Recently I got the chance to see “Poverty, Inc.” (povertyinc.org, available for streaming.) In the season of giving, it was quite eye-opening.
A winner of over 60 film festival awards, it likely will change your mind about aid. It showcases tales such as a Haitian businessman shut out by global aid organizations who, despite his pleas, gave away a foreign competitor’s product for free, killing his business and harming his employees. An African woman laments the loss of local cotton farms and mills amidst video of piles of donated used clothing, which made the local cotton industry obsolete.
Another man points out that access to opportunity is the real issue, and that “no country gets so much aid that it becomes a rich country.” Rather, he said, the people need opportunity to do it themselves, stating, “No one wants to be a beggar for life.”
This fascinating film reminded me of how good intentions can go really awry, yet no one wants to stop doing what feels good. What feels good is an immediate fix. What is needed is a long-term fix. To get there we need to follow the advice repeated by many: Begin with the end in mind.
Do we want impoverished people to become comfortable and secure? If so, they need access and opportunity. “Poverty, Inc.” cries out that perpetual global handouts only reinforce the image of emerging countries as needy, instead of, say, a great source of lower-cost computer programing expertise.
Do we want affordable health-care coverage? Then why are we not talking about cost control (like Medicare already does), rather than only who gets access to care?
Do we want an economy with plentiful, high-paying jobs? Rather than focusing on increasing the bottom wages, might we focus on attracting, recruiting and training for high-paying jobs across multiple sectors, from construction and utilities, to engineering, finance and more? Thankfully the Santa Clarita Valley has our own Economic Development Corporation, for example.
Would we like dams that don’t fail, bridges that don’t fall, and clean energy that is plentiful? Our current approach of wringing our hands when the breakdowns occur, coupled with vehement protests over costs and opposition to new projects, doesn’t serve that end goal. Long-term, phased infrastructure repair and replacement is always cheaper than responding to catastrophe, and it should be talked about more. Right now we aren’t even keeping things from crumbling, let alone planning for the future. We sit in worsening traffic, on worsening roads. Yes, Californians kept the gas tax in place, but do we really have the stomach to say yes to new construction or just pothole repair?
Could we have housing for everyone, at all price points? How do we get there? Right now we have an interesting mix of “not in my back yard” views and “yes in my back yard” requests. Is there a way to do this without hurting property values and driving up costs in lower -income communities? Clearly our current approach isn’t working.
What happened to educated, optimistic students graduating with little or no debt and finding jobs? Do we desire that for our kids? How do we get there? It’s much more than protesting the inevitable tuition hikes. Are we exposing kids to opportunities and talking to them about the cost of their choices? Do we let them bear those costs? Or do we tax ourselves so we bear the cost?
We all would like a comfortable retirement. What government policies and personal habits are needed to achieve that? What happens to the current generation who will, largely, retire without pensions? Do they know that Social Security isn’t enough to live on? Do you know how much you need to save, month in and month out, to retire without any income coming in and live, as the most recent edition of Money magazine portrays, to age 100?
“Poverty, Inc’s” interviewees tell of an aid system that has become another branch of their government, in place for 40 years or more. This system clearly did no fix their problems, but it persists because no one, until now, has spoken up about better alternatives. What if for all of our goals, we thought beyond what feels good today and instead thought of how to secure a solid future? And begin with that end in mind.
Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among several local Democrats.