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posted on 30 December 2017

The New Poverty

by J.D. Alt, New Economic Perspectives

We define poverty, I suppose, as that living condition which is unable to acquire enough dollars to purchase some, or most, of the basic necessities of life. It also seems to be an accepted notion that a certain amount of "poverty" is a necessary condition of our modern market economy - that a certain segment of the population will always be "unemployable" by the profit-oriented business community, either because they lack skills or because the business community simply does not need their services in order to generate its profits. Nobody really knows what to do with these "unneeded" people.

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We talk about "retraining" them - but there is no guarantee the profit-seeking business community will need them even with their newly acquired skills. In the meantime, these "unneeded" people don't know what do with themselves either. This is, perhaps, the biggest problem of all - though I will not, in this short essay, go into the details of that (except to say that it is contributing to a tragedy that is now disrupting the lives of too many of us). The point is this: It is time to begin imagining specific, concrete solutions to what is becoming a fundamental dilemma of our time.

Imagine, for example, that every American citizen over the age of 16 can choose to earn a living-wage in exchange for providing a useful service to their local or regional community. Imagine that every local community has a free health and pharmacy clinic (in conjunction with a free methadone and counseling center) - where some of the employees are the living-wage earners. Imagine further that every local community has a housing co-op system (built in part by some of the living-wage earners) that makes available - to every family that needs it - a basic dwelling unit that is warm, dry, well-ventilated, and which provides for cooking, bathing, sleeping, and family gathering. Imagine that every local community has at least one community garden and rookery (managed by some of the living-wage earners) which grows, harvests, and processes vegetables, fruits, eggs, cheese - and perhaps fish - for local consumption. Imagine that every local community has at least one pre-school day-care (manned at least in part by some of the living-wage earners) which provides, free of charge, a safe, early child-hood learning environment between the hours of 6 A.M. and 6 P.M. Imagine that every local community has a system of retirement co-housing villages (built and staffed, in part, by the living-wage earners).

Imagine, in other words, replacing what we now define as "poverty" with another kind of living condition - we might call it "community subsistence." No one, of course, is required to participate in any of its services. Everyone has the option of providing their skills and talents, instead, to the profit-oriented markets - to earn income far exceeding a living-wage, to collect profits from entrepreneurial ventures and financial stratagems, to build and own grand houses filled with exquisite furnishings and art, to eat imported foods prepared by celebrity chefs, to seek medical care from the most renowned clinics, to spend retirement jetting between a New York City penthouse and a Bahamian mega-yacht. Everyone has the option, in other words, to pursue a living condition defined by some level of wealth and opulence, but no-one need fall below the living condition of "community subsistence." The market economy, in other words, is not replaced with "communism" or "socialism" (a seriously bad idea no one here is advocating) but operates on a level that floats above them.

Or, perhaps, the market economy does not "float" above the "community subsistence," but grows from it like a plant grows from the soil. This would be a more accurate - and useful - framing for the simple reason that all of the living-wage earners living in the condition of "community subsistence" (perhaps a significant portion of the national population?) would also be consumers of many of the products and services provided by the profit-oriented economy. They would buy shoes and clothes, hamburgers and i-tunes. They would be, in other words, an important segment of the market economy's market. When you think about it, such a relationship - between a "community subsistence" population of living-wage earners and a profit-oriented market economy - such a relationship may well prove to be the only way to maintain a functioning economy as we move forward into the paradox of the age of robotics and artificial intelligence: The population of "unneeded" and "unemployed" people grows ever larger while AI robots insist on their annoying habit of never wanting to go shopping.

The good news is that this relationship, and the "solution" it provides, is easily attainable in our brave new age of modern fiat-money - if we would simply grasp the reality of how it works. Let's hope 2018 is the year our political system begins to figure that out.

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