What makes some people poor and others rich? Is it work ethic, luck or something else? There are structural reasons why “the rich get richer” and others do not. Structural reasons are factors mostly outside of an individual’s control.  They influence our lives in many ways that we do not notice and are sometimes considered “luck” but can also be considered privilege (or a lack of). The comic below by Toby Morris from The Wireless illustrates this concept:

This comic shows that the structures Paula and Richard were born into played large roles in determining their trajectory into adulthood.

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“Poverty is lack of power. And that lack of power is a direct consequence of others having too much power – ultimately too much control over resources. Wealth comes from exploitation of people and the planet’s resources. 

This is why even well-intentioned plans to make the poor richer are doomed to failure if they ignore the question of power. Helping the poor to buy more products or rent more resources from the rich might provide short-term relief, but in the long-term will reinforce the unequal relationship between the two. Just as nineteenth-century American slave owners who decided to treat their slaves better missed the real injustice that they were perpetrating.” — Global Justice Now

With wealth comes power, and the wealthy have the power to create policies and reinforce structures that exclude the less rich while protecting the more rich. Understanding the history of global colonization should help you get an idea of how and why poverty can exist on local, national and international levels: For centuries European countries held a lot of wealth and used their position of power to colonize foreign land to further grow their wealth. They used the people in these countries as slaves and decimated environments while they extracted precious resources for their own profit. The effects of colonization are still felt strongly around the world, including in Canada, and it continues to dictate global distributions of power. Although the violent and destructive colonization of the past has technically come to an end, many countries, especially in Africa, that became independent countries are still in the hands of Western countries through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other economic systems.

From a human rights perspective, poverty is not only how much tangible wealth you might not have, it is also how much power you might not have. Consider how companies in wealthy countries will outsource work to poorer countries for a better price. For example, we can think about the U.S., a wealthy country, and Bangladesh, a country with a lot of poverty. A company from the U.S. is interested in making the maximum profit off of their product when it goes to sale, so they want it to cost as little as possible to manufacture. It costs more than the company wants to spend to manufacture it in the U.S. because of minimum wages, employees belonging to unions and certain chemicals not being allowed in production. In Bangladesh the working conditions are totally different, meaning that way more people work at one time, for longer days, for less money, and around those dangerous chemicals (although technically there are supposed to be regulations to protect workers from these human rights violations). There is a job shortage in Bangladesh leaving many factory workers struggling to make ends meet. Factory owners must find contracts to continue making money and providing jobs. The factories need the jobs so badly that it is a race to the bottom so that they can provide the “best” price for the U.S. company at the cost of their employees’ health, safety and bank accounts.

The wealthy country has used its power to make a better deal for themself, allowing them to make more money off their product and get richer, while forcing the poorer country (and its workers) deeper into poverty by paying them as little as possible. Further, the company in the U.S. now has the expectation that it can pay the Bangladeshi factory that low price again in the future, taking away any bargaining power from the factory owner and forcing those workers to stay in poverty. This maintains the unbalanced power dynamic and perpetuates the issue.

Unfortunately, we see similar disrespect for human rights in a wide range of foreign investment projects. Mining by U.S. and Canadian companies in Central and South America is destroying the environment, eliminating habitats, contaminating water sources and shutting down communities. This type of action impoverishes the locals by disallowing their access to basic human rights, such as the right to clean drinking water. Negative health effects caused by damaged environments also limits peoples’ abilities to work and go to school.

Poverty is a complicated issue that goes beyond the numbers in someone’s bank account. Explore the topic of poverty with a critical lense, looking at the bigger picture to understand how societal systems, power distributions and historical context perpetuate poverty.

(With information from Manitoba Education, Grade 12: Global Issues)

Poverty can be absolute or relative. It can refer to a lack of money, wealth, time, well-being and more. See the UNESCO definition of “poverty” for a comprehensive understanding.

See all posts related to Poverty, Wealth & Power.