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Every food produced has a market price. As I’m writing this, the price for corn is about $277 a metric ton, but sophisticated traders are looking at what they expect the future price to be, which right now is about $251 a metric ton in May. Speculators trade on the minute-by-minute or second-by-second expectations for future values, and trading is such a big business that the cost of these futures gradually affects the price of corn in the store.

Corn is a natural food, grown and farmed in various locations throughout the world. It appeared in nature originally without intervention by humans, but now humans cultivate the crop, sell it, and help feed people all around the world.

It’s difficult to see much difference between corn, and other natural foods, and water. The planet is 70 percent covered in ocean water. Our bodies are 65 percent water. Water evaporates and returns to earth in the form of rain and other precipitation. Water is a basic building block of life as we know it. The first cities were always located very close to natural water because, among other life-providing uses, water was — and still is — the primary method of long-distance travel for a mass of people.

Can a natural resource like this be turned into a market commodity like corn?

Today, water is relatively inexpensive. Cities provide water to their residents. Water service has spread to the outskirts and suburbs through municipal planning. Residents of rural communities without water service, in most areas, can still get their own water through a private well. But there’s a problem: access to clean water is not available to everyone living everywhere. Where public water supplies are contaminated because communities can’t afford to clean or because communities were willing to accept outside corporations to pollute their lands in exchange for the promises of a growing economy, the lack of clean water leads to poverty and disease.

Across the world, the quality of life correlated to the quality and availability of water. For an individual family, moving from a poverty-stricken area to a modern city is a good solution, but there are several problems.

  • Moving a household costs money, and it is difficult for a family living in poverty.
  • Because of the difficulty, it can be a long process, taking several decades to raise the money and resources.
  • Even after moving, the households needs to adapt to a different culture.
  • Any one family moving doesn’t solve the particular problem of poverty in locales with no access to clean water.

The good news is there are large non-profit organizations working on the problem, but adding to the difficulty is the fact that private enterprises are jockeying now for the ultimate marketization of water as a resource.

Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo all see the advantages. If all drinking water throughout the world were to be controlled and distributed by private companies, shareholders would profit. Water is a basic necessity to life, even more than any particular solid food. When not provided for free, people would be willing to pay whatever they can for access to clean water. On a human hierarchy of needs, whether you’re looking at Maslow’s model or talking to a doctor about basic survival, our bodies must have water at all costs, clean water in order to avoid disease.

The potential for profit is virtually unlimited.

Here’s where a private water market becomes dangerous. And the concepts are easily recognizable with memories of the Enron debacle still fresh. With the privatization of energy, resources shifted to whomever was able to pay the best price for the service. This created artificial shortages in some areas — keeping supply low and demand high kept prices moving upward while at the same time depriving households of the resources they should have had. To benefit shareholders, corporations take shortcuts and play as close to the line of legality as possible. They employ clever people who determine how much can manipulate while escaping legal scrutiny, while at the same time, these corporations spend billions of dollars from their revenue to lobby lawmakers and fund politicians around the world so once in office, they owe favors to the same corporations.

If drinking water is owned and controlled by private corporations, society would recognize that access to water is not a basic human right. Humans also need oxygen from the air to live. Do we have a right to breathe or will we someday need to pay for our access to clean air?

With privatization, the lack of universal access to drinking water will no longer be a societal problem, it will be an economic problem. Those who can pay for clean water will have it, those without the wealth do not. This is already the case at a community level; poor citizens in wealthy cities have access to the water they need, but poor citizens in poverty-stricken areas do not.

There seem to be two options: either the government controls the water supply or private corporations do. It’s often argued the private corporations can do what governments do more efficiently precisely because they have to answer to shareholders who expect efficiency and profits. The question is whether we can trust private corporations with a public good, and in many cases as seen throughout recent history, we cannot. Shareholders’ priorities often conflict with providing a public need democratically to all citizens. I’m not anti-capitalist, but the shareholder form of capitalism is poorly suited for handling societal issues.

That isn’t to say we can trust governments fully with these responsibilities, either.

The eventual privatization of water seems to be unavoidable. In today’s world, private money seems to always win these discussions. Therefore, consider what the future will look like and what we can do now to prepare for this inevitability.

If you’re in the “upper middle class” or you are able to build up your savings month after month, you probably won’t notice a difference in your life. Most Consumerism Commentary readers are going to fall into this category. It’s in a corporation’s best interest to make sure its class of shareholders have access to their “product,” so this particular class of consumers, those who are more likely to invest in the stock market, will be shielded from most economic obstacles to access.

If you own a home that falls under municipal water access, you already have a bill you pay, and you already budget for the expense. Even if the price of water increases to be more along the lines of your electricity or gas bill, you could probably still afford it. Keep in mind you also pay state, local, and property taxes which help municipalities provide water service; don’t expect those taxes to decrease just because the rights to water have been privatized.

For those in the above category, there may be some minor occasional inconveniences. For the most part, your life won’t be disrupted, but as the industry matures, expect some inconveniences. Just like we saw the the privatization of energy and Enron, regulations may not always be able to stop manipulation of the market. Droughts, now brought on by the weather and climate change, will be controlled by private corporations looking to manipulate the market. Corporations will have more control over people’s lives than ever before.

Expect swings in the price of water. Once water is listed on a commodities exchange, with a price that fluctuates constantly as traders and their algorithms try to predict next month’s price, water pricing will be more volatile, like the price of gasoline at a pump. Speculative bidding causes prices to rise and creates market bubbles. That will make it harder to budget for the family and can result in shortages.

The shortages will affect those living in poverty. First of all, poverty-stricken regions already have poor access to clean water. Privatization promises a more efficient way of delivering the product, but it’s clear that corporations have no interest in customers who are not profitable. Conditions will get worse for those already disadvantaged. The result will be disease, famine, and death around the world.

Charitable organizations committed to water access will rise. To fill in the holes left by corporate-controlled water, non-profit organizations will rise in prominence. As the need for financial help to pay for water increases, so will the efforts of charity. One of the most popular non-profit organizations in recent years with a mission to increase access to potable water is charity: water. This organization builds wells; in the future, charity may take the form of providing water subsidies to help pay for the cost of water from a private company.

Make changes today that could save your family and community in future generations. My ancestors moved from Europe to the United States. Some were more financially successful than others, but all saw the conditions in Europe as unfavorable and did whatever they could to secure the potential for a better life, even if only for their descendants. The voyage was strenuous and long, so the parties who arrived were different than the parties who departed. Migration out of economically depressed locations is the selfish solution, but is the only solution for those unable to change conditions in their homeland.

Prepare for war in locations where the issue is most pronounced. Big economic gaps between the rich and poor — and in this case, wealth is represented by access to clean water, those with, and those without — in close proximity foment violent rebellions. With privatization the gaps that currently exist will only become more pronounced, as corporations provide their services to where they can mine the biggest profits.

I confess that I’m a small part of the problem. Although there’s nothing wrong with the water provided by my town, I’ve been drinking bottled water — and a Nestlé brand at that. I chose this because for whatever reason, I don’t like the taste of my tap water, even after filtering. As a child, I don’t remember ever drinking bottled water, and I believe this is part of a societal trend. As a whole, middle class society is much richer than it was twenty or twenty-five years ago, but we might not feel wealthy because our expectations of a middle class life have changed so much.

I’m already taking part in the privatization of the water supply. I’ll make a concerted effort to switch to tap water, but the world is already on the road towards full privatization of a water market. In business, people talk about five-year plans as if they represent a long-term view. In a societal shift as important as this, you might want to consider your fifty-year or hundred-year plan for your family and your descendants.

The market will bear a significant price increase for clean water because it is, besides clean air, the only substance needed to survive at the most basic level. If you’re not in a position to be able to afford water at prices ten to twenty times what they are today, start shifting your world now so your grandchildren will have a chance to survive.

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Dr. Cornel West is a Princeton University professor and author. Tavis Smiley is a television and radio talk show host and author as well. The two have known each other for a long time, and last year they toured the country to hear from citizens and talk about the issue of poverty in America. After their travels and discoveries, they published a new book together, The Rich and the Rest of Us.

The central concept of the pair’s appearances, including visits to news programs and public speaking, is that poverty is largely ignored as an issue. When Mitt Romney explained that he wasn’t concerned about the very poor thanks to the systemic advantages this class is afforded, Romney was speaking from the system’s perspective.

Cornel West and Tavis SmileyMoney rules politics, and only groups with significant amounts to pledge to campaigns or lobbyists can influence public policy. It’s the way our democracy is designed, and it’s not much different than when the country was founded. The primary difference is that wealthy corporations, not just wealthy individuals, have a bigger influence today. Democrats or Republicans, the power of money is the same.

Smiley and West offer an interesting statistic. They claim that one in two Americans — half of this country’s population — deals with poverty. 150 million people are in or near poverty, perhaps just one lost paycheck away from spiraling into a financial situation that could be difficult to fix. The authors are also including “new poor” in this figure, and the “new poor” are the former middle class.

I’d like to get a chance to chat with either of the authors about this concept. Is the middle class truly poor? As a group, they are certainly better off than those in abject poverty. My understanding of middle class — and I realize that there are always ways to interpret classes differently depending on one’s perspective — is that today’s middle class is generally working, earning a paycheck, and somewhat able to spend beyond the basic physiological needs like food and shelter.

On the contrary, the middle class has faced unemployment over the last few years, and for many, this has been a struggle for families. Unemployment has enabled class mobility in a negative direction, removing families from the particular designation of middle class. Families remaining in the middle class live paycheck-to-paycheck, so the loss of that consistent source of income combined with the difficulty of replacing a middle class job could lead a family into poverty. For many middle class families, debt is a way of life, and allows people to “afford” a living that appears to be like their neighbors’.

To work towards the solution of eradicating poverty in the United States, the two authors want to see President Obama or whoever receives the office after the next election set up a conference on the issue. They would like to see the government move forward with a massive job program, investment in education, and abandonment of austerity policies. This is not a solution to poverty, and I believe the authors realize this. It’s intended as a beginning, a way to keep poverty in the forefront of political discourse, and encourage smart people to get together and work on solutions to poverty.

It’s hard not to compare Smiley and West with their hero and the hero of many others in this country, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The issue of poverty of worthy of as much attention as the civil rights movement received in the 1960s. Where the comparison fails is that Dr. King had the ability to foment a revolution. The public, for the most part, saw civil rights as an important issue. The time was right, with a public ready to be involved, empowered to force a change. Dr. King took his message to the streets; Smiley and West are taking their message to the streets, selling a book, and charging admission to their talks.

For poverty to become the lead story in a system that pays attention only to the issues prescribed by those with money, there needs to be an uprising, a revolution. An apathetic public without the feeling that the issue of poverty is personally relevant will not rise up. There might be a thought that the Occupy-branded protests show that the public is ready to support a major issue like civil rights was in the 1960s, but I don’t think it’s ready yet. The Occupy-branded protests are too small and too unfocused to make the necessary impact. If Smiley and West want to influence the way Americans think about poverty, they’ll need to take a page from Dr. King’s book, and do a better job of getting people to care about the issue and see the value of change.

Here’s a clip of Tavis Smily and Dr. Cornel West on Face the Nation (sorry about the advertisement first):

The pair also appeared on Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report recently for an entertaining interview.

Photo: DC Central Kitchen


Whether you agree with it or not, the reason this country has supported programs like welfare, Social Security, the GI Bill, food stamps, Medicare, government-backed mortgages, FEMA insurance, and other social programs is because a modern society benefits when as many citizens as possible have opportunities to succeed financially. Social programs aren’t perfect and don’t always provide what they promise, and there’s always a small percentage who take advantage of the system.

The push-and-pull between the focus on the society and the focus on the individual existed even before the founding of the nation, and this particular Weeble that wobbles between left and right without falling down (yet) has allowed the United States to become the biggest economy in the world in a relatively short period of time, and that’s a good thing.

From an individual perspective, it might not be that intuitive that one needs to be concerned about the “very poor.” After all, with social safety nets, one might think that the “very poor” have little to worry about. Regardless of the existence of programs — both public and private — poverty is still an issue in this country, even if you don’t see it in your daily life as you shuffle in an office building from meeting to meeting or shuttle from city to city on business trips. It’s hard to be concerned about something if you aren’t faced with it every day.

If, however, you are concerned about the “very poor,” there are ways to help, even if you don’t believe that handouts are effective. The most popular rationalization for not caring about poverty is the idea that helping another individual teaches complacency rather than responsibility, interdependence rather than independence. The incorrect assumption is that families in destitute situations have no desire to work for their money like those who have built wealth for themselves and have earned the right to let their money do the work for them and receive income from dividends and interest rather than working in the middle-class and working-middle-class sense of the word.

The real problem is tied into that psychology 101 concept I turn to repeatedly, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If most waking minutes in your day are spent worrying about your shelter, your food, and having a safe place to sleep, “income mobility” is a fantasy. You’re a victim of “class warfare,” but in your reality, you don’t have time or energy for political arguments about class warfare.

If you are concerned about the very poor, there are options. Helping bring attention to poverty can form provide opportunities to those without them without much sacrifice from those with opportunities.

  • Give money directly to organizations that run programs focusing on providing opportunities. The top-rated charities focusing on poverty according to Charity Navigator are Direct Relief International (although International is in the name, they also work to eliminate domestic poverty, particularly in disaster-stricken areas), SOME (So Others Might Eat, focusing on the D.C. area), and the People’s Resource Center (based in Chicago). If you prefer to give a hand-up rather than a hand-out, focus on organizations that provide job training and placement, programs that expand the reach of educational opportunities, and programs that present positive financial role models.
  • Volunteer with the organizations that run these programs. Build houses. Build schools. Help at a food bank. When you are actively involved, you get to experience the results of your work much more closely than if you were to send a check every month. No, you won’t get a tax deduction for volunteer work, but that’s not the point.
  • Become a community leader. When people from poor communities manage to succeed financially, they often don’t return to be the role model their community needs. This is the reason financial illiteracy is a problem that will continue from generation to generation, keeping low socio-economic status communities from thriving.

Are you concerned about the very poor? Does paying your taxes and being satisfied with existing social safety nets relieve you from any other possible responsibilities for how the country fares as a whole? Do we even have any responsibilities to anyone other than ourselves and our families?

Related: Here’s how you might be able to avoid poverty for your family. Also, could you survive at the poverty line?


According to the 2010 Census data, the poverty rate for Americans is up to 15.1 percent, matching the rate from 1993. 46.2 million people are living below the poverty line, a level delineated by earning less than $22,314 a year for a family of four or $11,139 a year for an individual. 22 percent of children under the age of 18 are living in poverty.

It’s easy to say that a family of four earning $22,314 a year can’t have it all that bad. After all, in developing countries, families get by on much less. That’s not always a relevant analogy because living in a developing country has little bearing on a person’s experience living in the United States.

Poverty is a societal problem, and it needs societal solutions. These problems tend to be ignored when the middle class is concerned with their own suffering, however, and the upper middle class and the wealthy are concerned with investments accounts losing value. Assuming equal economic opportunity for all in the United States, it comes down to individual decisions to avoid poverty. The rags-to-richest stories of the family who beat the odds to break free from poverty to thrive in the middle class are always popular, but it’s not that common.

Here are ways that individuals and society as a whole can reduce poverty at home or across the country.


The key to reducing poverty is not particularly education itself, it’s the idea that education is something to be valued. Requiring quality education from grade school through high school is only part of the solution. Parents need to be equipped to continue the learning at home. For families in poverty, the parents may not be able to support their children’s cognitive development. It’s not necessarily that the parents are uneducated, but they might be unavailable to be there for the children because they are stuck in low-paying jobs with schedules that conflict with their ability to help the kids with homework.

From a societal standpoint, more needs to be done to support education in poverty-stricken areas, but the answer isn’t just giving money to schools for more materials. Schools need to attract highly-qualified teachers. Many individuals who could be great teachers don’t even consider teaching as a profession because talented people are in demand in the private sector and can find better-paying jobs in their field.

There need to be more programs that help kids develop into professional young adults. A financial company with which I’m familiar offers an intern program in a city with one of the lowest socio-economic profiles in the state. For two months, high school students had the opportunity to see what it was like working in an office (well, a cubicle). Some may have been scared away from the middle-class corporate job, but others will see the possibility to earn a living and be mostly financially independent.

There should be some type of encouragement or assistance for parents who for whatever reason can’t assist their children with learning outside of school, including affordable or free after-school programs. Most importantly, there needs to be instilled in the public the idea that education is one thing that can practically ensure a life above the poverty line.

Money management

Families considered working poor might receive a paycheck or might receive their pay in cash. Either way, there’s a general mistrust of the financial industry. Rather than banks, many families living in poverty visit check cashing storefronts or payday lenders. Depending on where they live and the transportation available, these operations may be all that’s convenient, making banking as in its middle-class form all but impossible.

Sometimes the difference between living in poverty and not is having savings. Establishing savings is hard enough for people not living in poverty; it’s even more difficult for those who are. The idea is simple: manage to put 10% of your earnings aside. It’s not so easy when all you can afford is food for your family. The key is to start as small as possible and to make saving a priority.

Avoiding debt may seem impossible as well. Families living under the poverty line may not have access to mainstream credit options, like credit cards and mortgages, and instead need to make use of payday loans and short-term advances. To say that debt is slavery minimizes the true horribleness of real slavery, but there are certainly some aspects in common. For example, when your life is consumed by interest payments, the work you do doesn’t result in money for you and an increase of wealth, your work exists only to pay back your creditors and you have little to show for it at the end of the day.

Finally, we should be encouraging more participation among the poor in mainstream financial institutions like banks and credit unions. The finance industry won’t go for it for a variety of reasons, mainly due to the fact that these customers would not be profitable in the way banks like their customers to be profitable. They don’t make large deposits and they don’t qualify for credit cards. Many mainstream banks follow in the footsteps of payday lenders offering similar products at severely high prices when allowed.

Find better jobs

Leave the minimum-wage or just-above-minimum-wave jobs for middle-class teenagers who need a job to buy their first car. With a high school education, even someone living in poverty can find a new opportunity that pays better. If you can earn enough so that you can afford food and put money into a savings account or pay off debt, it will be much easier to move out of poverty. I know what it’s like to feel trapped in a job, and when you’re counting on every single cent of income, it can be difficult making any changes that might upset the pattern.

Life choices

Beyond valuing education, completing high school, managing money, and using mainstream savings vehicles, poverty is often the result in life choices that end up making all of the above more difficult. Having children at a point when a family is not equipped to do so is one way to increase the chances that life will be difficult. A high school child having a baby of her own will face difficulties completing education, particularly if the family is already within poverty. This isn’t The Secret Life of an American Teenager, this is people already struggling somehow needing to find a way to make life work with a new set of responsibilities and expenses.

It’s easy for someone on the outside to look at poverty and see the possibilities for improvement. It’s easy to say that we live in a country where everyone has an equal opportunity and the fact a family lives in poverty is that family’s own fault. There are societal and cultural pressures that make class mobility difficult, though. Many families appear to be fully functional in poverty, but there is untapped potential.

You can’t just tell someone that they can take control of their financial life to improve their condition and place in the world and expect it to work. Families in poverty must see the opportunities for themselves and find a way to break through. It helps to have an a philosophy based on an internal locus of control, but if there’s nobody to guide a family through this realization, it’s unlikely to happen.

To summarize, here are some keys to moving past poverty:

  • Belief that everyone has an opportunity to succeed, despite their upbringing and community.
  • Philosophy that anyone can control his or her own outcomes.
  • Recognition of the value of education and the support for learning outside the school.
  • Ability to save even a little bit of income and trusting that saving to a bank to earn compound interest.
  • Desire to eliminate debt, especially patterns of repeat debt like payday loans.
  • Opportunities for jobs beyond minimum wage.
  • Rejection of having children too early.


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by Smithee

The following is at least as much opinion as fact, but if I say something that isn’t factual, please tell me. Our American version of democracy has never been pure or particularly representative. From women’s suffrage to civil rights to lobbyist influence to rumors that can spread around the world before truth gets up off […]

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Using Fame to Promote an Issue: A Reponsibility or Uncouth?

by Luke Landes

You’ve seen it before. Perhaps you’re watching the Academy Awards and expecting the winner of Best Supporting Access to give a quick acceptance speech thanking her cast, director, crew, and family, but perhaps she takes more time to pontificate about human rights, war, or politics. Most people I know groan when yet another entertainment superstar […]

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Against Social Multitasking: Be Where You Are

by Sasha

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Extreme Frugal Living and Farming vs. Hunting-Gathering

by Luke Landes

More accurately, it’s extreme poverty. That is the best way to describe living on one dollar a day in a pre-industrialized (farming) community. Now imagine this family, earning one dollar a day, has six children to support. Forget about television (much less cable) and internet. Forget about cell phones (or any phone, for that matter). […]

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Can’t Buy Me Happiness

by Luke Landes

Here is some common sense from Jeanne Sahadi: If financial success is important to you, and you are not as successful as those around you, you are not going to be as happy as someone who doesn’t care as much about financial success. In fact, setting financial success as a goal can make some people […]

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