Development Roast

Poverty on a 62-foot yacht in the Pacific Ocean

Most of the people who write about poverty have never themselves been poor (including myself). This is not so strange, since the poor are too poor to write, even if some of them have the ability. They do not have the surplus of energy and time alone that is required to sit down and write to record or transmit their feelings, thoughts and ideas. They do not write blogs or diaries and they virtually never get hired as consultants to study poverty.

Might it be the case that the ones writing about poverty don't really understand it?

In the unlikeliest of places, as a guest on a 12-person sailboat touring the World, I got to experience some of the problems that poor people face every day: The whole family cramped in a tiny room with no privacy whatsoever; a hot shower a rare luxury; trying too keep the children's clothes clean a struggle against all odds; fish biting at much too irregular intervals; and daily chores taking up all ones time and energy.

It is surprising how quickly you can get used to that lifestyle, though. You don't really need a bath every day, and there are always some clothes that are cleaner than others. The uncomfortable sleeping arrangements get compensated by more hours of sleep, and the lack of privacy is a natural anti-contraceptive. The lack of TV is simply a blessing, and the free pleasures of playing on the beach, hiking in the mountains, cooking a self-caught fish, and chatting under the stars seems to be enjoyed so much more than the expensive trips to museums and fancy restaurants. Nine-to-five work gets distinctly unattractive: It is physically impossible, and who would want it anyway?

There seems to me to be four main situations in the world:

1) You are poor in a rural area, living off the land with plenty of time to spend with family and friends. You don't have to worry about somebody stealing your stuff and you don't feel any pressure to "keep up with the Jones's." Neighbors and family members usually share generously if some are more fortunate than others. You know little and therefore worry little about the rest of the world. Your main problems are likely to be health related, but, as there is little you can do about them, death is accepted without much fuss as a natural event.

2) You are poor in an urban area and have to work very hard to earn enough money just to shelter, feed and clothe your family. You likely work in a small family business, still spending lots of time with the family, but you may also have to do some stints of long, arduous hours in larger factories. You are likely to have access to public goods such as education, piped water, sanitation, hospitals, roads, TV and Internet, and through this you learn how unequal the world really is, and how relatively unattractive your current situation is.

3) You are well-off, but have to work hard to maintain the image expected of somebody with your level of wealth. This implies too little time to enjoy with family and friends, so you are at risk of dying lonely and unhappy of some stress-induced illness. You are insured against theft, fire, unemployment, accidents, disease, death, etc, but that does not prevent bad things from happening.

4) You are rich without having to work too hard for it. This is a quite heterogeneous group including those who inherited wealth, those who won it, those who married into it, those who have some special talents and worked hard to develop them, and those who exploit their fellow citizens. Almost by definition, only a minority can be rich without hard work (1) 1. This condition could theoretically keep you comfortable for a very long time, but I am not sure it will make you happy. It seems that most rich people have plenty of problems in their lives, and if not, they create artificial problems and worries, for example by climbing mountains, crossing oceans in small sailboats, or trying to look like Barbie.

This is obviously an oversimplification (2) 2, but if 1 to 3 roughly outlines the road from poverty to richness (and 4 is reserved for a small lucky minority), then it is not so strange that increased wealth has not been accompanied by increased happiness, as recent research suggests it hasn't (3) 3.

And perhaps it is not so strange either that it is difficult to get people out of poverty. Stage 2 and 3 do not exactly look attractive if you are used to a life with independence, flexibility and fresh air, even if you don't have much money.

I am sure most poor people would be happy to jump directly to 4, but maybe they don't think that the money they would earn in 2 and 3 is worth the sacrifices they would have to make.

I think earned income is a really lousy measure of welfare/happiness. Maybe it would be more accurate to measure welfare by how many hours of leisure (family time, hobbies, sports, traveling, studying, reading, art work, gardening, playing, etc) you can afford per year and poverty by how many hours of work you have to do per week. (If you really love your work, it could be considered a profitable hobby, and thus count as leisure).

Studies that use earnings per hour worked as a measure of welfare do indirectly value leisure, so they are probably not too bad. But most studies on poverty do not take into account the value of being your own boss and being able to choose how many hours you want to work and when. They implicitly impose the same set of preferences on all people – a set of preferences that value diamonds and flat screen TVs highly, but attaches no value to personal time, flexibility, independence, nature, exercise, and freedom from worrying about terrorists, global warming and species extinction.

If you are rich enough, you can buy back some time, freedom, nature, exercise, etc (for example by sailing around the world or climbing Himalaya), and you will have come full circle.

Heard of any other examples of how increased income does not mean increased happiness? Leave a reply below.

(*) Director, Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia. The author happily receives comments at the following e-mail:

(1) Obviously, we can't all win the lottery and we can't all live from stealing from each other. Somebody has to work to generate that wealth.
(2) In some places, due to overpopulation, the rural population does not have enough land to be able to live on it. But at least in Bolivia, poor rural children are usually better fed than poor urban children (according to data from the Demographic and Health Survey of 2003).
(3) For references, see the Christmas 2006 edition of The Economist.
Ó Institute for Advanced Development Studies 2006. The opinions expressed in this newsletter are those of the author and do not necessarily coincide with those of the Institute.

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