The Worst Assumption About Poverty


I woke up this morning, and the first thing I did was pick up my smartphone and look on the newsfeed of everybody's favorite online social media site to see what was up.

On my mind -- a carry-over from the evening prior -- was a report explaining that the poverty in the United States wasn't as bad as everyone has thought because the standard of living is generally better than fuedal Europe because of cheap electronics, among other cheap material goods. Of course, I had read a rebuttel stating, Yeah but the cost of the basic necessities is too damn high, and all those consumer electronics you deem a luxury (like smartphones) are really necessities to jobs.

With this in mind, I saw on my newsfeed that the Basic Income Europe posted a blurb from Rutger Bregman. You may remember Rutger Bregman from such Ted Talks as "Why we should give everyone a basic income." The link was to Bregman's piece "Four Reasons That The Universal Basic Income Is An Idea Whose Time Has Come." I had read it before, but the first point made in it struck me this time with fresh eyes: "Poverty is not a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash."

Indeed, poverty is not a lack of character. In fact, if you believe the memes on the Internet, the candidates running for President of the United States from the two mainstream political parties have zero character. Thus, one must conclude -- by this meme logic -- that because of their lack of character, the candidates should be destitute. However, such is not the case. The candidates are living far from material poverty. But are they living lives of luxury because they are awash in cash only?

No. These candidates do not live by cash alone. One thrives to this day due to his inherited wealth. The other may not have inherited all of her wealth, but she (like her opponent) relies on a political economic system that re-captures wealth. One might call this later description as "work" as in "She worked for this money." Well, sure, but there's labor, and then there's work. She didn't labor in the coal mines. She worked with the owners of the mines. See the difference?

Also, there is a difference between lacking cash and lacking wealth (or capital). One can liquidate capital in order to gain cash, and one may use cash (or credit) to attain capital. But a single fast food worker is going to have a tough time buying her own multinational computer software corporation -- unless she first marries the CEO or something in the vein of "The Pretty Woman" film, right? 

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I once reminiced with a friend on how awesome we felt as kids when going through our parents' sofa and finding loose change. Under the cushions was a treasure trove of pennies, dimes, nickels, and maybe a few quarters, if we were lucky. He added that he had an uncle that lost his car keys while sitting on the couch. When my friend found them, he insisted on owning his uncle's car. Needless to say, his wish was not granted, but he did get a "finders fee" in the form of a stick of bubble gum. Oh, the innocence of childhood.

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So, I think that the worst assumption about poverty -- and one that supporters of Basic Income should take note -- is that poverty is a lack of cash. No, it's a lack of capital. It's the lack of property. This point is a blind spot to the Basic Income Movement because if we don't think about the differences and inter-relations between wealth (capital) and income (cash), then we may end up getting a bad deal down the line. One way to think about it instead is to think about Basic Income as our "shared inheritance."

Okay, with that, blog post over now. I'm going back to bed.