Less isn't more
Solutions to poverty’s big challenges don’t come in smaller packages.
Jesus warned that the poor we will always have with us. There are times when we seem to come close to losing them, though. During the Clinton years, U.S. employment was so robust that even young African American men, a demographic notoriously locked out of gainful employment in the United States, were finding work and even buying homes in record numbers. In 1973, declining from just over 22 percent of the population in 1959, U.S. poverty reached 11.1 percent—a low that has not been matched since. It is not a coincidence that the year marked the end of the “War on Poverty” and the beginning of a retrenchment that continues to this day.
The legions of the poor have been re-forming in the United States and around the world in the persisting doldrum that followed the great economic dislocations of 2008. At 15 percent and climbing, there are more poor in absolute numbers in the United States (47 million) than before the beginning of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program.
To critics of social interventions, that outcome is evidence that government efforts to reduce poverty are inherently futile, but that’s much like telling a swimmer it’s impossible to make it across a lake when you keep forcing him to turn around halfway to his goal.
“Poverty is back,” say headlines describing the explosion of indigence in recession-rocked Europe. But never fear: The folks in authority are aware of poverty’s comeback and are primed to take action. Are they contemplating a vast jobs program to get laid-off private and public sector workers off the dole? Perhaps German industrialists and politicians will put this engine of Europe into high gear to create work for the united Europe they claim to support?
Nah. Unilever, the Dutch consumer goods conglomerate, has duly noted the European Union’s raging unemployment and collapsing incomes and is radically reorganizing. Not its workplace, its job creation priorities, nor its infrastructure investments, but rather its packaging—downsizing goods to make them affordable to the recently impoverished former members of the European middle class. Explains Unilever honcho Jan Zijderveld: “If a consumer in Spain only spends 17 euros when they go shopping, then I’m not going to be able to sell them washing powder for half of their budget.”
The milk of human kindness will now be available in a variety of poverty-sized containers, a creative response to the ongoing crisis and just what mother nature needed—more plastic-coated cardboard to digest. And on a unit cost, Europe’s nouveau pauvre will undoubtedly be paying more for their smaller portions, which should keep Unilever’s profit margins fat. What a relief! Apparently this is the same branding and packaging Unilever uses in the developing world. Finally, a practical expression of solidarity with the world’s downtrodden.
A lot of the sudden destitution in European states is related to the sovereign debt crisis and rapid and deep reductions in government spending aimed at leading Europe out of its fiscal forest of doom. Across the pond America’s fans of austerity prescribe similar shock therapy to combat rising national debt. Unfortunately most of the shock will be absorbed, as in Europe, by the nation’s poor and the working and middle class. Strangely absolved from sacrifice are the überrich, at the tail end of a decades-long run of tax-cut infused wealth creation, and the more or less sacrosanct Department of Defense.
Like Unilever’s packaging revisions, these measures respond to a global crisis by sacrificing people first. From a Catholic perspective they offer a perverse reversal of social priorities and a profound misreading of the purposes of a market economy.
In Catholic social theory, human beings are not reducible to mere agents for market clearing or ciphers in budget balancing. The market is supposed to serve humankind, not the other way around. Packaging may get smaller; budgets may be reduced. But let’s remember not to downsize our humanity.
This article appeared on the November 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 11, page 38).
Image: Tom Wright