Poverty May Be Easier Than Misery to Solve

Experts on poverty face a conundrum at the close of the 20th century: poverty rates have been dropping worldwide, even as unhappiness is a rampant social disease that is spreading everywhere, including in the richest countries.The French have long made a distinction between poverty and misery. They see poverty as the lack of wealth and income. Solving it means putting more money in people's pockets. Misery is trickier since it combines wretched external conditions of life with deep internal unhappiness. Victor Hugo entitled his great novel about France's 19th century underclass not "Les Pauvres" but "Les Miserables".Until the Asian financial epidemic broke out in July 1997, international institutions like the World Bank were confident that global poverty could be wiped out by 2050. Two huge and poor countries, China and Indonesia, brought down poverty levels from 80 percent of the population to 20 percent in just two decades (1975-1995). both did it by putting money into the pockets of the poor.After July 1997, poverty rates shot up again. But while a lot of financial suffering remains, most of East and Southeast Asian countries again have big caches of cash. And the World Bank -- albeit more gingerly -- is again emitting hope that the poverty curve will regain its downward slope.The world is awash in money and no one really knows why. The classical business cycle appears to have vanished and inflation has been banished. Many stocks are now regarded the way gold coins were in earlier times.Though the Asia-Pacific region has become the heartland of the global economy, Europe still has enormous quantities of money. The French in particular were big beneficiaries of the fabulous bull market that began in 1990. France's national wealth grew an average of 4 percent in the early 1990s, and shot up another 10 percent between 1995 and 1998. But as French wealth grew, so did the wealth gap.Nowhere is the debate on poverty and misery more intense right now than in France. Socialists committed to equality control the government, as is the case in most West European countries. Yet the inequalities between richer and poorer are widening.Even more disturbing is spreading misery. Sociologist Marc Mangenot writes of the new poor and miserable cities in Europe with their "at-risk, impoverished and fragmented people abandoned, looked on with suspicion and often surrounded by a no man's land."China, the world's most rapidly developing country, is not immune to the new misery. A recent study found that 400 people kill themselves each day in a country where traditionally suicide was rare. "Though a variety of mental illnesses are occurring during this transitional period of our socialist market economy," researchers conclude, "what's striking are the many suicide attempts. The causes are: loss of love, breakup of marriages, hatred of school, fallen role models, victims of violence."The dominant development model of the last three decades has been American. Outside the U.S. it is called neo-liberalism. Here it is called capitalism or market economies. The core assumption of this model is that if people have wealth and income, they will become happy. The American Declaration of Independence calls the "pursuit of happiness" an inherent right bestowed by the Creator. For 200 years, Americans have believed that a prosperous economy will bring happiness to the greatest number.Neo-liberalism holds that we now all live in a global economy. If a nation develops a growing export market, coupled with an expanding internal market, then general prosperity will follow. But sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the intellectual leader of French anti-globalism, sees neo-liberalism as a force that wrecks "social collectivities" -- whatever bonds people have with each other and with all human and natural environments.The European left generally believes that poverty and misery are closely linked. If you are poor, life will be wretched. If you are miserable, poverty will follow. On the other hand, several French scholars, notably Serge Latouche (author of "The Other Africa"), have noted crushing poverty going along with strong social structures, both old and new. Thus millions of immigrants are generally poor but their social structures strong.French social thinkers like Bourdieu are now coming to believe misery is more threatening to survival than poverty. More and more they use words like isolation and exclusion for the causes of misery. And more and more they see the solution in creating new social collectivities. In America it's called "building community." But it's easier said than done.Franz Schurmann, professor emeritus of history and sociology at UC Berkeley, is author most recently of "American Soul."

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