To what extent is poverty the fault of the individual?

Author: Ying
School: Raffles Institution
Year Written: 2020
Grade: A

Every three seconds, a child dies of poverty. With 5% of the world’s income distributed in the hands of 95% of the world’s population, poverty is indeed one of the scourges of mankind that has been plaguing society since time immemorial. To state that poverty is the fault of the individual is to connote that the poor have full control over their plight and therefore, should bear full responsibility for it. However, more often than not, the poor are born into their financial situation by a slew of dire social problems caused by governments, religious groups and international groups, over which they have no control.

Detractors may claim that the poor are to blame for their plight due to their failure to leverage on available financial schemes and work their way out of poverty. Such people believe sheer grit and determination to be the panacea to poverty. After all, Singapore leapfrogged from a third world country to the thriving metropolis it is today in barely half a century based on the tenet that ‘nobody owes us a living’, which has indeed served us well. With the presence of many welfare schemes such as financial aid in many Scandinavian countries and skills upgrading workshops in Singapore such as Skills future, it is convenient to assume that the poor have simply bypassed such opportunities and therefore should be blamed for their plight. Critics cite many rags to riches stories, such as that of Steve Jobs, to buttress their point. At a superficial level, it seems that the poor have simply not taken the opportunity to break the poverty cycle and thus should be blamed for their financial situation.

However, closer examination of the situation reveals that there are many simplifying assumptions the argument has made which does not hold water. While it is indeed convenient to assume that the poor have simply bypassed such opportunities due to sloth, it must be noted that these opportunities are few and far between. While many affluent countries have welfare schemes put in place, the same cannot be said for many developing countries such as India, which house a large proportion of the world’s impoverished. A salient example is Ethiopia, where majority of the citizens live under the poverty line of USD2 a day. Such countries lack basic infrastructure, let alone welfare schemes. The poor are thus left to struggle with their own vices; helpless in the face of such unfortunate situations they were born into. Given the lack of control over the environment they were born into and thus the presence of financial aid, it would be foolhardy to blame them for their financial situation.

Furthermore, the situation is made worse by corrupt governments, or those swaddled so firmly in red tape that removes any opportunity presented for the poor to break out of their plight. The earthquake that hit Southeast Asia in 2004 saw 40% of foreign aid being siphoned off by greedy officials. This figure could climb to as high as 90% in African nations. In such cases, the poor are not even granted access to basic necessities, let alone the opportunity for social mobility. The poor, with no political influence against their leaders, are unable to revolt against such unfair ruling and are left defenceless against such heartless officials. The lack of access to education makes matters worse – some may not even be aware of such corruption-taking place and continue to suffer in silence, perpetuating the cycle. To blame the poor in this case would be grossly unjustified, given their helplessness in the face of such an unfeeling establishment.

Moreover, the presences of radical religious groups that hold on to patriarchal values further deepen the plight of the poor. In countries in the Middle East such as Libya and Egypt, girls who have hit puberty are not allowed to continue schooling, due to religious beliefs that demand separation of the sexes. This resulted in less than half of the population of girls in Egypt being literate and an even lower employment rate, further trapping the poor in the vicious poverty cycle. The poor are left defenceless in the face of such religious fanatics, who use violence to ensure compliance. Many poor children, when interviewed by newscasters, express a thirst for education, however any effort on their part is quickly rendered immaterial by such backward beliefs adopted by society. Surely this absolves the poor of any blame, given their helplessness in the face of such unjust conditions, over which they have no power to protest against.

To further compound the issue, international forces have also contributed to the problem. Food dumping by developed countries such as the USA, as well as the establishment of protectionist measures likes trade embargoes have further reduced the ability of the poor to trade and earn revenue. In a bid to line their pockets, many large international multinational corporations such as Nike and Gap have also depressed wages of labourers and some have even resorted to the use of cheap child labour. Owing to the selfish profit driven motives of firms, some workers have even been forced to endure more than 12 hours of arduous menial work under harsh conditions, while earning less than USD1 per hour. The poor, eager to work their way out of poverty, subject themselves to such inhumane treatment in an attempt to make a living. However, majority end up working an inordinate number of hours, resulting in deteriorating health and yet still find themselves entrenched in the depths of poverty. It would be unfair to fault the poor in this situation, given the inexorable forces that have contributed to their misery.

Ultimately, poverty is a multi-faceted issue caused by panoply of social issues over which the poor have no say. The systemic nature of the poverty cycle renders poverty a birthmark rather than a choice. Instead of quibbling over who should take the lion’s share of the blame, we should start taking action and join the fight against poverty.