The Origin of Poverty

Poor Us: An Animated of Poverty

Ben Lewis (2012)

Film Review

This documentary divides the history of poverty into six broad areas: pre-civilization, “early civilization” (8000 – 800 BC), Greece and Rome (800 BC – 400 AD), the Middle Ages (400 – 1500), European colonial era (1500 -1850) and industrial civilization (1850 – present). The use of animation is surprisingly effective in painting an overview of the lifestyles typical of these different periods.

Prior to the agricultural revolution that marked the advent of civilization, no one was poor. In a hunter-gatherer society, very little work is required to procure adequate food and water. Leisure time is plentiful. The downside of being a hunter gatherer is that life is very precarious and there’s was no way of planning for sudden climate change and other natural events that periodically wipe out the food supply.

During early civilization, everyone was poor except for rich kings and priests who ran everything. There were repeated famines and the average life expectancy was 35 years.

Greek civilization produced historians and philosophers who, for the first time, tried to identify the causes of poverty. They concluded that poverty was essential to civilization because it induces people to work.

The concept of charity first arose in the early Middle Ages and is a key component of all the world religions, which emerged during this period.

The film maintains that all modern poverty results from plunder and force, mainly at the hands of European colonizers. In the early 1500s, Europe was much poorer than contemporaneous civilizations in China, Africa and the Americans. In medieval China, for example, the government was responsible for flood control and vast granaries that fed the entire population during famines.

Europeans systematically plundered and destroyed the advanced pre-European civilizations in China, Africa and North and South America. Then the European elite used this wealth and power to drive their own peasants off their communally farmed lands. Those who didn’t end up in jail or the workhouse, ended up in squalid city slums and worked in early factories.

Prior to the industrial revolution, 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 1948, this percentage had dropped to 50%. By the 1970s, it was down to 15%. At present most extreme poverty is in third world countries that have been systematically exploited by the industrial North for their resources and cheap labor.

The film features a number of economic analysts with differing perspectives on why industrialization caused the rate of extreme poverty to drop. Most agree it was a combination of fossil fuel-based technology and successful revolutionary and union activity which allowed workers to keep a bigger share of the wealth they produce.

Over the last few decades, the relative weakness of grassroots movements has led to significant increase in poverty within the supposedly wealthy industrialized countries.