Throughout the life of this column I have addressed the subject of poverty and related issues primarily on the local, state and national levels. This approach seems natural considering the tremendous upsurge in poverty in recent years, which has significantly impacted people in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, Greater Minnesota, and across the United States. Furthermore, most of us consider ourselves to be Minnesotans as well as Americans.
Notwithstanding these sentiments, I also believe we should think of ourselves as citizens of the world. Hence I am certain that the scourge of poverty that afflicts billions of people around the globe is not lost on any of us.
In many ways the face of poverty outside of America might seem different to us. On the other hand it looks the same in other ways, including the fact that it tends to disproportionately affect people of color wherever they live.
Still, poverty is poverty, and I cannot help but believe that in this global economy, the poverty that stains the American landscape is somehow inextricably tied to the poverty that envelops the rest of the world. This raises the question as to whether or not it is possible to successfully reduce poverty in America without at least making an equally earnest attempt to eliminate the extreme poverty that exists in both developing and newly industrialized countries.
The United Nations (UN) defines extreme poverty as “a condition characterized by severe deprivation of human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, heath, shelter, education and information.”
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that most Americans glimpsed what extreme poverty looked like when they first saw images of the Ethiopian Famine. Popular culture played a big role in disseminating these images first with the charity group Band-Aid, composed primarily of British and Irish recording artists. This effort inspired the likes of Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie and the late Michael Jackson to establish an American counterpart (USA for Africa) and compose the song “We are the World.”
Events such as Live-Aid and Hands Across America followed, and the collective efforts of the entertainment industry raised millions of dollars to fight poverty in Africa. Today, U2’s Bono continues the fight against global poverty through endeavors such as The One Campaign, Project RED, DATA and Jubilee 2000.
It would appear that these efforts have made some difference. Consider that only 25 years ago just shy of two billion people in the world lived in extreme poverty. In 2015, the UN estimates that approximately 1.3 billion currently live under these conditions.
Yet just as many financial analysts have disparaged the methods used to measure poverty in America, global experts criticize the metrics that are used to quantify extreme poverty throughout the world.
Those who are extremely poor are classified as such due to the fact that they live on less than the equivalent of $1.25 per day. Those critical of this income-based measure cite that it fails to account for the lack of other basic needs such as clean water, nutrition, health care, shelter and education.
Therefore, as noted by Dan Morrell of the Harvard Business School, while Ethiopia has 40 percent of its population living in extreme poverty, approximately 90 percent of its citizens are living in multidimensional poverty. Furthermore, those who are fortunate enough to ascend out of extreme poverty likely moved up to join the ranks of the “global poor,” which means that they now live on less than $2.50 per day.
There are more than three billion people, or approximately half of the world’s population, who are currently relegated to that “global poor” category. And while I recognize that the economies in developing countries or “the Third World” are gauged differently than in the industrialized world, living on less than $2.50 per day still seems like extreme poverty to me. According to UNICEF, approximately one billion of those living in global poverty are children, 22,000 of whom die every day from poverty-related causes.
In reflecting upon all of this, it is clear to me that the continuing War on Poverty in America must be linked to the struggle to conquer poverty the world over. Both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King recognized this as they elevated the discussion on civil rights to the larger issue of human rights and thus helped to internationalize the movement.
This perspective would ultimately penetrate the political thought of some of the most radical elements of the Black Power movement, including leaders such as Huey P. Newton and Fred Hampton. Both Newton and Hampton frequently articulated the Black Panther Party’s shift from a Black Nationalist organization to an internationalist one.
This culminated in Newton’s ultimate multi-racial philosophy of “intercommunalism,” which embraced the ancient African proverb of “I am we.” The spirit of this proverb holds that we are responsible for one another and that the well-being of one is connected to the well-being of all.
With that in mind, regardless of how daunting the task may seem, humankind must continue to fight poverty all over the globe.
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.