Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How to Eradicate Poverty

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and I've tried a couple of times to write about it, but it's a tough topic. The solution is even harder, because I think, while there are a lot of people out there who talk a good game, no one really cares enough about the problem to want to fix it. As the line from the song, Everything's Alright (from the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar) goes, "There will be poor always; pathetically struggling."

The topic is poverty and it's defined as - lacking a certain amount of material possessions or money.

That's the simplistic definition. The Wikipedia article on poverty goes further to define absolute poverty (or destitution) as the deprivation of basic human needs, which commonly includes food, water, sanitation, clothing, shelter, health care and education.

Poverty is an economic invention. It's a result of living in a society in which everything has a price. If we really want to eradicate poverty, we have to start by removing price tags from those things that are essential to survival: shelter, food, and water.

In cultures where there is no monetary value assigned to basic needs, like shelter and food, where everything is free to those who have the know-how and willingness to acquire those things, there is no poverty. No one is considered destitute. By our standards, they may not be living high-on-the-hog, but their basic needs are met, i.e. everyone has the basic things they need to survive, and it's possible, because the idea that any one person could "own" something like the land or the rights to the water is just inconceivable.

In indigenous cultures, there was no ownership of the land. While certain tribes might have considered a certain area of land their territory, it's not the same as the notion that Maurice Minnifield has the right to claim ownership of 10,000 acres of land in Cicely, Alaska, or that Nestle Corp can seize control of something as basic as water and express the attitude that someone needs to be in control of this substance so that the rest of us don't squander it.

Poverty exists because we have allowed ourselves to be duped into believing that everything has a price, that everything can be assigned some arbitrary worth based on the assumption that those paper dollars floating around have any actual value beyond what our brains have been washed to believe. The key to eradicating poverty, therefore, is to change those assumptions. Some things should not have value. They should be priceless.

I read an interesting article today about the so-called dark underbelly of Las Vegas. It was about people who live in the labyrinth of tunnels underneath the city. One couple who was featured in the article calls the 400 sq ft section of the tunnel which they have claimed as their home, a "bungalow." In fact, with the exception of the flooded floor, it looks quite nice, and it's at least as cozy and comfortable as the barracks I lived in while enlisted in the Army.

I guess that's part of where my very radical ideas are rooted - the fact that, as a soldier, I was allotted less than 200 sq ft of space for my "home." That's where I lived, where all of my worldly possessions were stored, and it was not just "adequate." It was actually quite a nice room, and more than big enough for me. I shared a bathroom and a shower with the ten or so other females who lived on my floor, and we had access to a kitchen, if we wanted to cook. We were not allowed to have hotplates in our rooms, but we could have coffee pots (which most of us did have), and I could have had a microwave (and we also had access to the dining facility).

The higher the rank, the larger the living quarters, and soldiers with families were given family housing (which were usually very nice and quite large apartments).

I'm not proposing that we all join the military and get free housing, but I am proposing that the practice of private ownership by individuals who can buy and sell these properties for outrageous sums of money be outlawed. While I'm loath to give the government more control, in this situation, I do believe that land should be a community asset, and not something that can be bought and sold and traded ... and then, kept out of the hands of the very people who most need, but can least afford, the stability and security that having a home provides.

My proposal is that all land and the buildings on them become the property of the municipality in which they are located. So, in effect, my town would own my quarter acre suburban lot. Yeah, that does, kind of, turn my blood cold, but there's more to the deal.

First, we have to understand that, while I think I own this land, my town already dictates what I can and can not do with it. So, in effect, while I'm paying the bank for the privilege of living here and pretending that I will someday own this house and the 9000+ sq ft lot on which it stands, the fact is that the town has control over how I use it. So, I'll never, truly, own it. Further, not only does the town have control over its use, but they also tax me to live here.

So, the reality is that the only thing that would be changed by my proposal is that there would never be a bank involved in the transaction. In short, there would be no more mortgages, and the fee I would pay to live here would be the same fee that I'm already paying to live here - my annual taxes to my town.

Initially, we would all be given the places in which we live. It would be a lifetime lease. That is, I would be permitted to stay in my property for my entire life, and when I die, my property would be given to any of my surviving heirs who wished to live here. Just exactly as if I had purchased it from the bank, it would be mine, but if I died, and none of my family wanted it, the town would assume control and have the right to place a new family here.

The city under the city in Las Vegas is not an anomaly. There was a similar community in Las Angeles living under the freeway. There was a "homeless" group that had set-up make-shift housing on public lands in another area. I don't remember, now, exactly where they were, but I remember the details, and they had really built a nice community, that included a laundry facility and other sanitation efforts.

I worry, now that this story is breaking and a book about the people living in their underground "bungalows" has been written and published that they will lose their homes the same way that the people in Los Angeles and the homeless community living on the public lands did. Someone in Las Vegas will decide that those people would be better off above ground, and their comfortable little spaces - furnished entirely with things that would have ended up moldering in landfills - will be razed. Unfortunately, those do-gooders, who can't stand the idea of people living (rent/mortgage-free) in the tunnels under the city, will not have any solutions for giving those folks housing they can afford, and so they'll end up in not-so-comfortable street accommodations, sleeping on park benches (until the cops make them "move along") or in dumpsters ... or eventually, some other unused, forgotten nook or cranny.

We could go a long way toward eradicating the worst of poverty's ravages by giving people places to live. In fact a home with enough land to grow some food, clean water and sanitary waste disposal would knock out four of the seven needs listed in the Wikipedia definition above. With half their needs met, most people would be able to find ways to satisfy the others.

In his book, Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women, Eliot Liebow draws attention to the plight of the homeless women with whom he worked in Washington D.C. He said these women are homeless, not because of the myriad of reasons we want to assign to the homeless (drug/alcohol problems, mental illness, etc.), but because they do not have a place to live. Making housing free, except for the inevitable tax, would not solve the problems of drug/alcohol abuse or cure mental illness, but it would eradicate homelessness, and it would go a long way toward diminishing the ravages of poverty.


  1. I've often wondered what would happen if we had a new Homestead Act, where free land would be made available to anyone who want to "prove it up." Can you imagine if millions of impoverished (or even lower middle class) people could own land and even a home without being saddled with a 30 year mortgage? And had a place to grow food, even if it was just a little bit?

    I sort of feel that way about dying rural towns - open up old houses and land to hardworking but economically disadvantaged folks or even anyone who wants to live a semi-subsistence life and you'd repopulate rural areas and unburden overcrowded suburban and urban areas. Yes, you'd still have to pay taxes to receive municipal water and sewer services, but that could be a lot less than a mortgage AND taxes anywhere else.

    I would do that. If I could have land and even a run-down, fixer-upper house in a rural area, I would move in a heartbeat (providing I could keep my job).

  2. While I absolutely oppose turning land currently in private ownership of individuals over to the State, I have long since proposed turning all of our closed military bases over to the Commons for the poor and dispossessed to live in. Military bases are ready made communities and the housing (while often in need of repair) is far superior to housing 'projects'. The communities could be set up as cooperative non-profits that provide training in community self sustaining, heirloom skills and could provide child care, health care (substance abuse counseling, that many homeless need, etc....). I'd far rather see this be done with abandoned base housing that the tax payers built than to see them just decay in disuse.