As a collaborator with Cinema Libre Studio in the production of “The End of Poverty?” the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation (RSF) hopes you enjoyed watching the film and that it has raised a number of questions in your mind. If you have not yet seen the film, please go to www.theendofpoverty.com and click on the link to find showings and/or to purchase the DVD. Until you have seen the film, parts of this website will not fully make sense.
The purpose of RSF is to introduce the ideas of Henry George, a late 19th century economist and social reformer, to the public. “The End of Poverty” opens with the question Henry George asked more than a century ago: Why does poverty become a deeper problem as a society becomes more prosperous? That is the fundamental paradox he raised in Progress and Poverty, which sold millions of copies in over a dozen languages. Until 1917, his philosophy was regarded as the primary radical alternative to Marxism.
A simple way of describing George’s core insight is to say that the rich-poor divide largely corresponds to the division between those who own real estate and natural resources and those who do not. In developing countries, the rich own agricultural land and mineral resources. In developed countries, they own urban real estate (worth trillions of dollars) and the stocks and bonds of corporations that own either urban real estate or mineral wealth. The poor then work for the rich in a market that is rigged to keep them poor because of unequal ownership.
A second part of George’s message was that the rich do not just own resources–they hoard them in anticipation of a price rise. The recent global housing boom and bust is an example. That cycle increases poverty in three ways: first, by pricing the poor out of housing, second, by encouraging real estate to be held “in storage” rather than in use, and third, by raising the unemployment rate after the inevitable crash. Everyone in the world is hurt by this, even the slum dwellers made famous by “Slumdog Millionaire.”
The film touches on the relationship between land hoarding and poverty (and what Miloon Kothari refers to as “real estate violence”), but since it was completed before the housing bubble burst, it does not address the consequences of that particular disaster.
Rather than focusing on current events, “The End of Poverty?” raises questions about the long-range trajectory of anti-poverty programs in order to explain why they have failed. The problem, as viewers will understand, does not stem from personal inadequacies of the poor, as a conservative view of poverty would have us believe. Instead, poverty arose historically from the dispossession of European peasants of their land, followed by the application of the same policy around the world through colonialism. In places relatively untouched by colonialism, such as the state of Kerala in India, a high degree of equality of ownership persisted and mass poverty never became an issue.
Structural conditions create poverty in all countries, both rich and poor. But the methods of enforcing a regime of impoverishment are more starkly defined in developing countries than in the U.S. or Europe. By examining the roots of poverty in the Third World, as the film does, it becomes clear that poverty results from inequality of power. Colonialism and slavery were based on sheer military power. When colonialism formally ended, the newly independent states were saddled with 1) land laws that left large estates in the hands of colonial settlers, 2) international debt that was inherited from the colonial masters and that continued to grow, and 3) unbalanced economies based on the export of raw materials, rather than manufactured goods.
The promise of foreign aid and economic development has been, by and large, a cruel hoax. As long as unjust structures are in place, the fruits and development are siphoned off as interest on debt or as special benefits to the local elite. As a result, poverty grows worse over time.
Henry George wrote soon after the American Civil War, when the imperial powers of Europe, the U.S., and Japan, had not yet carved up the world and gained economic dominance. He died before the U.S. colonized the Philippines in 1900, although it seems likely that he would have opposed such colonial ventures. Nevertheless, the writings of Henry George do not shed light directly on many of the issues in the film. For that reason, the film raises as many questions as it answers.
We hope you will find this site useful in thinking about steps that might be taken to end poverty. Institutions have created the problems we face today. Working together, we can change the institutions that perpetuate poverty. If we do that, we can remove the question mark in the title: “The End of Poverty?”
A project of the
Robert Schalkenbach Foundation