“For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always.”
Matthew 26:11

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 3:5

The COVID-19 crisis is igniting new debates about the meaning of poverty, possible ways to address it, and the ethical issues at stake. 

True, for most of human history most people were poor, not only by contemporary definitions of low income and access to technology, but in the raw sense that death came early and often, hunger was a common state, and most people lived in conditions not far removed from slavery. Freedom to move and to choose was for most an illusion. Biblical comments on the inevitability of poverty were quite literally true.

But the situation today is radically different. First, common myths notwithstanding, remarkable steps have lifted billions out of poverty, both income poverty but more important through remarkable progress in expanding access to education and health. But second, the fact that we have both the knowledge and the resources to end systemic poverty means that its persistence can truly be called a scandal.

What the COVID-19 crisis has illuminated with a glaring light is the reality of poverty for close to a billion people who live on the margins of society or within it. The World Bank estimates that, using 2015 figures, some 10% of the world’s population lived on less than $1.90 a day (a rough but widely used estimate of great poverty). Even in the wealthy United States, an estimated 18% of children live in poverty: 13 million children. The COVID-19 emergency has made the situation of many who suffer poverty worse and pushed more from a situation where they had barely emerged right back into poverty.

The crisis has highlighted not only the stark numbers on poverty but facets that many had ignored, even in policy circles. First is the precariousness of life for so many. One illness, a short hiatus in employment, an accident: any one can strip hope and survival overnight. The inequities of income distributions are cast into sharp relief with the recognition that those who are truly essential for life are paid far less than others. And systems of social protection—unemployment and health insurance, support for the most vulnerable, and care for the elderly—that work well in Scandinavia, Canada, and some other countries are appallingly weak in most countries in the world. Private institutions, religious organizations prominent among them, provide support, as do families and communities. Human beings are remarkably resilient, able to cope with seemingly impossible adversity. But many suffer great hardship, more fall through large cracks, and their rich potential is thwarted. People suffer but so do societies.

We can and must hope that the revelation—the stripping away of the veils concealing poverty and vulnerability—will lead to reforms at both national and international levels.

To me, the first and foremost issue is to recognize, analyze, and address the patterns that increase inequalities, with primary attention to education and health care but many other issues, including housing. Wide income inequalities are not only unfair; they are unhealthy, and considerable evidence highlights that they accentuate social tensions and sap a society’s creative capacities. Among insidious aspects are racial divides linked to structural inequalities. The deep crisis of trust that has sapped confidence in institutions is linked to what is unmistakably visible today: gross inequalities that have no sound foundation in logic or morality. Debates rage about how to address inequalities without dampening incentives to invest and invent, but bold action is needed. What we seek is equity, a sense of balance and fairness, not an unhealthy equalizing effect

Social protection systems also need a thorough revamping. There’s no excuse for failure to act in a prosperous country like the United States; the excuses given tend to smack of ideology and inertia. In poorer countries, the challenge is more complex, as both systems and resources are generally inadequate. But societies with limited resources—Kerala in India, for example—have instituted programs that offer wide support. It is striking that Sri Lanka’s strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic owes much to decades of investment in a free health care system that serves all.

Looking once again to learning lessons from the challenges that the COVID-19 crisis has revealed, reforms need to address different kinds of vulnerability. Economic slowdowns have increased unemployment, and school shutdowns highlight inequities unmistakably apparent now in unequal access to internet and computers. Quality health care is not available to all and is sadly rationed by income. Vulnerable groups vary widely, whether the aged, those suffering chronic illness, people with disabilities, and people whose luck has failed. Designing systems that meet all these needs can be a bureaucratic nightmare.

A chronic debate among policy analysts is how far targeting those in need and channeling resources to them can work. Apart from complex bureaucratic challenges, reliance on support can sap the dignity of the recipient and even of the provider, and uncertainties are almost inevitable. Charity is a wonderful and essential gift when it is linked to caring and compassion, but in a complex modern society, it is far from a complete solution.

These flaws in most social protection systems have encouraged wide-ranging programs that combine an equitable approach that applies widely to people in communities, without the apparatus of determining exactly who needs exactly how much, and simplicity of administration. Examples include the conditional cash transfer programs pioneered in Mexico and Brazil and now widely applied across many regions. The conditional element is typically tied to positive actions like health checks for children and keeping students in school. Even these conditions are being simplified, and evaluations suggest that the simple fact of having sufficient income leads to positive if not always ideal outcomes. This experience and the ideas involved are what has encouraged new attention to the idea of guaranteeing a basic minimum income to all in the society.

More broadly, the benefits to the society of assuring a true social safety net are large if difficult to measure: Social cohesion or harmony can increase without the nagging practical and ethical fact of unjust patterns in the society and cumbersome and inevitably imperfect welfare systems. The answer to realizing the ancient dream of a world without poverty is indeed to assure both an equitable system where all can succeed following different paths and a strong system of protection for those who need it.

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