With all the talk of poverty over the past week, relating to aid and stumbling climate talks, it feels like a good time to explore the issue of poverty in a little more depth. This is a subject which gets brought up constantly, but only in the most superficial ways. Like a question everyone’s afraid to ask, but to which everyone knows the answer, this unimaginable destitution represents the ‘other side’ of modern life. Even in the 21st century, deprivation beyond the wildest Dickensian dreams is still at least as common as a comfortable First World existence.

It’s easy to assume that poverty is a fact of life, that it’s always been with us and always will be. Just as some people have more, others have less. This view distorts reality in a couple of important ways. First, it ignores the proportions – there are many poor people for each rich person. And second, it avoids asking why some societies have far more poverty than others. Many (egalitarian) societies have no “poor” or “rich” people, and even the most “developed” nations show a huge range in how wealth is distributed (ie: America vs Sweden).

Historically, one has to ask, where poor people came from? Populations don’t spring out of nowhere – they needed lands to hunt, herd or farm before the days of aid and trade, or they wouldn’t have descendents today. Why do so many today, then, have far less than their neolithic ancestors? And who’s been feeding them since they lost it?

Poverty is not normal. It’s not a “natural” state of affairs and it rarely happens outside without the help of larger wealthier societies. Poor populations don’t just appear, they’re created. Since the first empires conquered the first foreign lands, refugees have been flowing back to their cities and been put to work as the cheapest of labourers. Some were slaves, some peasants, or really broke slum-dwellers. Those in power learned the art of giving them just enough to survive, and they did – for millennia. Not much has changed since then, even through the last few centuries we saw an enormous influx of slaves, migrants and indentures servants from colonial holdings, a trend which still continues in modern times. Take a walk around any ghetto today, then ask yourself

Poverty is not just the absence of wealth, in the way that darkness and cold are nothing but a lack of light and heat. Poverty is what’s left over when the wealth leaves, and the legacy of those who took it.

Tonight’s documentaries take us through the history of poverty. The first, Poor Us discusses the ancient origins, like the paragraphs above, and how poverty in the modern world relates. It’s shorter and unlike the second film, has more cartoons than subtitles.

Poor Us – An Animated History of Poverty

Our second feature, The End of Poverty?, directed by Phillipe Diaz, focuses on modern international issues in a lot more depth, such as trade, aid and debt as well colonization and conquest. The winner of many awards, it’s an incredibly informative journey though the brutal world of modern poverty.

The End of Poverty

P.S.Though it’s not still not (legally) available for free online, I’ve really been enjoying the new BBC series, Why Poverty? If you have a “television” or reasonable facsimile, I would definitely recommend tracking it down.