On my last post on the issue of gentrification, I’d left off with the question of “How can a community expand and develop its wealth locally, while at the same time accepting, encouraging, and embracing external inputs of wealth?” The more I’ve pondered on this, the more I’ve realized that the question is quite a bit more complicated than it sounds. Essentially, what we are really looking at are the root causes of poverty, and considering methods of assisting communities in raising themselves out of it.
The problem with poverty is that there are a lot of differing [mis]perceptions of the issue: the most common one being that of the better off, which assumes that those who are poor are lazy, stupid, or otherwise—that is, if the well-to-do are aware of the issue and consider it at all (it sounds amazing, but having grown up in a well-to-do area, and having worked in the hospitality industry with the extremely well-to-do and their offspring, I know first-hand there are indeed people out there who live in an oblivious bubble, both self-imposed and otherwise). Stemming from this initial prejudice, there are two common perceptions on poverty and the poor: 1) they are an unfortunate and inevitable scourge of humanity, to be ignored, endured, and shut away into their own enclaves; and/or 2) they are to be pitied and supported through the works of charity.
I think what becomes apparent as one examines this issue is that while welfare and charity are quite obviously direly needed by those stranded in extreme poverty, what must be recognized is that charity is ultimately only a temporal bandaid that avoids the root causes that create and sustain the conditions for poverty. What becomes further apparent from this realization is that the poor must be given the structural means to help themselves. In other words, the only ones who can directly and actively work to address the root causes of poverty are the poor themselves. Thus, they require not charity, but a pragmatic and systematic support that hands the money and the tools over to them.
This may at first sound perhaps out of touch with reality or idealistic and overly vague. But this is a concept that has been applied effectively by Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh starting in the 70’s, when he introduced the concept of micro-credit and banking for those in poverty with his Grameen Bank. Since then, micro-credit has been further applied successively, most notably, in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Yunus founded a bank which extends credit directly to the poor, so that they could gain the means of raising themselves out of poverty through their own hard work and entrepreneurship. This is an approach to poverty that is staunchly capitalistic in its approach, yet underlied by a basic concern for human welfare. Most approaches to poverty are rooted in that initial notion of charity which we just have outlined above, and exist as non-profit donation-based organizations. These organizations generally do little or nothing in regards to helping the poor help themselves. Rather, it is always a matter of the rich helping or giving to the poor. This position, of course, is already rooted in a problematic perception of poverty that does nothing to empower the poor themselves, and rather perpetuates the symptoms.
The problem with micro-credit is that there haven’t been found ways to translate it into a workable and comparable vision in the United States. The reason for this is that micro-credit works quite well in village-based economies, where the poor have recourse to starting their own business in say, weaving kerchiefs, or vending food, and other such small, individual, street-cart type sales. There exists in such cultures many small, micro-economies in which small entrepreneurs are able to thrive. But in the United States, the economy, lifestyle, and culture is different, and small-time entrepreneurs face a number of hurdles before they can break into the world of commerce.
And this is where my thought begins to shoot out randomly in a haze like a flashlight in the fog. This is where I realize just how much more I need to learn. I have already gone from the issue of gentrification to that of poverty in general, thus expanding and deepening the questions on money and poverty. So at this point, I’m going to step back from these questions and look again at the bigger picture. I think what has been changing in my own thought and perception is that I am no longer fundamentally opposed to capitalism—the concept of making money. I believe that we can consciously make money, while at the same time benefitting the environment and combating poverty. And as these changing ideas sink in, my worldview begins to shift on an everyday level, such that as during this trip to Colombia, I have been noting the influence of wealth, and welcoming it.