What will we do when there are no more poor people?

A recent cover story in the Economist heralded the possible end of extreme poverty. It got me thinking about a world without poverty, a world without poor people. This prospect is definitely a cause for celebration. Yet, is this prospect also a cause for at least a bit of consternation? Surprisingly, yes. A lot of us need poor people. Our children need poor people. Here are just a few of the reasons I could think of:


  • Without someone to ladle soup for, how will we teach our children about gratitude?
  • Without a family to adopt during the holidays, how will we assuage our guilt for having it so good?
  • Without someone to build homes for, what alternative would college students choose over a raucous spring break?

  • Without someone to accept the stuff we do not want, how will we clean out our closets without adding to the landfill and get our tax deduction?
  • Without a community to randomize into treatment and non-treatment groups, how will we make progress on our research programs, get published and become tenured?
  • Without someone to save, how will we become a CNN Hero?
  • Without a village in dire need, how can we commit to make a difference in things that are largely out of our control and get invited to shake Bill Clinton’s hand?
  • Without service learning opportunities, how will we build purpose into our classroom curriculums?
  • Without someone to move out of poverty, what reason will world leaders have to convene conferences in exotic locations to solve a problem that they had a hand in creating?
  • Without someone to serve, how will we signal our moral superiority to family and friends at social gatherings?
  • Without someone to advocate for, who will our politicians surround themselves with when they wish to redirect our attention away from a scandal?
  • Without a poor child of color to sit on their laps, how will celebrities reignite a career that is long in the tooth?
  • Without someone living in misery, how will social entrepreneurs make money and do good at the same time?
  • Without poor children of color to surround ourselves with, how will we get our poverty photo-op (see above)?

The purpose of this post is not to be snarky. It is not to be holier-than-thou by highlighting how others use poor people. A lot of the questions were motivated by my own personal and professional relationships with poverty and the poor. The purpose of this post is to get us thinking about:

  • The many motivations that lead us to want to do good
  • The many ways that we win when we attempt to do good

What questions would you add to the list?

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)

If you like this post, you may also like Do-Goodernomics.

2 Responses to “What will we do when there are no more poor people?

  • Nadeem Yousaf
    8 years ago

    Well, It is very well thought i should say.. there are some of the things we never thought and we just it as a routine act. Such as “Without a community to randomize into treatment and non-treatment groups, how will we make progress on our research programs, get published and become tenured?”

    Congratulation on writing this interesting post.

    You know being working for last more than 8 years, I am very much concerns reading this post that how we sell the poor and their conditions.

    Something to really think of.

    Will share the questions i have in my mind after reading it.

    Continue the good work.

    Thank you


  • Ryan Klein
    8 years ago

    Very much enjoyed the post, and share some similar feelings about how development work in general benefits the people doing the “developing”. I would argue however, that even in the absence of poverty, the types of roles filled by “poor” people will still be occupied by those peoples that are victims of discrimination. Even in the presence of money, discrimination breeds a similar lack of access to resources, whether that be in the form of unequal treatment by providers of goods and services, to lack of access to secure employment, to even being viewed as “undeserving” of public social welfare policy benefits, as is the case for many socially “deviant” groups in the United States (ie. former drug offenders’ lack of access to federal financial aid for college, undocumented immigrants’ planned exclusion from access to health insurance exchanges created by Affordable Care Act, gay couples being excluded from various benefits of being able to marry, etc.). The sociological barriers that “othered” population sub-groups face can at times be as crippling as a lack of money, and although an end to poverty would give these people more access to resources, society as a whole would still have winners and losers, and especially in a large, heterogeneous population such as the one existing in the United States, a lack of resources based on social standing would quickly take the place of a lack of resources based on poverty.

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