Bad Choices and Poverty

October 17 was the International Day for the eradication of poverty. It highlights the need for individuals, communities, business, and government to look beyond myths to the realities of poverty and to partner together for lasting solutions. The present weakness is the life style approach to interventions, instead of across the community activities focusing on poverty and inequities in the system that affect choices.

In 19th century Britain the increase in the poor population resulted from the ongoing closure of the commons and the upheaval produced by the Industrial Revolution. The Enclosure Acts and the destruction of the cottage industry forced farm laborers out of the rural areas into the cities to look for work. The growth in the labor class led to a decrease in wages, and further unemployment. The cost of providing relief for the poor, that fell to the landowners, increased over ten-fold from 1750 to 1818.

Where Rousseau (1712-1778) claimed social equality was possible, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) believed social equality was not possible.  At the turn of the 19th century, Bentham introduced the principle of utility – reflected in the statement “every action should be judged right or wrong according to how far it tends to promote or damage the happiness of the community.” Bentham believed that human behavior was motivated by the desire to obtain pleasure and avoid pain.  Utilitarianism taught that through the infliction and threat of pain people would be provided with motives to abstain from decisions associated with socially harmful behaviour.

The Reform Act of 1832 organized workhouses based on utilitarian principles – paupers would be forced work in the poorhouses – the conditions of the inhabitants were not to be better than the conditions of the lowest classes not working in the workhouses. This Poor Law reform was expected to work wonders for the moral character of the working man, while reducing the costs of the relief system. The choice to incorporate the principles of utilitarianism in this legislation created an unmitigated disaster.

After the influenza and typhoid epidemics of 1837 and 1830 in Britain, Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890), a lawyer and social reformer, was asked by the government to carry out an inquiry into sanitation in Britain. Chadwick was appalled at the number of people admitted to the workhouses and became convinced that if the health of the working population could be improved then there would be a drop in the numbers of people on relief. Chadwick used an economic argument to drive change – loss of revenue to the government because of early death of so many people. He believed that a healthier population would be able to work harder and would cost less to support, and if all of his recommendations were carried out the average life-expectancy for the laboring classes would increase by at least 13 years.

Bad decision-making of individuals in the financial services industry, with self-tolerance and a sense of entitlement, leveraging the market brought chaos on the world financial system in 2008.1 Poverty has increased as a result of the recession, while banks are netting the biggest profits in years. Without interventions many unemployed and under employed workers will either endure sustained periods out of work or drop out of the labor market entirely leading to permanent skills erosion. The consequence of the prolonged recession for workers in manufacturing related industry is long-term unemployment.

Poverty limits choices. Poor people have limited choices for their diet. They often lack shops in their area where they live, or have trouble reaching them. In particular, the poor have the lowest intake of fruits and vegetables. This leads to consumption of an over abundance of cheaper junk food (high fructose corn syrup drinks and processed foods), leading to more obesity and chronic disease than the general population. Falling back on the lifestyle rhetoric of the health promotion approach that relies on health education to encourage healthy behavior has worsened social inequalities in health as upper socioeconomic classes have secured the most benefits.2

In Canada a senate report in 2009, In From the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness, identified that Canada’s system for addressing poverty is broken – many income supplement programs sustain people in poverty, rather than lifting them out of poverty. The main strategies recommended to break the cycle of poverty were: early childhood education, a national housing strategy, and an income floor for all Canadians who are severely disabled. The cost of poverty in 2009 in the province of Alberta (population of 3,654,000), that includes, health care costs, costs attributable to crime, intergenerational costs, and opportunity costs, is in excess of $9 billion. These staggering costs cry out for an effective program to reduce poverty for the whole country. This is about including the social and economic environment as well as the physical environment to life style and behaviour factors in a poverty reduction strategy.

1 Horsman, Greg. Objectivism Lost: And an Age of Disillusionment p 27.

2 Prinja, Shankar and Rajesh Kumar.  Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2009;87:84-84. doi: 10.2471/BLT.08.062695

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3 Responses to Bad Choices and Poverty

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