Why are People Poor? A Response to Bishop Camara

“When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were poor, they called me a communist.” —Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, Brazilian Roman Catholic Archbishop, 1909 – 1999

c08pnclw8aapot6In Bishop Camara’s case, they might have been calling him a communist because he was an open socialist who advocated Liberation Theology. But leaving the specific case aside, let’s speak more generally: the problem isn’t that people think it’s inherently communist to wonder why there are poor people; the problem is that you are asking the wrong question.

The state that we now call “poor” was the default condition of the vast, overwhelming majority of humans for the entirety of our existence on this planet. Agriculture has only existed for 10,000 of humanity’s 200,000 years; the vast majority of your ancestors were hunter-gatherers with no more wealth to their names than what they could comfortably carry on their backs or construct in a few hours’ time out of grass and sticks. A modern guy living out of his car has more wealth than our ancestors did.


The important question is not why most of the world’s people are still poor. The question is why some of the world’s people (or groups of people) have become fabulously wealthy, and if whatever they did can work for everyone else.

The Dramatic Decline in World Poverty, from CATO https://www.cato.org/blog/dramatic-decline-world-poverty
The Dramatic Decline in World Poverty, from CATO

Why are people poor?

Why shouldn’t they be poor?

You want to be rich? Figure out how the rich did it.

Quality of life and human well-being have increased tremendously around the world in the past 30 years. The number of people suffering starvation has dropped precipitously. Why? Did Ethiopia and China introduce some fabulous new welfare program to provide for their poorest citizens? No. Capitalism and technological advances in food production happened. (Caveat: Russia post-USSR had collapsing well-being due to, AFAIK, terribly managed and opportunistic transition to capitalism. As always, don’t be stupid.)

chart2 cu1ko5cwaaeachw

historical-median-male-height-1 picture-2

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A tragedy in three acts
A tragedy in three acts

Before you can make solve problems, you have to understand what the problems actually are–and that requires asking the correct questions in the first place.

Second, you have to answer the question properly.

9 thoughts on “Why are People Poor? A Response to Bishop Camara

  1. The chart on government spending vs economic growth is quite striking. But there are two distinct groups. cut the chart in half and it will be much harder to find a trend line. You can almost make rectangle out of Australia, Sweden, Denmark and Ireland with other countries almost randomly distributed within them.

    So the important question is what is the difference between those countries and the East Asian countries at the top left. And as it is not all the countries of the world how were they selected for this graph what happens if you include all the 3rd world at the bottom.

    Certainly disproves Keynesianism so I would rather have my freedom and get rid of the bureaucrats.


    • I’m sure you’ve seen it already, but just in case, Slate Star Codex’s post on Cost Disease is super excellent and in a similar vein.

      Some basic level of spending is probably necessary to get things rolling in a country (invest in some basic infrastructure, police, schools, etc.,) but beyond that level, I suspect some of these high-spenders (like the USA) have gotten to a point of negative returns–a lot of our spending just isn’t useful.


  2. There is a difference between being a hunter gatherer and being poor. A primitive has no regulations stopping them from feeding himself through the aristocratic pass time of hunting rather than drudgery. And no government to stop him from eating the people who displease him either.


    • It amazes me that hunter-gatherers manage(d) to stay alive at all; I have a whole month’s worth of agricultural products stored in my pantry, and these folks somehow managed to find food at least every few days on a regular basis for their whole lives? Truly amazing.

      When we talk about poverty, some of the people counted are, as you correctly note, limited by society or government from working (or otherwise finding food.) But many are also traditionally small-scale farmers, horticulturalists, hunter/gatherers, etc.

      It’s a complicated issue.


      • Really depends on the location. Hunter-Gatherers in the forest have ample access to natural medicine from plants, materials for tools and food provided naturally by the forest they can’t really be considered poor. compared to the beggar in the medieval era.

        In the desert of the arctic snow on the other hand can be considered poor land with all food locked up in animal meat and in fertile land among rivers and the Oasis systems.


  3. Robert Heinlein gave the best answer to this question:

    “Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

    This is known as “bad luck.”


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