You might be perplexed, even offended, by the loaded title of this post and think I’m insensitive to the plight of the impoverished. Well, I’m not. Rather, I am fascinated by the Abhijit Banerjee’s article that I had to read for my economics course. Banerjee, an Indian economist, discusses the idea of the poverty trap, specifically how it relates to food: the idea that undernourished people lack the strength to work, especially in labor, which prevents them from earning more money for food, etc. His conclusion is that the idea of the hunger-based poverty trap is probably inapplicable nowadays because most of the world’s poor have the means to eat. “What if the poor aren’t starving, but choosing to spend their money on other priorities?”
In the cheapest scenario, 21 cents – the poverty line is set at a one-dollar daily wage – should buy 2,400 calories every day. This affordable diet, however, would consist of only bananas and eggs, which no one would adhere to voluntarily. Furthermore, Banerjee goes on to describe how most people in poverty do not seem to use their money to buy as much food as they can. Instead, in studies where poor Chinese households were given rice and wheat subsidies, most participants did not take advantage by buying more of the subsidized food but rather spent their extra money on more luxurious products like meat. Nor do the poor seem to be concerned with food’s health effects: sugar, processed foods, and expensive grains are more popular than fresh vegetables and cereal grains. This might be the result of a lack of information, but I was more struck by another possible explanation. Like Hokuma, Banerjee discovered that the poor perceived nutritious food as unsatisfying and had a simple desire to indulge in ‘tastier’ food whenever they could. Additionally, many chose to spend their earnings in non-food ways, from purchasing comforts, like televisions, to funding cultural practices such as lavish weddings and dowries. Again, Banerjee finds that the poor want to treat themselves, to make their lives of poverty a little more enjoyable, because “they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long.”
It is important to think of the world’s poor population as human beings with tastes and desires – not just bodies that need to be filled. I can eat whatever I want and vary my diet, which includes both nutritious salads and processed chocolates, to keep it exciting. No one wants to be forced to eat the same thing day in and day out, especially if it isn’t something he/she isn’t particularly fond of in the first place. It’s a little harder to empathize with the hungry when they aren’t spending their money on food, but, again, for many it is the choice to live rather than merely survive.
Humbled and slightly enlightened,