Poverty as Slavery(?), Development as Freedom

This article published in the Atlantic today resonated with what I was (and didn’t finish) reading this summer.

“When we [make financial life easier for the poor], we liberate some bandwidth,” Shafir says. Policymakers tend to evaluate the success of financial programs aimed at the poor by measuring how they do financially. “The interesting thing about this perspective is that it says if I make your financial life easier, if I give you more bandwidth, what I really ought to look at is how you’re doing in your life. You might be doing better parenting. You might be adhering to your medication better.”

…and, contradicted with what I experienced from talking to people in Mexico.

This summer, I was wading not-terribly-successfully through Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen, a book one of the pastors at my church mentioned during a sermon. (Also…found out that Dr. Sen is my research grandfather, since he was my research mentor’s mentor in graduate school!)

My pastor credited the book with the fascinating idea that when we aim to relieve poverty, what we’re really aiming for is not just an increase in money but an increase in freedom–that poverty is a form of slavery, or unfreedom from worrying about what one’s going to eat or wear or how one’s going to pay the bills, and also that as we think about development, just giving people more money doesn’t get at the heart of the issue.


Rather, development should also make sure that people have access to health care, democracy, education, and all the other ways people can be free. And given this kind of freedom, Dr. Sen says,

The people have to be seen, in this perspective, as being actively involved–given the opportunity–in shaping their own destiny, and not just as passive recipients of the fruits of cunning development programs.

And all of this is what I’ve believed for a long time. Which is why it was so jarring to hear from several of my Mexican friend that they thought many Mexican people were poor or that the country’s problems stemmed not from systemic injustice or barriers-to-entry but from a fundamental laziness of the people themselves.

My friends would tell me things like “The Mexican government has achieved the perfect level of corruption–not enough that the people actually feel burdened enough to rebel or try to change the status quo, but just enough so that they can keep benefiting.”

“Even if you give a family with a dirt-floored house the option of a tile floor and running water, they’d still prefer their dirt-floored house. Old habits and ways of thinking are hard to change.”

“People don’t want a better life. Too many people like to drink and party and are happy enough with what they have even if it’s very little, and aren’t willing to work any harder.”

“About 80% of my friends would agree with me, that the problems of Mexico are because of the people. The other 20% might say it’s because of the government.”


I haven’t had time to process this…is it the same blame-the-poor rhetoric espoused by many middle- and upper-class Americans? How does it mesh with the reality that Mexican life just seemed so much happier to me than American life, despite these so-called problems and my friends’ belief that Mexicans should imitate Americans or the Chinese with regard to work ethic? [And with the fact that so many of the Latinos I meet in the U.S. are incredibly hard working?! The lady who cleans our kitchen works from 6:30am to 10:30pm every day!]

How does it mesh with my own existential struggle since the end of year 1 with how hard to study in the face of increasingly difficult classes but pass/fail boards, and no clearly dilineated objective to aim for–that basic question that normal people, not us absurdly type-A perpetual students, might actually wonder: how hard should I work?

As with a million entries in the past, lots of questions and no answers. This past summer showed me another slice of this intricate panorama called social justice/the human experience/insert-abstract-name-here…showed me how little I know even in this area I thought I’d had all figured out.


2 thoughts on “Poverty as Slavery(?), Development as Freedom

  1. Thanks for this post. It definitely looks like we’ve been thinking of similar topics.

    One thing that I learned this summer is that the environment of the poor leads them to develop traits that keep them poor. It’s so much easier to be hardworking and driven as a middle class person with some privilege when you can see the spoils ahead if you just work a little harder, save a little more, sacrifice fun now to go to school. However, poor people aren’t fed this paradigm; saving a little more makes no difference in the grand scheme of things (shack vs brick house), so it’s much easier to just spend that dime on a daily tea. The book Poor Economics talks about how if you give poor people living on less than a dollar a day twice the amount of money, they spend the extra money on foods that makes them happier instead of more calorie-dense or nutritious foods.

    I think privileged people sometimes don’t understand that being poor takes an incredible amount of self-control and planning in every aspect of life (much more than being wealthy, where a lot of good decisions are already made for you, like retirement, health insurance, banking, etc!), and that it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to deal with those daily trials and have the willpower to save the extra dollar over a year to invest enough to pull them out of poverty. My point is that poor people act in ways that appear lazy and short-sighted because their environment offers little hope for change, and they naturally grow accustomed to what little they have as a coping mechanism. This may or may not have to do with government corruption, but I definitely agree with the idea that helping lift people out of poverty provides them with more hope and choices so they will be more likely to be make better decisions

  2. Hey Lily, thanks for sharing this! I remember hearing so many similar things from middle/upper-class folks when I came to Malawi, even though it was completely counter to my experiences in the rural areas (e.g. my landlady, who was up at 4 to walk an hour to work in her field all morning, then came back to clean houses of the hospital staff, then cooked and worked around the house until sunset…). I found some of the literature in economics and political economy to be really helpful in understanding what people were talking about — one idea that helped a lot was about incentives and what hard work is “worth.” When wages are low, and there are institutional barriers to upward mobility (including difficulties in getting loans, or political control over business, or segregated education systems), there aren’t as many incentives for people to work extremely hard. What they gain from it just isn’t worth it. But even *despite* this, in many places you do see people working incredibly hard, despite what the wealthy elite think of poor people’s habits. When the incentives are right — the wages are higher, the chance to save for the future is greater, the ability to keep your kids in good schools is real — then the same people who may have looked “lazy” when their wages were $2/day will work very, very hard. Anyway, I’m certainly not a fan of everything economics has to say about poverty, but this helped me figure out why perceived “work ethics” might be different in different places. (Also, I think the wealthy/privileged in any setting come up with reasons that they are wealthy or privileged, and it feels good to have a narrative of “I got here because I worked hard.” How many of our classmates would say exactly that, you know?) Gah too long for a blog comment, but would love to talk more about this at lunch one day 🙂 take care!

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