Much More Than Hunger

Poverty calls to mind starvation and inadequate clothing, leaky roofs, no doctors or medications for illness. But David Brooks recently reminded us of something even more important. The primary effect of poverty is “raw fear.”

“People in many parts of the world simply live beyond the apparatus of law and order. The District of Columbia spends about $850 per person per year on police. In Bangladesh, the government spends less than $1.50 per person per year on police. The cops are just not there.

“In the United States, there is one prosecutor for every 12,000 citizens. In Malawi, there is one prosecutor for every 1.5 million citizens. The prosecutors are just not there.”

Most of us take civil order for granted. To be sure, crime and violence exist – but, generally, they are exceptions. When they occur to us, we are usually shocked. And we usually feel safe on the streets, unless we live in a crime-infested, drug-infused decaying urban area such as Detroit was until recently. But that level of security was achieved a relatively short time ago. In poor countries it still does not exist.

Brooks adds: “Even when there is some legal system in place, it’s not designed to impose law and order for the people. It is there to protect the regime from the people.” The wealthy and the established, by and large, are immune from prosecution, and corruption means that being ‘privileged’ means having the right to do what you want with impunity. (See, “The Republic of Fear.“)

He concludes: the “primary problem of politics is not creating growth. It’s creating order.”

Brooks does not specify this, but it is implicit that such legal order inevitably includes human rights. Having rights means that you are entitled to make choices about matters affecting your values and beliefs, your desires and convictions. You can have opinions and inclinations, likes and dislikes. Some ideas are worth dying for, but that should not be the acid test against which our everyday impulses and thoughts need be measured.

If “raw fear” is the result of lacking physical safety, so can it flow from knowing that someone more powerful feels free to assault you or take what you have. It also shades off into anxiety and shame when you know they might, that it just has not occurred to them yet.

Those of us who enjoy these privileges tend to take them for granted. That’s the point of having them, not needing to check them out constantly. We simply know they are there –until they are not.

We are allowed to live on the surface of life, but that is part of what it means to be human. For the most part, we are able to see things as they are, without being paranoid or haunted or guilty.
Brooks reminds us how easily we forget that dimension of life.