The Surplus Population

In response to a recent blog essay, I received a comment from a friend in exasperated empathy for the predicament of the poor.  His note read, “The poor just don’t matter.  They are throw-away people.”  The comment wasn’t a reflection of his own feelings, but rather an indictment of a significant share of the world that refuses to see the plight of this significant share of the world; the poor are everywhere and yet they seem to be invisible.   His comment got me to thinking about the poor, and the rest of us.

If his comments are all too true, my friend has made observation of a curious truth.  Why wouldn’t the poor matter to the rest of us?  After all, The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that of the 7.1 billion people in the world, one in eight were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012.  (That’s about 870 million human beings, so it’s not an easy number of people to simply forget about.)  And, we humans can be an empathetic lot, caring deeply for our own families, expressing our support and concerns via social media for victims of natural disasters, donating to an enormous array of charitable causes, even mourning the loss of our beloved family pets when they have aged and gone.  So why do the poor continue to pose such a difficult and unmet challenge, especially when statistics bear out the fact that sufficient resources exist (at least today) such that poverty need not be?

The reasons are likely complex and daunting to consider.  But in my reflections about “throw-away” people, I surfaced some thoughts which, not necessarily complex or daunting at all, might at least offer some insights as to why we allow this pestilence of degradation, suffering and unnecessary need to persist.  I’ll admit up front that my observations have a great deal less to do with economics and external forces than they do with the internal workings of our hearts and emotions.

For starters, maybe we simply suffer from the inexperience of having walked in the shoes of the poor.  Nearly any new perspective becomes easier to understand and accept when we have the advantage of personal experience.  And reality is that most of us have never known real poverty.  It’s very hard for us to truly recognize the urgency and the desperation of hunger, homelessness, and habitual want.  If we cannot know the depths of panic and hurt, those two accompanists of poverty, then it is far less likely that we will know the need to respond.

Sometimes, we sense that the problem of the poor is too immense to solve, that the forces which converge to create the circumstances of the poor have long historical, political and social roots that are beyond our full comprehension.  And without that previously-mentioned personal experience on which to base our opinion, we regard the plague of poverty as one of those existential realities that has no beginning and no end.  In essence, it’s easier for us to contemplate ongoing poverty for millions of people than it is to create a solution.  (A curious reaction, in an age where curatives for biological viruses receive copious funding and attention.)

Then, as intensely curious as we are to solve the inscrutable puzzles of our earthly past, the genesis of the cosmos and the intricacies of sub-atomic particulates, we are nonetheless troubled by problems that seem irreconcilable.  Such is the fate of “the problem of the poor.”  We may intuitively know that it is wrong for human beings to be in want of life-sustaining, basic necessities.  But the fact that not all human beings have been granted those basics makes us uneasy, leads us to speculate about what such victims might have done to warrant their condition, and allows us to conclude that the only possible reconciliation of their circumstance is that they somehow have deserved it.  Or that we, on the other hand, somehow have not deserved it.  That’s an answer which fits our need for a cause-and-effect logic and our own sense of innocence.

The poor make us very uncomfortable.  They represent the lowest economic status to which any of us might fall.  They present a picture of what any of us could become, of who we might be but for the vagaries of chance.  It’s a frightening look, one that is so despairing and yet so possible that we cannot bear to see.  Like turning our heads away during the most frightening scene of a horror film, we must escape.  That which we choose not to see cannot infect our consciousness or our memories.  And so we do what we believe will keep us safe, deny the existence of what is before us.

Finally, the denial of poverty in our lives- insofar as it impacts us– is merely the expression that it is not our problem.  Whether we are a compassionate people or not, we can too easily defer the issue of the poor by touting our own good fortunes in the face of the poor, by relegating the problem to the poor alone.  It is far easier to conjure a sense of compassion in the fantasies of literature, as in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” than in our real lives.  We can see the tragedy of an Ebeneezer Scrooge as he coldly turns his back on what he deems “the surplus population” of the poor at Christmas; it is much more difficult to recognize our own indifferences to a matter which impacts all of us, whether we choose to recognize it or not.

The calendar reminds us that we’re approaching Fall once again, when students of all ages return to their academic lives.  High school and college campuses are coming to life.  As I overhear the shouts of energy today on the campus behind my home, I wonder about what they are about to learn.   I know that upcoming classes will explore economic theories, social constructs and geopolitical analyses relating to our world.  I can only hope that there will be as much emphasis on the causes of continued poverty that reside within each of us.  For if those who have the capacity and the resources to address the disgrace of poverty do not do so, then we are all subject to a re-thinking about who truly constitutes the surplus population….






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