It has been weeks since Trump called Haiti, El Salvador, and African states “s*hole countries” in a White House meeting on immigration. Many have been waiting for the denial, the justification, the spin, or an apology. We certainly got the first and then some degree of the second and the third. On Friday when Trump met with the President of Rwanda and the new head of the African Union in a friendly meeting in Switzerland, one where he ignored the shouted questions about “s*hole countries”. The President’s lack of comprehension of world economies is troubling on many levels, but for me, largely on an intellectual one. You see, although fixing poverty is extremely difficult, understanding it is not.
Poverty is really quite simple: Being poor means you spend your life choosing the least awful of two or more awful choices in an environment that constrains your options at every turn. The countries that Trump referenced in his comments are so unmeritocratic that they disincentivize working hard, following the rules, and being innovative in business.
Why invest your hard-earned money in order to buy a house when the government could seize your property on oil-rich land, or refuse to compensate you for environmental damage? E.g. Nigeria. Why would an individual citizen pay their income taxes when even the state oil company doesn’t? E.g. Angola. When you live at the poverty line, why risk starting a new business when it might fail and cost you everything, and your innovation is likely to be appropriated by others? E.g. Sierra Leone. Poverty deeply entrenches the status quo because it makes us risk-averse when our choices are limited to begin with.
Amartya Sen argues that economic development isn’t just about average salaries. It consists of interconnected freedoms: a) political freedom and transparency in relationships, b) free of opportunity to access credit, start businesses, engage in trade, etc., and c) freedom from abject poverty that can be eased with state income and unemployment assistance.
He says that all three must be present for people to rise out of poverty. If any are missing, people suffer from exclusion, coercion, and predation that impedes their ability to increase their incomes. That describes Haiti and most African countries.
Trump’s lack of understanding of poverty is not just alarming internationally but domestically too—America has a stubbornly high poverty rate. Just under 15% of the U.S. population, 45 million people, live below the American poverty line. These urban and rural poor are Trump’s constituents, and confusingly, his supporters. His obligation to understand the realities of being poor apply to his own country as well.