The Western world is seen as the global standard in terms of prosperity and progress for centuries. There is a good reason why the West, composed mostly of countries that border the northern Atlantic Ocean along with Australia and New Zealand, has garnered this reputation. Not only is it home to a high number of developed nations but many of its countries consistently rank high in various indicators of human development such as access to education and healthcare, gender parity, and food security among others. For instance, 17 of the top 20 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index Ranking are Western countries (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2019). The West also enjoys advanced technology as well as cultural hegemony. However, while the West is known for its wealth, influence, and central role in global affairs, it is not without its own issues. A recent addition to its growing list of problems such as the persistence of the gender pay gap is the rising rate of poverty among its citizens. Many argumentative essays have attempted to explain the causes this rising poverty. Although many of the developed countries in the West still rank among the world’s largest and most robust economies, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening and the rate of poverty is rising. These issues, in turn, can be attributed to a number of factors including unequal distribution of wealth and lack of access to social welfare programs.
Although the financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 greatly impacted economies around the world, the West has since been recovering from its effects. The United States, for instance, has seen its economy grow by an average of 2.1% since the recession (British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC], 2020). Europe also has had its share of growth, from significant growth in Eastern European countries such as Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, to slow growth among Western European countries like France and Spain (Darvas, Mazza, and Midoes, 2019). These gains, however, have not benefited everyone in the West. For one, there has been an increase in the number of people living in poverty. According to Oxfam International (2015), the number of Europeans who experience “severe material deprivation” rose from around 42 million to 50 million between 2009 and 2013. Oxfam also reports that another 73 million Europeans are at risk of living in poverty. The rise in poverty is not limited to Europe. Australia is another country that has seen a rise in its poverty levels. A survey conducted last year revealed that the proportion of Australians living below the poverty line increased from 9.6% in 2017 to 10.4% in 2019 (Henriques-Gomes, 2019). These statistical figures show that while the West has been able to resume economic growth following the financial crisis in the late 2000s, such accomplishments do not always benefit everyone.
The poverty rate in the United States has been declining. According to data from the United States Census Bureau, the country’s poverty rate stood at 14.8% in 2014 but has since gone down to 11.8% in 2019—a reduction of around 3% over the last four years (Semega et al., 2019). But while the number of Americans who live below the poverty line has gone down, the US nevertheless experiences a widening wealth gap. Statistics show that 52% of the country’s total income is earned by the richest 20%, with the top 5% earning the 23% of the total income. By contrast, the poorest 20% of the American population earns less than 5% of the country’s income (Schaeffer, 2020). The fact that more than half of the country’s income goes to only a fifth of the population while less than 5% goes to the other fifth highlights the extreme inequality in the United States.
While rates of poverty are often measured by numbers, these inequalities have real-life implications for those who live in poverty. People who live below the poverty line or are at risk of falling into poverty are far more vulnerable than their wealthier counterparts. For instance, the poor have limited access to crucial services that ensure health, welfare, and social mobility. They are less likely to acquire education, afford healthcare services, and cope with unforeseen expenditures. For instance, the cost of education in the United States has skyrocketed in recent years that many students are learning how to write a scholarship essay to avail of grants like sports scholarships. The inability to access these services, in turn, leads to cyclical poverty. Households that endure poverty find it more difficult to provide for their children’s future, and thus children who grow up poor repeat the cycle of poverty for the same reasons that their parents are poor.
Quality of life is also affected by poverty. More than just hindering people from accessing basic services, poverty causes and or exacerbates difficulties in daily living. For example, lack of access to healthcare means that the poor are more likely to suffer from preventable diseases. Children who grow in poor households are less likely to acquire good nutrition, thereby putting them at greater risk for malnutrition. Such children are also more susceptible to bullying, which poses harm on their physical, mental, and emotional health (“Children in poverty,” 2016). These effects extend over the entire lifespan. Studies in the United States show that wealthier Americans have longer life expectancies than poor Americans (Fadulu, 2019). As these examples show, poverty is not just about less material wealth; it is also about disadvantage and deprivation that affects the overall quality of life.
Poverty is a complex social issue and there is no single reason behind its rise in the largely prosperous West. Researchers, however, have been able to identify a few contributing factors. Firstly, income inequality is one of the reasons behind the rise in poverty. As noted earlier, the distribution of wealth in the United States is highly disproportionate. The richest 5% of Americans earn a quarter of the national income whereas the poorest 20% earn only around 5% of the wealth (Fadulu, 2019). There are also signs that the trend continues. Research shows that the earnings of upper-income families are rising faster than that of middle and lower-income families (Horowitz, Igielink, and Kochhar, 2020). Income inequality is not unique to the United States. Europe also has its own income inequality, albeit to a lesser extent on account of redistribution policies that transfer excess wealth from the rich to the poor (Blanchet, Chancel, and Gethin, 2019). Secondly, institutional racism is another factor that perpetuates poverty. Statistical data from the United States show that people of color generally have lower income than their white counterparts. For instance, the median household income of black families is on average 39% lower than the median household income of white families (Schaeffer, 2020). Lack of economic opportunities has also been identified as a key factor that increases poverty (Charlton, 2018). Now, it can be expected that the rate of unemployment will further rise as the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic takes its toll. Since the first quarter of 2020, countries around the world have tightened their borders and imposed lockdowns and quarantines in a bid to curb the rate of infection. With economic activities halted around the world, more people will lose their jobs and become vulnerable to poverty in the coming months or years.
As rising poverty in the West is a complex issue, solutions are difficult to come by and often controversial. Nevertheless, some steps have been identified as effective in addressing poverty. François Bourguignon, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, asserts that redistribution policies can help poor families. Examples of redistribution policies include reforming taxation and cash transfers. Bourguignon states that these policies lessen inequality, thus giving the poor more leverage to avail services that promote social mobility (2018). The role of such policies in alleviating poverty in Europe serves as evidence for its feasibility as a solution. Enhancing the quality and expanding the scope of social services can also help end poverty for many families. Access to crucial needs like education and healthcare among others can empower families, as these are means to achieving agency and social mobility. Providing these services is, in fact, advantageous to countries. Healthy and educated constituents also make for productive workers. It is no wonder why countries that provide access to such services also have the lowest rates of poverty and the highest scores in human development indices. Increasing wages is also one of the solutions to poverty. As noted earlier, income inequality is a significant factor behind the rise of poverty. Mandating higher wages for the most vulnerable workers can improve conditions for the poor (Bourguignon, 2018). Finally, addressing systemic injustices like institutional racism can end poverty. The effect of racism on household wealth is particularly pronounced in the United States, where wealth, access to opportunities, and quality of services received are greatly correlated with race and ethnicity.
One of the great paradoxes of the Western world is the rise in poverty despite its relative prosperity. For a long time, the West has been looked up to by the world as the standard of progress. The West, however, is far from perfect, and the rising number of people living in poverty has necessitated a reexamination of its worldview, policies, and practices. As shown by extensive research from various groups and agencies, poverty in the West results from a broad range of factors including severe income inequality, lack of access to crucial services, and institutional racism. Fortunately, these identified causes also point to solutions that the West can implement to address this issue. Enacting redistribution policies that reduces the wealth gap, mandating higher wages, enhancing social services, and rectifying institutional racism and social injustice are just some of the ways by which the rise of poverty can be checked. The government, for instance, could begin exploring ways on how the US can improve the education system. The road to true equality in the West may be long and filled with controversies, conflicts, and impasses, but accomplishing this feat is not impossible. The West’s leaders are tasked with ensuring that their constituents are given the resources they need to not only provide for their needs but also to attain stability and empowerment.
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