The 2016 Rio Olympics is an example of a globally viewed event drawing attention to issues that are endemic in countries like Brazil and prominent in all nations throughout the world. In developed countries, issues like poverty and crime are ever-present, yet the people suffering from these issues are easily dismissed as temporary victims of natural economic cycles and personal struggles. Alternatively, they are simply labeled lazy. In developing, underdeveloped, and undeveloped countries, the fault of environmental dysfunction is too great to simply disregard. As such, the international focus on countries like Brazil forces the world to better understand poverty.
Typically, poverty is discussed in terms of what things people do or do not have and how much income someone has. In the United States, someone unable to afford a car might be destitute, unless they have access to public transportation. Someone making five dollars a day might be middle class in less developed countries. Trying to understand poverty by quantitative and qualitative measures is insufficient, because so must is dependent on circumstance. To develop solutions and address the harms of scarcity, poverty must be defined in relatives terms while it is best understood in terms of dysfunction.
One way poverty can be defined is by the inability to financially access the formal economy on a regular basis to provide for one’s needs. In many respects, poverty is a phenomenon of modern civilization. Before bartering, markets, and economies, people were hunter, gatherers and/or farmers. If they could not sustain themselves through their own efforts, they died. People came together to form civilizations to protect themselves from the brutality of nature. With around 7.5 billion people competing for the limited resources of planet Earth, few can thrive, or even survive, as hunter, gatherers and/or farmers. Most people must be able to participant in either formal or informal economies.
That said, there, at least, 570 million farms worldwide with more than 475 million of those farms smaller than two hectares, while over 1 billion people work in agriculture. As such, there are still a significant number of individuals who rely on their own crops for survival without any guaranteed safety net to sustain them during troubled times. Because subsistence farmers cannot access the economy, i.e. they only produce enough food to feed their selves and cannot regularly earn money through their labor, they are impoverished by modern standards. The lifestyles of subsistence farmers may be independently sustained through their own labor, but they cannot access modern goods, such as high-yield seeds, and services, such as medical care, to improve their living conditions.
What makes subsistence farming a form of poverty is the overreliance on crops that can easily fail due to drought, pestilence, or chance. Instead of facing death when their crops fail, participation in an formal or informal economy means farmers are protected. With that in mind, social welfare programs, which feed, house, and cloth the improvised, ensure people without jobs or businesses can participant in the economy. The lifestyles of the dependent poor can be sustainable, but they struggle to improve their living conditions and achieve some degree of financial independence. That said, there are different levels of dependent poverty while most impoverished are dependent on government.
When a state of poverty is sustainable, the impoverished can rely on incomes from businesses, employers, and/or governments that allow them to maintain their living conditions, yet they cannot overcome their impoverished state. As economies grow and prices increase, fixed-incomes are strained, thus the inability of the poor to increase, or adequately increase, their incomes means their incomes are strained. Because financial needs tend to increase, those who cannot increase their incomes find their incomes stressed to the point they struggle to provide for their basic necessities. From there, the impoverish fall into a state of distress where they face the prospects of destitution.
The nearly 600,000 or so homeless in the United State are example of destitute individuals, but there also destitute people who have some form of housing. What the destitute lack is any ability to regularly access utilities, such as sanitation, water, heating, electricity, modes of communication, transportation, etc. This matters, because the destitute do not have regular access to basic necessities nor the ability to access a regular source of income, i.e. a viable job, which would allow them to rebuild a sustainable standard of living. The 11 million residents of Brazil’s so-called favelas, for example, are essentially living makeshift housing, which means they cannot access the formal economy. They must rely on government support, day-labor, scavenging, criminal activity, and/or go without.
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