Ask Amma

Why do the poor not have money?

In Why on 22 December 2015 at 10:57 am

We pick up our conversation on Talking about Poverty with Toddlers with further musings on a question that followed from Why doesn’t Gandhi have clothes?

The question is:  Why do the poor not have money?
Note that the question is not “why is there poverty?”  One might say that poverty is defined as not having money but that is the definition of financial poverty.  One may have money and yet suffer cultural or nutritional poverty.  Recently the Times of India carried a report on the rich who eat poorly.   The increasing cases of malnourishment among the rich now have their own term, mall-nourishment.  There are people with money who suffer time-poverty.
One could ask: why do the rich have no time?  But to have no time is considered a status symbol, and is associated with being in demand, which by the laws of supply and demand, should make one rich.  Or at least expensive.
When we ask why the poor have no money we must also ask why the rich have money.  Such conversations can be really interesting and one should approach them with plenty of time, a brave heart, and a wide open mind.
This reminds me of something from a while ago …
During the major World Bank protest of 2000 I spoke to a first-grade class in Washington, DC.  It was on a sudden request from one of the local organizers who spotted me speaking at an event. I spontaneously said yes.  I had not prepared for how I was going to tell six-year-old children about why we were protesting the World Bank and IMF.

I started out by saying, “Imagine a world where there was no money.”  Their eyes grew wide with wonder.  “How do you think it would be?”

Some of them started to smile and giggle.  Not wanting to presume one way or the other, I aksed, “Do you think it would be okay?  If there was no money?”
“It would be so good!”  one of them replied.
Several agreed.  “It would be a good world” another said.
“Why do you think so?”  I asked.
“We could all have all the treasures”
“All the trees would grow and give us all the food.”
“Everything would be free!”
“Now suppose you lived in a world like that, and you were eating the food from the trees and someone came and said they would give you money and then those trees would belong to them?”
“No!”  they said.
“Now suppose someone said, ‘these trees are mine, and if you want to eat the fruits you need money.  It is not free anymore.’
Would that be okay?”
Puppets representing the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization at a World Bank protest in Washington, DC in April 2000.

No Offense to Three-Headed Reptiles:  Puppets representing the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization at a World Bank protest in Washington, DC in April 2000.  Note that this was NOT the same puppet that walked into the first-grade class where I spoke – those were three separate puppets.   Alas I don’t have a picture of them.

“And if someone said, if you don’t have the money and I have all the trees then the only way you can have the fruits is by borrowing money from me.  And when you pay me back you will have to give me even more money.”
They did not look happy.
“And if someone else who had more money came I might just sell all the fruits to them.”
They were horrified.
“And I could charge whatever I wanted.”
They were now ready to be introduced to the World Bank, the International MonetaryFund, and the World Trade Organization.
“Well there are people who want to take away all the trees and rives and farms so that only the people with money can have them.  We are telling them that the earth is for all of us and all the animals too.”
The other activists, carrying big puppets representing the World Bank, IMF and WTO walked in and I said, “what would you say to these people?”
“Go away!”  the kids shouted.
That was a pleasant surprise for the puppeteers, who had not known that I was talking to the kids before hand.
While this is not necessarily how you want to answer your child when asked about poverty, I share this story not merely to reminisce, but to say, children can think imaginatively and critically about the role of money in the world.  Pick a time when you are not in a rush (when you are not suffering from time-poverty) and think about what money is and why it might have been invented.  Imagine life without money.  Talk about where things come from.
How to explore society and economics with children
Pick the nearest object and talk about where it came from, who made it, where, how, why and whether we could make it.   What happens after we use it?   What would we do if we could not buy it?  What did people do before they bought things?
Try to meet some people who make or grow or play some role in producing the things you buy.
Watch The Story of Stuff together and talk about it.

Dear Reader, Please share your experiences of talking about social and economic issues with your little ones and resources that you have found helpful.

  1. I honestly never explicitly talked to my kids about povery until they were at least eight and started asking questions. This post has given me some ideas to start earlier with my last child who is now two. Thank you for this!


    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. Looking back I can see that there were several moments where I could have learned from my own two-year-old about how we use and share resources.


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