Books In Brief

Facets of Poverty in America

I Satya Sundaram

[I Satya Sundaram has reviewed three interesting books Poverty, The Sustainability Revolution and Path of Self-realization in brief. All the three books deal with the multiple crises the people are facing today across the world.]

The world has made rapid strides in the areas of science and technology. Yet, poverty and unemployment have become ubiquitous–only their intensity differs from country to country. Even rich countries could not eliminate poverty completely.

In the US, the poverty rate fell from 17.3 per cent in 1965 to 11.1 percent in 1973 thanks to government initiatives. In 2001, the number of poor stood at 32.9 million. Government also transferred large amount of economic resources in the form of noncash transfers in 2001, especially for medical care, food and housing.

Poverty is not evenly distributed across the American landscape. It is mainly a rural problem. Poverty rates are highest in the most remote rural areas. The State of Mississippi {Delta counties} has the highest poverty rate in America, with 12 percent unemployment rate.

According to economist, Paul Krugman, “American children born to parents in the bottom fourth of the income distribution have almost a 50 percent chance of staying there–and almost a two-thirds chance of remaining stuck if they are black”. {p,19}.

The Time magazine wrote: “Poverty in America is not about income alone. Low income communities, regardless of State, are more likely to struggle with access to affordable healthcare, they are more likely to live near toxic sites and to develop lung cancer; they are more likely to live in food deserts and to wrestle with illness like heart disease and obesity; and they are more likely to die younger from drug overdoses”. {Issue dated May 8-15, 2023, p,28}

Experts say the official poverty calculations are under-estimates. They ignore many key factors such as increased cost of medical-care, education, transportation, and many other basic costs of living. They also do not take into account geographically based costs of living {p,33}. Also, debts too should be taken into account.

Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, along with economist, Jean-Paul Fitoussi had observed: “Income and consumption are crucial for assessing living standards, but in the end, they can only be gauged in conjunction with information on wealth”. {p,35}.

What about the gap between the rich and poor? According to Stiglitz,in 2011, the top one percent earned almost a quarter of income and controlled 40 percent of wealth in the US, while wages have declined for the middle class {p,50}. He further said an economy in which the majority is doing worse year after year is not likely to do well over a long period.

When inequality is on the rise, the government is not using its valuable asset, namely, people. Also, most distortions like monopoly power and preferential tax for special interests do undermine the efficiency of the economy {pp.52,53}. America has long suffered from an under-investment in infrastructure. The wealthy are reluctant to spend on common needs.

What is the relationship between foreign assistance and poverty? Some say foreign assistance is a failure; others say, it has contributed to revamp spheres like agriculture, infant mortality rates, availability of potable water and other health and nutrition interventions {p,157}. It is argued that global goals can be achieved only through local action.

The argument is that if international aid is not offered to poor countries, they are unable to grow by themselves, the natural resources may deplete, while population grows. The situation may worsen.

There is a broad agreement that countries prosper, with democratic institutions that enable citizen participation, fair representation even for minorities, and efficient, responsive Government{p,162}.

Of course, Muhammad Yunus has made one thing clear. The group approach–self-help groups and microfinance–can play a vital role in minimising misery by empowering women in a short period.

The book is interesting. It presents a particular viewpoint, supported by some; and the opposite points of view advocated by others. Such books were brought out under the series Opposing Viewpoints.

The edited book, Poverty, by Roman Espezo {Greenhaven Press, Detroit, USA, Pp, 131. Price $23} is a comprehensive one on various dimensions of poverty in USA. It has touched on all poverty-related issues.

Living on the Edge
Concerted efforts are being made towards an eco-friendly world. Yet, a solution to the problem of climate change is not in sight. Surely, we need a sustainability revolution that supports economic viability and healthy eco-systems by modifying consumption patterns and implementing a more equitable social framework”. {p.3}

Theodore Roosevelt observed {1900}: “I recognise the right and duty of this generation to develop and use our material resources, but I do not recognise the right to waste them or to rob by wasteful use, the generations that come after us”.

The industrial revolution is marked by technological innovations, increased production capacity, economic specialisation. The society must be prepared to face revolutions. As rightly observed by Thomas Jefferson: “Every generation needs a new revolution”. The personal computer and the internet have had a significant impact on the sustainability revolution by facilitating the dissemination of information.

The Brundtland Report {1987} created a framework for addressing ways of protecting the Earth’s eco-systems while taking into consideration economic and social justice concerns.

There are significant developments in recent decades. The national biogas programme in Thailand, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, the current stress on renewable energy are a few examples. The sustainability revolution emerged as a reaction to the industrial revolution which caused degradation of environment. There are now sustainability groups having similar intentions and objectives. The movement enjoys decentralised leadership {p,9}.

The sustainability movement gained strength in the early 1980s, with the publication of Robert Allen’s How to Save the World {1981}, and Lester Brown’s Building a Sustainable Society {1981}. Brundtland Report Our Common Future {1987} is also an important document. Brown drew attention to ecological limitations.

The National Step {NS} was founded in 1989 by Swedish oncologist Karl -Henrik Robert. In 1995, it was brought to the US. It has branches in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The four system conditions of NS are {Pp 59-61}:

1.   In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity are not systematically subject to increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust.
2.   In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity are not systematically subject to increasing concentrations of substances produced by society.
3.   In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity are not systematically impoverished by physical displacement, over-harvesting or other forms of eco-system manipulation.
4.   In a sustainable society, resources are used fairly and efficiently in order to meet basic human needs globally.

While studying sustainability of natural resources, one should remember: {i} resource renewal versus non-renewal, and {ii} short-term versus long-run. Sustainability of non-renewable resources requires recycling of existing materials and shifting to renewable alternatives. In the case of renewable resources, industries must follow sustainable practices while remaining competitive {p, 76}.

The Asilomar Declaration for Sustainable Agriculture stands for food systems which are ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just and humane {p,90}. It draws attention to the need for preserving and promoting the farming lifestyle and rural communities {p, 93}. But, there are many challenges.

Addressing ecological issues is no easy task. People have to rely on collective wisdom and positive efforts worldwide to find out solutions.

The book, The Sustainability Revolution by Andres R Edwards {New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, Canada. Pp.207. Price: US/Canada $16.95} throws useful light on sustainability principles, ideas, concepts and indicators.

Towards Self Realisation
In these days of mounting mental tensions, everyone wants peace. But, it is not easy to attain. Chakravarti Narayan Shrimali has said in his foreword to the book: “We are all on an incessant voyage. We are undertaking a journey of finding our own true self. This is not an easy path to tread, but those who toil hard gets the sweetest fruit… Realisation about our ignorance, aim, purpose of our sole existence can bring special and unending joy in our life”.

Service has been the essence of Indian culture. Man’s avaricious proclivities pulverised the desire to help others. The author has rightly observed: “Performing a service is not possible with a pensive mind. Simplicity is a precondition for having senses of service” (p, 29).

We always try to assess others, but we completely ignore the more important thing–self assessment. We realise our fault only when we are under the influence of real Guru. This is the only way to enrich our lives. We have many negative thoughts. For instance, arrogance is the biggest hurdle in the way of attainment of consciousness (p, 11). Of course, our ego is fiercely attacked by learned persons. The author said: “Self realisation can be achieved only through wisdom. It can only be perceived. The perception is possible only with the help of a person who himself symbolises right perception.” (p, 28).

Liberation from bondage is also an important aim of human life. The author has observed: “Liberation is when the chitta (mind) does not long for anything, grieves about anything, reject anything, or hold on to anything and is not pleased or displeased about anything.” (p, 99). In other words, a stoic attitude to life is important. The author has also observed that liberation could not be achieved even in heaven, if ego is there (p, 100).

The author opined that when the causes of pain are understood, the pain disappears. He comes to know that the pains are all caused by his own doings. He then feels absolute peace (p, 104).

Very few understand the meaning of liberation and renunciation. To avoid the challenges of life, some may take up sanyasa. Such people not only bluff others, but also cheat themselves (p, 158).

The book
‘The Path of Self Realization’
By Sanjiv Kashyap,
[Vikas Prakashan, Bikaner, Rajasthan Pp, 247, Price: Rs.595]
Throws useful light on the nuances of human life. Its message is crystal clear?

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Vol 56, No. 4, Jul 23 - 29, 2023