, an all-time high. (See Figure 2.1: Click here for the media record of Global unemployment trends, 1998-2008 .) The global unemployment rate in 2008 was 6%, which approximately equaled the unemployment rate of 2000 to 2002, but was higher than the rates of 1999 and 2003 to 2005. (The unemployment rate is the percentage of the labor force that actively seeks work but cannot find it.)

Figure 2.2: Click here for the media record of Global employment trends, 1998-2008 shows that the number of employed people rose to an all-time high in 2008 to approximately 3 billion, but increases in the world's working-age population (those aged 15 years and older) caused the employment-to-population ratio to fall to 61.2%. That is, approximately 61.2% of the working-age population of the world was employed in 2008.

The unemployed are not the only people who live in poverty, however. The working poor are those whose low earnings prevent them from lifting themselves and their families above the poverty threshold (either the international threshold of US $1.25 or US $2 per day or the national poverty threshold of their individual country). The ILO reports that in 2007 approximately 1.2 billion people were working but earning only $2 per day; of that group, 609.5 million were working and living on $1.25 per day. (See Table 1.1: Click here for the media record of Working poor indicators, 1997, 2002, and 2007 .)

These figures address a common misconception about poverty: that poor people do not work. Regional rates of unemployment further illustrate the falsity of this assumption because global unemployment rates are relatively low. The ILO indicates in Global Employment Trends that the unemployment rate in sub-Saharan Africa, the overall poorest region in the world, was 7.9% in 2008; in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, which contains some of the poorest and most populous countries in the world, the unemployment rate was 5.7%; and in Latin America and the Caribbean the rate was 7.3%. By comparison, the unemployment rate in developed economies and the European Union was 6.4% in 2008.

In A Profile of the Working Poor, 2007 (March 2009,, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines the working poor in the United States as those people who participate at least 27 weeks per year in the labor force, either working or actively looking for work, but still live below the U.S. poverty threshold. The U.S. poverty thresholds for 2008 are shown in Table 1.4: Click here for the media record of United States poverty thresholds, 2008 . The BLS notes that more than 7.5 million Americans were classified as working poor in 2007. (See Table 2.1: Click here for the media record of Poverty status of total persons, unrelated individuals, and primary families in the labor force for 27 weeks or more, United States, 2004-07 .)

Table 2.1: Click here for the media record of Poverty status of total persons, unrelated individuals, and primary families in the labor force for 27 weeks or more, United States, 2004-07 shows the poverty status of people in the labor force in the United States from 2004 to 2007. The category "total persons" means all the people in the labor force who worked 27 weeks or more during that year, regardless of their relationship to anyone else in the labor force. The category "unrelated individuals" means all the people in the labor force who were not living with relatives. "Primary families" include a "reference person" and all the people living in the household who are related to the reference person by birth, marriage, or adoption. Thus, many people in the primary family may work, but in this category the family is counted as a unit.

The 7.5 million people who were classified as working poor in 2007 made up 5.1% of the U.S. labor force. (See Table 2.1: Click here for the media record of Poverty status of total persons, unrelated individuals, and primary families in the labor force for 27 weeks or more, United States, 2004-07 .) This rate decreased from 5.6% in 2004. Figure 2.3: Click here for the media record of Poverty rates of persons in the labor force for 27 weeks or more, United States, 1987-2007 tracks working poor individuals across a longer period, from 1987 to 2007. The percentage of working poor individuals has risen and fallen over time, with the highest rate, 6.7%, registered in 1993, and the lowest rate, 4.7%, achieved in 2000.

Looking at the problem on the family level, 6.4% of working families were among the working poor in 2007. (See Table 2.1: Click here for the media record of Poverty status of total persons, unrelated individuals, and primary families in the labor force for 27 weeks or more, United States, 2004-07 .) Women are more likely than men to be classified among the working poor. In 2007, 4.6% of the working male population 16 years and older were living in poverty, whereas 5.8% of the working female population 16 years and older were living in poverty. (See Table 2.2: Click here for the media record of Poverty rate of persons in the labor force for 27 weeks or more by age, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, United States, 2007 .) Men 16 to 19 years of age were more likely to be members of the working poor than were older individuals. Women 20 to 24 years of age were more likely to be members of the working poor than were older individuals. Of young people of both sexes who worked in the labor force for 27 weeks or more in 2007, 10.2% of the 16- to 19-year-olds and 10.6% of the 20- to 24-year-olds were living in poverty. Workers aged 35 to 44 (5%) were less than half as likely as younger workers to be among the working poor, and workers 55 to 64 years old (2.6%) were about one-fourth as likely.

African-American and Hispanic workers were more likely to be in poverty in 2007 than were Asian-American and white workers of a comparable age. (See Table 2.2: Click here for the media record of Poverty rate of persons in the labor force for 27 weeks or more by age, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, United States, 2007 .) Asian-Americans aged 16 to 44 and 65 years and older were less likely to be members of the working poor than whites of the same age groups. Asian-Americans aged 45 to 64 were more likely to be members of the working poor than whites of the same age group. Among teenage workers, 17% of African-Americans and 14.9% of Hispanics were living in poverty, compared with 9.4% of whites and 9.2% of Asian-Americans.

In Profile of the Working Poor, the BLS explains that those having higher levels of education are much less likely to be a part of the working poor. Those most likely to be a part of the working poor were people with less than a high school education, whereas those least likely to be a part of the working poor were college graduates.

The Working Poor in the Informal Economy

The ILO reports in "Training and the Informal Economy" (2008, that many of the world's working poor are employed in the informal labor sector, or informal economy. The term informal economy refers to the exchange of goods and services outside of national and international regulatory guidelines, meaning that the people who work in the informal economy do not receive legal protection or employer-sponsored benefits and do not have official means by which to better their working situations. The ILO notes that the informal sector is the main type of employment in Latin American countries, where more than 53% of workers are a part of this sector.

Work in the informal economy is more common in developing than in developed countries, although informal labor does exist in wealthier countries, mostly in the form of self-employment and part-time and temporary work (the latter two are known as nonstandard wage employment). In the United States informal workers include casual laborers, as well as some employees with nonstandard pay arrangements, including those who work "under the table" (i.e., they are paid in cash). According to the ILO, in The Informal Economy (March 2007,, the formal segment of the economy in sub-Saharan Africa employs no more than 10% of the workforce. Thus, the rest of the working population in this developing region is employed in the informal economy. The ILO notes that "widespread underemployment and informality have therefore become structural characteristics of the developing countries' economies and not a peripheral problem that can be addressed in isolation from the mainstream development strategies. Curbing the spread of informality means first and foremost making employment a central concern of economic and social policies, promoting employment-friendly macroeconomic frameworks and making the productive sectors of the economy a priority target of poverty reduction strategies."

The ILO indicates that even though women have less of a presence in the overall labor force, they account for a greater percentage of informal workers. Children also make up a large proportion of the informal economy, especially in developing countries. The informal economy is not necessarily equated with the criminal economy, but children (most notably girls) working in informal employment are particularly vulnerable to the abuses and exploitation of unregulated work. Child laborers may end up being sold or tricked into the world of human trafficking, prostitution, slavery, and debt bondage. This kind of forced labor is found not only in developing countries but also in developed countries. (See Figure 2.4: Click here for the media record of Forced labor worldwide .)

Working conditions in the informal sector vary greatly. Some enterprises exist in the informal economy simply because they cannot afford to abide by the bureaucratic regulations of the formal economy, whereas others deliberately avoid providing their workers with even the most reasonable legal protections. Furthermore, working in the informal economy does not necessarily mean living in poverty or even earning low wages. Nonetheless, in Decent Work and the Transition to Formalization: Recent Trends, Policy Debates, and Good Practices (December 2008,, the ILO's Tripartite Interregional Symposium on the Informal Economy points out the following serious problems with the informal economy and suggests that countries must therefore work toward the formalization of their workforces:

  • Work in the informal economy is often characterized by small or undefined work places, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, low level of skills and productivity, low or irregular incomes, long working hours and lack of access to information, markets, finance, training and technology.
  • Workers in the informal economy are not recognized, registered, regulated or protected under labor legislation and social protection.
  • Workers and economic units in the informal economy are generally characterized by poverty leading to powerlessness, exclusion and vulnerability.
  • Most workers and economic units in the informal economy do not enjoy secure property rights, which does deprive them access to both capital and credit.
  • They have difficulty accessing the legal and judicial system to enforce contracts and have limited or no access to public infrastructure and benefits.
  • Women, young persons, migrants and all the workers are especially vulnerable to the most serious decent work deficits in the informal economy.

Poverty Defined, continued

Poverty, Education, and Literacy

As mentioned previously, the BLS describes in Profile of the Working Poor the inverse relationship between poverty and level of educational attainment: those with higher levels of educational attainment are less likely to be a part of the working poor, and those with lower levels of educational attainment are more likely to be a part of the working poor. In Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2006: Literacy for Life (2005,, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) names literacy as a basic human right and affirms its role in improving the human condition.

According to UNESCO, in Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2009: Overcoming Inequality—Why Governance Matters (2008,, an illiterate person is someone who cannot read or write a simple statement in his or her national language and understand it. Figure 2.5: Click here for the media record of Countries with the greatest numbers of illiterates age 15 and over, 2000-06 shows the countries with the greatest numbers of adult illiterates from 2000 to 2006. India and China, the leaders in the number of adult illiterates, also have large populations. However, comparing the gross national income (GNI; the total value produced within a country plus income from other countries minus payments made to other countries) per capita (per person) of the countries on this figure to countries not on this figure reveals a huge discrepancy in financial wealth. For example, the UN Children's Fund notes in "Information by Country and Programme" (2009, that the GNI per capita of Bangladesh, India, and China in 2007 was $470, $950, and $2,360, respectively. In comparison, the GNI per capita that same year for France, the United States, and Norway was $38,500, $46,040, and $76,450, respectively.

UNESCO notes that the number of illiterate people worldwide declined somewhat from 871.1 million adults in 1985-94 to 775.9 million adults in 2000-06. (See Table 2.3: Click here for the media record of Estimated number of illiterates age 15 and over, worldwide by region, 1985-94 and 2000-06, with projections to 2015 .) The number is projected to decline further to 706.1 million adults by 2015. In most regions of the world, more than 50% of the illiterate population is female, even in developed countries. UNESCO explains in Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2009 that this disparity reflects educational disadvantages of women over men from the past. Women are catching up with men in access to education worldwide. As this occurs, disparities in literacy are reduced or disappear altogether. UNESCO also notes that 80% of adult illiterates live in the 20 less-developed countries shown in Figure 2.5: Click here for the media record of Countries with the greatest numbers of illiterates age 15 and over, 2000-06 .

Table 2.4: Click here for the media record of Estimated rates of literacy for persons 15 and over, worldwide by region, 1985-94 and 2000-06, with projections to 2015 shows the percent of adults who are literate worldwide and by region. The literacy rate rose from 76% in 1985-94 to 84% in 2000-06, and is projected to increase to 87% in 2015. Developed countries and countries in transition had 99% literacy rates in 2000-06, compared with a 79% literacy rate in developing countries. In North America and western Europe in 2000-06, the Gender Parity Index showed that females and males in that region had equal numbers who were literate. That is, for every 100 literate males there were 100 literate females in the population. That was not the case in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab states, however. Only 75 females were literate for every 100 males in those regions of the world. In the Caribbean the ratio was reversed; for every 100 literate males there were 105 literate females.

How can Table 2.3: Click here for the media record of Estimated number of illiterates age 15 and over, worldwide by region, 1985-94 and 2000-06, with projections to 2015 , which shows that 62% of the adult illiterates were female in developed countries in 2000-06, be reconciled with Table 2.4: Click here for the media record of Estimated rates of literacy for persons 15 and over, worldwide by region, 1985-94 and 2000-06, with projections to 2015 , which shows that the Gender Parity Index for literacy rates in developed countries during this same period was 1.00? The explanation is that the illiterate population in developed countries is relatively small and consists primarily of older adults. In this older, illiterate population females outnumber males for two reasons: the male-female educational disparities of the past are reflected in older populations, and women, on average, outlive men. UNESCO points out in Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2009 that the most dramatic increases in global literacy rates occurred in youths between the ages of 15 and 24. In 1985-94 only 84% of the world's youth were literate. By 2000-06 this number had risen to 89% most notably in South and West Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and the Arab states. The regions with low youth literacy rates (under 80%) were sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia.

Not only do rates of illiteracy correlate positively with poverty among regions and countries of the world but also income-based educational disparities exist within countries. Table 2.5: Click here for the media record of Average years of education for poorest and richest 20% of 17- to 22-year-olds, selected countries, 2001-05 shows the differences in average years of education attained by the poorest 20% and the richest 20% of people aged 17 to 22 in a list of selected countries. In Mozambique, for example, someone in the poorest 20% of the 17- to 22-year-old population had on average 1.9 years of education in 2003, compared with 5 years of education for someone from the richest 20%. In Bangladesh the gap between the rich and poor was 4.4 years of schooling in 2004, and in India the educational gap was 6.7 years in 2005.

Hunger and Malnutrition

Hunger's relation to poverty is reciprocal: poverty usually results in hunger, but hunger is a factor that keeps people in poverty. Deficiencies in nutrients such as iodine, vitamin A, iron, and zinc contribute to weakened immune systems, anemia, learning disabilities, complications in pregnancy and childbirth, and many childhood diseases. These conditions result in poverty-causing problems such as absenteeism and poor performance at school and work, unemployment, illiteracy, and the continuing cycle of poverty. (See Figure 2.6: Click here for the media record of Relationship of hunger and malnutrition to other problems of poverty .)

In The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009: Economic Crises—Impacts and Lessons Learned (2009,, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN notes that there were about 1 billion people suffering from undernourishment in 2009. Figure 2.7: Click here for the media record of Percent undernourished worldwide, by country, 2009 shows the global distribution of undernourishment. Most undernourished individuals live in developing countries. The FAO indicates in Feeding the World, Eradicating Hunger (November 2009, that one out of three children under the age of five in developing countries is stunted due to chronic malnutrition and that 148 million children in these countries are underweight. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment.

Development Goals

On September 8, 2000, 189 member countries of the UN adopted the Millennium Declaration (, an agreement to increase the state of human development, including reducing poverty. The declaration includes a commitment to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, protect the environment, and focus attention on Africa. However, a significant section of the declaration outlines the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs;, a list of eight human development goals to be reached by 2015:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

All eight MDGs involve poverty indicators directly, or they are linked to the problem of poverty in some way. The MDGs have become a standard way to gauge human development progress in all countries and regions of the world. Whether a country is "on target" to reach the goals by the 2015 deadline is a telling indicator in itself of the standard of living in that country. Since the adoption of the MDGs, some progress has been made toward achieving the goals. However, as the UN concedes, progress has been slow and uneven, with some regions moving forward and some falling behind.

Figure 2.8: Click here for the media record of Number of undernourished people worldwide, 1969-71 to 2009 shows the number of undernourished people in the world from 1969-71 to 2008 and projected to 2009. The number of undernourished people fell from 1990-92 to 1995-97, but then began to rise, with a dramatic increase projected from 2008 to 2009.

The FAO indicates in State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009 that the current crisis in undernutrition is "historically unprecedented" and notes that several factors have converged to bring this crisis about. Food prices began to rise after 2000 and reached a high in mid-2008 in conjunction with the food and fuel crisis that occurred between 2006 and 2008. The food crisis began in 2006 with price spikes due to droughts in grain-producing nations, diminishing food reserves worldwide, and rising oil prices. The rise in oil prices made agriculture and food transportation more expensive. In addition, it resulted in an increased use of biofuels, which resulted in some crops being used for biofuel production rather than for food production. This global food crisis resulted in great hardship for poor families. In many cases they had to eat less because they could not afford to buy enough food to adequately feed themselves and their families. The global economic crisis that had its roots in 2007 made matters worse. The FAO notes that the number of food-insecure people was expected to increase worldwide from 17% in 2008 to 19% in 2009.

Looking at undernourishment regionally, Figure 2.9: Click here for the media record of Number of undernourished people, selected world regions, selected years, 1990-92 to 2008 shows that the largest number of undernourished was in Asia and the Pacific from 1990-92 to 2008. Even though the number of undernourished fell from 1990-92 to 1995-97, the number began to rise again, almost reaching the 1990-92 level by 2008. The number of undernourished in sub-Saharan Africa was below the number in Asia and the Pacific, but it began to rise after 1990-92.

Figure 2.10: Click here for the media record of Trend in the proportion of undernourished in developing countries, 1969-71 to 2009 shows the proportion of undernourished people in the developing world from 1969-71 to 2008 and projected to 2009. The proportion of undernourished people declined in the developing world from 34% in 1969-71 to 16% in 2004-06, which means the developing world reached the MDG Target 1.C. This was accomplished by investments in agriculture in the developing world, which led to increased yields of grain and lower cereal prices. Nevertheless, the proportion of undernourished began to rise after 2004-06 as development assistance devoted to agriculture declined and the economic crisis took hold, making it more difficult for families to afford adequate nutrition.

Hunger and Mortality

Rich countries have much greater purchasing power than poor countries. The strength of a country's purchasing power is definitely correlated with the health of its people—the difference in the health of people living in rich countries and those living in poor countries is dramatic. For example, in 2005 the death rate of children under five years old in middle-income countries was five times higher than in high-income countries. Figure 2.11: Click here for the media record of Under-five mortality per 1,000 live births, by country income level, 1990 and 2005 shows that in high-income countries 8 children per 1,000 live births died in 2005, compared with 40 children per 1,000 live births in middle-income countries. The difference in the death rate of children under five years old between low-income and high-income countries was even more dramatic. In low-income countries 110 children per 1,000 live births died in 2005. This was an under-five mortality rate (U5MR) of approximately 15 times that of high-income countries in that year.

Another measure of the difference in the health of people living in rich countries compared with those living in poor countries is reflected in their life expectancy. The life expectancy at birth in 2005 of people living in high-income countries was nearly 80 years. (See Figure 2.12: Click here for the media record of Life expectancy at birth by country income level, 1990 and 2005 .) The life expectancy at birth in 2005 of people living in low-income countries was barely 60 years—a gap of 20 years. Even though progress was made between 1990 and 2005 in both reducing the U5MR and in extending life expectancy in low-income, developing, middle-income, and high-income countries, an enormous health gap between the rich and the poor still remains.

Money and the strength of purchasing power are not the only reasons why a high proportion of the human population is undernourished and unhealthy. As with other aspects of poverty, another reason involves global, regional, and local politics—in this case the politics of agricultural subsidies, trade, and food aid.

Agricultural Subsidies, Trade, and Food Aid

Agricultural subsidies are often cited as a factor in either causing or worsening the problem of hunger. The governments of wealthy countries routinely pay farmers—mostly the owners of large farms—billions of dollars each year to produce too much or not enough of certain crops to control the prices of crops for export or import.

Farm subsidies in Europe, Japan, and the United States are designed to work in conjunction with trade barriers such as quotas (limitations of imports) and tariffs (taxes on imported goods). When farmers in developed countries are paid to overproduce certain foods (e.g., rice and corn), those countries export, or "dump," their surplus supplies to poor countries for extremely low prices or sometimes for free as aid. At the same time, trade barriers prevent poor countries from exporting crops and other goods to wealthy countries (this is sometimes called protectionism). Food dumping from wealthy countries floods the markets, which drives down the value of crops in poor countries so low that it is often more economical for them to import the food or accept it as foreign aid than to invest in their own agricultural development. However, this also makes them more vulnerable to international economic factors and inhibits their ability to sustain themselves.

International aid in the form of food seems like a straightforward way to deal with the worldwide crisis of hunger, yet many detractors claim that it actually makes the problem worse. Poverty researchers note that there is a difference between the kind of emergency aid that calls for the direct exportation of food to an area and the practice of simply sending food to a poor region not experiencing an emergency situation. Very often, nonemergency food aid is actually just food dumping, which causes dependence on a foreign food source and prevents a poor country's farmers from competing in the international market.

In addition, when developed countries in North America, Europe, and elsewhere give aid in the form of food, they do not typically give it directly to hungry people (except in emergency cases, when food may be dropped from low-flying airplanes). Rather, they give it to the federal governments of poor countries, who distribute it to local governments, who in many cases sell it to the hungry at prices so low that local food producers, if any exist, cannot compete and may be forced out of business. Furthermore, an underdeveloped or developing country that depends on food imports will often use its land to produce crops such as cut flowers or livestock feed for export to developed countries rather than growing food for local consumption. When small farms shut down or are forced out of business, people often migrate to urban areas to work in manufacturing operations (typically sweatshops), leaving rural regions even more vulnerable to economic depression.

The FAO finds in State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009 a direct link between growth in a developing country's agricultural sector and a reduction in hunger and poverty. It also notes that growth in urban and industrial sectors or overall growth in the gross domestic product (the total value of all goods and services produced by a country in a year) does not necessarily translate into a reduction in hunger and poverty. Therefore, the FAO suggests that economic growth itself is not enough to change patterns in hunger, but that the healthy development of farming, both for export and for domestic use, is essential.

Other Factors of Hunger

Besides economic, trade, and farming issues, other diverse factors affect the complex situation of world hunger, undernutrition, and malnutrition, and the related problems of high child mortality rates and poor health. These factors include governance, natural disasters, poor sanitation, and a lack of nutritional and health education.

In State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009, the FAO includes a country's system of governance as a factor affecting hunger rates. The World Bank, through its Worldwide Governance Indicators research project, has compiled several hundred variables to develop indicators that measure six dimensions of a country's governance. Four governance indicators in particular—political stability and absence of violence, government effectiveness, rule of law, and control of corruption—are necessary to achieve hunger reduction in a country. Hunger worsens and per capita food production drops, for example, in countries experiencing violent conflict and/or political instability. Daniel Kaufmann, Aart Kraay, and Massimo Mastruzzi provide in Governance Matters VIII: Aggregate and Individual Governance Indicators 1996-2008 (June 29, 2009, an update that covers 212 countries and territories.

Natural disasters, such as droughts, excess rainfall, earthquakes, and other environmental events, also cause food crises by slowing food production or halting it altogether. These occurrences have far more serious consequences in poor countries, where food production is already low. Displacement is another consequence of natural disasters that increases the incidence of hunger in poor countries. When people are forced to flee after major disasters such as earthquakes or migrate because of severe weather conditions, pressure to produce enough food to support them is placed on the areas in which they settle.

According to the World Bank, in Repositioning Nutrition as Central to Development: A Strategy for Large-Scale Action (2006,, a lack of food is just one of several factors contributing to malnutrition and undernutrition. Additional causes of severe malnutrition, especially in children, include a poor understanding of nutritional needs, insufficient knowledge about women's health in particular, and poor sanitation (which is the source of waterborne viruses and bacteria that cause diarrheal diseases). This suggests that investment in health education in general and nutrition education in particular would help reduce hunger and malnutrition, as would investment in infrastructure to improve sanitation and provide water free from disease-causing microbes.

Globalization, Free Trade, and Fair Trade

Globalization is the term used to refer to the growing economic interdependence of nations. Proponents of globalization maintain that opening markets across national borders provides opportunities for both large and small economies. They suggest that freer exchange of money and technology can help develop the world's smaller and poorer economies and therefore help alleviate poverty in developing regions while increasing the wealth of developed ones. Opponents of globalization argue that it puts the welfare of multinational corporations above the welfare of poor and indigenous people. They also claim globalization increases instances of unjust labor practices that take advantage of the poor, such as sweatshops and child labor.

In "How to End Poverty: Making Poverty History and the History of Poverty" (May 11, 2005,´╝á, Vandana Shiva (1952-), an Indian physicist, ecofeminist, and environmental activist, contends that the globalization movement's focus on consumerism (selling products to people through international trade) denies people in traditional cultures the ability to support themselves by growing their own food, making their own clothing, and otherwise providing for themselves. Shiva further maintains that when corporations and industries take land from self-sustaining cultures, they actually push those people into poverty by depriving them of the resources they need to survive. In "Globalization and Poverty" (December 16, 2008,, an interview by Gary Null of the Progressive Radio Network, Shiva suggests that "India is a good test case to see how globalization increases real poverty even while measurements of growth make it look like the country is booming. India's growth these last few years has been 9 percent and it is seen as one of the fastest growing economies. And yet in this decade of high growth under free market globalization India has the largest number of hungry people in the world."

A major facet of globalization is the forging of free trade agreements (FTAs), which are arrangements between countries that allow the exchange of goods and labor across borders without governmental tariffs or other trade barriers. Two of the best-known FTAs are the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA; among Canada, Mexico, and the United States) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA; among Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the United States). Despite the increasing number of FTAs, poor countries are often subject to higher import tariffs and other unfavorable circumstances when they export goods to developed countries. Oxfam International notes in Signing away the Future: How Trade and Investment Agreements between Rich and Poor Countries Undermine Development (March 2007, that "around 25 developing countries have now signed free trade agreements with developed countries, and more than 100 are engaged in negotiations." The problem with this plethora of bilateral and regional treaties, suggests Oxfam, is that the agreements are signed outside of the auspices of the World Trade Organization, "where developing countries can band together and hold out for more favourable rules." Rules that are favorable to rich countries often prevail under such circumstances, binding poor countries into long-term commitments "with grave implications for the environment and development." Instead, fair trade should eliminate trade barriers to poor countries and develop healthy, sustainable, trade-based employment opportunities within them. As low-income countries gain fair access to markets, investment is stimulated, which in turn promotes employment opportunities at the local level and economic growth at the national level.

International Debt

Lending and debt relief to underdeveloped and developing nations is another controversial issue. Many low-income countries became heavily indebted to wealthy nations during the 1970s, when banks around the world began lending money to developing countries that were rich in resources such as oil. The money, however, was often mismanaged—particularly in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa—and spent on projects to expand the wealth of the upper classes rather than on infrastructure and social investments such as roadways, safe water, education, and health care. When interest rates on the loans rose and the prices of their resources dropped during the 1980s, the indebted countries were unable to repay the loans. Many of these nations turned to the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help. These organizations underwrote more loans, but required that the poor countries agree to undergo structural adjustment programs (SAPs).

In essence, the World Bank and the IMF demanded that poor countries restructure their economies by cutting spending and revaluing their currency so that they could begin to repay their loans and emerge from debt. Most low-income countries met the restructuring criteria by limiting their social spending (e.g., on education, health care, and social services), lowering wages, cutting jobs, and taking land from subsistence farmers to grow crops for export. This focus on increasing trade has generated the most severe criticism from opponents of SAPs, who argue that the United States and other wealthy countries encourage such measures to improve their own trading opportunities, which destroys the ability of poor countries to support themselves because they become dependent on imports of food and other basic necessities. However, supporters of SAPs point out that this economic system allows poor countries to participate more fully in the global market and that the benefits of restructuring will eventually "trickle down" to the poor.

In 1996 the World Bank and the IMF created the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. The initiative was intended to reduce the debt of the most heavily indebted poor countries to levels that were manageable for them. In 2005 the HIPC Initiative was supplemented by the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI) to help countries make progress toward the UN MDGs.

The MDRI cancels the debt of countries that meet the HIPC Initiative criteria, which include implementing agreed-on reforms and developing a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP; the paper describes the policies and programs that a country will pursue over several years to encourage economic growth and reduce poverty). As a country makes progress toward these goals, a decision point is reached, whereby the International Development Association of the World Bank and the IMF determine whether the country should receive debt relief. If the country will receive relief, it may begin receiving interim debt relief at the decision point. Once the PRSP has been adopted and implemented for at least one year, and when other criteria have been met, the country is said to have reached its completion point, and full debt relief is given.

The IMF explains in "Factsheet: The Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI)" (June 2009, that "all countries with per-capita income of $380 a year or less (whether HIPCs or not) will receive MDRI debt relief financed by the IMF's own resources through the MDRI-I Trust. HIPCs with per capita income above that threshold will receive MDRI relief from bilateral contributions administered by the IMF through the MDRI-II Trust." Table 2.7: Click here for the media record of Country eligibility for debt relief under the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative, 2009 shows the countries that have benefited from the MDRI as of May 15, 2009, and the countries that will be eligible once they reach the completion point. Table 2.8: Click here for the media record of Amount of debt relief to qualifying countries under the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative, 2009 shows the amount of debt relief. The special drawing right (SDR) is not a currency but an IMF unit of account. More specifically, it is the value of the debt relief. Note that the amount of U.S. dollars given in debt relief can vary based on the exchange rate between the SDR and the U.S. dollar at the time debt relief is given.

Source Citation

Alters, Sandra M. "The Causes of Poverty and the Search for Solutions." World Poverty, 2010 ed., Gale, 2010. Information Plus Reference Series. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, Accessed 23 Mar. 2018.
Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ1772200102

Privilege Defined


Humanism and the challenge of privilege

The Humanist, May-June 2017
From Opposing Viewpoints in Context

Content Level =
	    Intermediate, Lexile Measure = 1290

This article is an excerpt from chapter four o/When Colorblindness Isn't the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race (Pitchstone Publishing, 2017). This book is part of a series on practical humanism Dr. Pinn is editing for Pitchstone.

Let's start with a basic statement for context: race-based privilege isn't lodged only in wealth and material "stuff" possessed. It isn't simply the ability to buy things or in other ways secure goods. It isn't a matter of financial wellbeing or how much money one has in the bank. So, one can be economically challenged, white, and still privileged because in the United States it isn't assumed that the economic condition of a white person speaks a fundamental truth about their very being, who she or he is in an inherent way. So many assume that acquisition (or class status) defines privilege, due in part to the fact that we have cast progress in terms of economic health. As a consequence, much less attention is given to larger issues of identity that shape how rich or poor people are understood, valued, and appreciated ... or not.

Think about the above in light of questions asked commonly with energy and with sincerity: "My family didn't have slaves ... why is racism my problem?" Or, with even more passion and confusion: "We've had a black president, what more do you want?" I get why people ask these questions and others like them, but I also understand that such questions (sincere or not) fail to recognize the nature of privilege in the United States. That is to say, whiteness comes with a range of perks not deciphered by gauging who owned plantations and who didn't. Some of them are obvious--standards of beauty geared toward that population, and more economic success on average are but two. However, there are also "soft," or less easily articulated, forms of privilege that are often ignored: the assumption the police are there to serve and protect; the assumption you weren't placed near the restroom in the restaurant because of skin color; the belief you should be able to drive a luxury vehicle without people assuming you are a drug dealer; the notion you should be successful and it's a problem if you aren't; the assumption you are included in the "we" that defines citizenship in the United States; and the idea that "making America great again" fundamentally includes your well being.

Sure, not all white Americans are wealthy and protected, but even so their whiteness is not used as proof-positive of inherent inferiority. Whiteness isn't used as the reason why they aren't successful. White Americans aren't defined by the worst of their circumstances. No one says, "Well, that poor behavior is what you can expect ... after all, he's white." Who looks at a white American television character and assumes the character is a true-to form representation of all white Americans?

Privilege is the socially arranged and culturally ingrained assumption that one's perspective is normative, one's importance firm, and one's right to what the United States has to offer beyond question. It's the assumption that when "people of color" are mentioned it means everyone except "white" people. And, this thinking isn't questioned in ways that change the dynamics of collective life. Effort to rework this thinking by highlighting the value, importance, and integrity of other communities brings this privilege to the forefront.

A message such as "Black Lives Matter" and the effort to turn it into "All Lives Matter" have highlighted the ongoing presence and power of white privilege. On the surface, this broader slogan is a way of naming all human lives as valuable, but it hides something. It hides white privilege by not questioning the very reason the Black Lives Matter pronouncement matters. It doesn't correct the situation of racial injustice--the manner in which race and racism have defined life in narrow ways for a significant portion of the population. Instead, this seemingly well-meaning shift in emphasis covers up inequalities through a fog of passive language and a quick turning of the tables. This, "Hey, everyone matters!" doesn't allow those who suffer due to the effects of racism to voice their plight. Instead, they are told to get in line behind the "dominant" population. Nothing changes, and white privilege remains the rule of the day--complete with not too subtle a suggestion that the Black Lives Matter struggle is actually divisive and a problem that does more damage than the conditions it seeks to address. Those who point out violence against blacks are marked as causing hostility because they are the source of discord. In an odd twist, then, those who seek to maintain things as they are in the form of the racial status quo come off as unifiers who are the true champions of democracy and individual well being.

It's tricky, and I don't write this as a dismissive or paternalistic statement. Rather, there is challenge here in that privilege isn't visible. No, it's the consequences or the attitudinal and material connotations of privilege that frame and impact collective life in the United States. Few whites, I would argue, walk around thinking about their privileges. No, they don't think they're privileged; they simply live these privileges and give all this no more thought than one would about the supply of oxygen we consume from moment to moment, no more than we think about the gravity that keeps us grounded. We aren't aware of oxygen or gravity until their existence--or access to them--is threatened. The same is the case with white privilege: it goes without saying, until those who don't benefit from such privilege name it, challenge it, and seek to interrogate it.

Privilege--these unstated opportunities and positive assumptions--if not tackled, taint justice work by turning attention to whites rather than keeping the focus on the racial minorities most deeply impacted by white privilege. Such a move wipes out any starting point for justice work because it marks the entire population as harmed. White privilege is denied in the guise of the human condition, and as consequences those who suffer most from racism are denied opportunity to expose and critique the systemic structures and social assumptions that support their oppression. Once the "All Lives Matter" rhetoric is deployed-like a bucket of cold water--any effort to subvert that generalization so as to support racial minorities who encounter racism in particular ways comes across as aggressive, counterproductive, racist, and destructive ... and nothing changes. Here's the proverbial elephant in the room: "white" Americans are raced. White privilege is meant to hide this fact, to make it seem as all others are raced but whites are just ... well, colorless humans.

The markers of white privilege have been a topic of conversation in certain quarters for a good number of years now, and I'm going to draw on those sources in what follows. Perhaps one of the most widely recognized names in the early presentation of this "way" of life is Peggy Mcintosh, whose essay "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies" (Wellesley College, Center for Research on Women, 1988) stirred things up. An excerpt of that longer piece--retitled "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"--condenses many of the concerns that frame this article, and that I summarize below. In the shorter piece, McIntosh provides a list of twenty-six examples of white privilege, which mark out the socioeconomic, political, cultural, and psychological benefits of whiteness in the United States as the dominant cultural symbol and as a physical majority.

McIntosh begins by pointing out what racial minorities experience: whites are often unaware consciously of privilege but their denial, if not their actions, speaks to their reality and a deep desire to protect those advantages birthed through the social construct of cultural whiteness, which is tied to certain physical markers of majority status. McIntosh puts it best when saying, "I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious." And, she continues with a visual, "white privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks." All these provide access to and transport around the various geographies of life in the United States.

Often these privileges are unacknowledged because they are coded into the very rights of citizenship in this country, and there is an assumption that, post-slavery (and other racial atrocities), these rights are available to all. Yet, while in theory this is the case, in practice full access to the "goods" and "grammars" of American life remain restricted and accessed by a particular membership card given to some at birth and denied others. Sure, some African Americans, some Latino/as, some American Indians, some Asian Americans, and so on, have the markers of success. And this is because economic success isn't the only marker of this privilege. So, Asian Americans can have a median household income higher than the white population (according to some sources), and still face disadvantage because privilege has social-cultural dimensions not tied to a paycheck. Economic success doesn't prevent having one's identity determined by (or at least measured against) stereotypical depictions of one's racial group, for instance. The general practices of life in the United States still disadvantage racial minorities.

What's more, the failure of racial minorities to achieve is assumed a marker of a general and intrinsic inferiority, while this perspective isn't generally applied in the case of white Americans who don't succeed. Whites remain understood as entitled and the failure to access what they are entitled to isn't a permanent stain on them. These, as McIntosh notes, are unearned advantages--the "stuff" that comes along with being born into the white race--and these unearned privileges can wreak harm on other racial groups that don't share the same advantages.

The challenge is to recognize white privilege, react in ways that maintain this uncomfortable awareness, and rework systemic structures of collective life in such a way as to decrease white privilege and maximize the well-being of all. Denial of privilege won't end practices of privilege. As McIntosh argues, such a stance serves to reinforce privilege by denying where it is present and how it works.

In certain ways, McIntosh and I are interested in the same thing: exposing white privilege as real, developing strategies to decrease its negative impact, and working to shift the focus for this activity to the racial minorities harmed by white privilege--to make them the center of conversation. One should think about this not strictly in terms of the loss of privilege but rather as gain, as advancement in that diversity of perspective and opinion is actually strength. As a result, by acknowledging privilege and supporting equity, we work toward the full humanity of all as accountable and responsible agents in the world. Within the context of humanist organizations and communities, there are numerous ways to tackle this work on white privilege. Here are just a few:

* Make acknowledgment of white privilege central to the missions and aims of humanist organizations and communities. That is to say, through such a naming of white privilege within the context of collective self-understanding, it becomes possible to understand the dismantling of white privilege as fundamental to self-understanding and operational success.

* Contextualize this acknowledgment of white supremacy. In other words, this public recognition of a problem must be tied to particularities of life and can't be a general statement that doesn't target real situations and concerns. Those sorts of abstract statements simply cloud the issues, preventing substantial thinking and working because they give no base upon which to ground praxis. Speak in detail and in light of particulars.

As part of this process, and within the conversations that are sure to ensue, I would suggest removing certain terms and phrases from the accepted language for conversation. Here are a two examples:

* People of color--this term tends to assume racial minorities are the only raced groups, as if whites aren't also connected to the social construction of race.

* I'm color-blind--on the surface this might sound like progress, but in reality it keeps whiteness normative. It treats difference as a problem to solve as opposed to an opportunity for expansion and growth. When rendered a problem, the logical course of action is to solve it, and in the United States--based on the workings of race and white privilege--this fix maintains the centrality of whiteness in that the fix is to make racial minorities more like whites.

There will be setbacks and missteps, but the work needs to be consistent and marked by persistence, and a setting of goals (e.g., diversity in the leadership of our organizations; more than racial minorities lecturing on racial justice; strong public statements from our organizations in response to racial injustice; significant organizational resources devoted to racial justice work; and strong partnerships with racial justice organizations) that highlight discernable advancement over the long haul.

Anthony B. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and professor of religious studies at Rice University. He is also director of research for the Institute for Humanist Studies think tank in Washington, DC. Pinn is the author/editor of twenty-six books, including numerous volumes related to African-American humanism. He is also the editor of four book series, including Studies in Humanist Thought and Praxis. Pinn received the 1999 African-American Humanist Award from the Council for Secular Humanism and was named the 2006 Harvard Humanist of the Year.

Source Citation

Pinn, Anthony B. "Humanism and the challenge of privilege." The Humanist, May-June 2017, p. 22+. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, Accessed 23 Mar. 2018.
Gale Document Number: GALE|A493988272


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