Is There an Upside to Poverty?

Director Renzo Martens‘s fascinating and controversial documentary Enjoy Poverty “investigates the emotional and economic value of Africa’s fastest-growing and most lucrative export-product.” That is: poverty. As he travels throughout the Congo, Martens instructs wedding photographers to try earning more money by photographing malnourished children; he posts a large neon sign reading “Enjoy Poverty” in various villages; and encourages locals to capitalize on their poverty. Blog reader Patrick Pearce, who brought the documentary to our attention, asks an interesting question: “What other benefits can be found in poverty? Obviously there is a difference between the regular poverty of say, a good chunk of Western college students versus the extreme poverty of many people in Africa. Depending on the situation, I am thinking there could be a connection between poverty and with things like creative resourcefulness and happiness.” Your thoughts? [%comments]

Ted H

Uh, I don't think you have the point of the film correct. I went to look up a few reviews because the films premise seemed so stupid that it couldn't be real. The title is a satire, it's not about how much enjoyment you can get from povety. When we says "exporting poverty" he is referring to, for example, how a photographer can make $50 from a poor, malnourished child in Africa and how we pathetically buy that. The entire film is about how we, the West, exploit Africa's poverty (whether you agree with that or not is irrelevant, that's the point of the film). It's about the tragedy of places like the Congo and how, in the directors view, the West just uses the poverty -hence making it a great "export." So, asking the question what benefits come from poverty has nothing to do with the film, at least the way the reviews and trailor look to me.

And no, there are no special benefits to poverty. That's a ridiculous statement. Being poor doesn't correlate with happiness, just ask a homeless guy. It also doesn't make you creative. Nothing about poverty would make you creative, unless you think you have more time to spend thinking about stuff but that seems absurd to me.



Relatively certain if one does a cost benefits analysis for those actually living in poverty, one would find there's no upside.

The upside for those of us not living in poverty is that we don't have compete with them for the stuff we want. This does not, however, mean that we are being moral and ethical when we ignore their poverty.

I'm just, you know, sayin'


Benefits of poverty? As Diogenes quipped, "True freedom is the minimum of needs."


The only upside to poverty is the motivation to not have it. That, however, is a big upside.

Omar Gómez


Poverty changes priorities in your live. Not having to much time to get new stuff you end up enjoying what you already have. I encourage people of the first word to visit south-america where (mild) poverty makes people more interesting as individuals.



The only benefit of poverty that I can think of was vitiated with the advent of polio vaccines. Polio is a disease which affected (primarily) countries with advanced sanitation practices. Infants in countries with poor or no sanitation practices were infected with mild versions of the disease in infancy which immunized them against later more serious cases.

Other than that, only the old saw "Sweet are the uses of adversity" comes to mind, and that is a Pollyanna-ish idea.


The question is ridiculous. "What OTHER benefits can be found in poverty?" The only benefit I see in a photographer taking a picture of an impoverished child rests in the photographer (who can afford a camera and is not impoverished). There is no benefit to the child at all.

In fact, there may be an advantage to dying of poverty. If the photographer could get $50 for taking a picture of a child LIVING in poverty, imagine what he could get for one who died of it!

james edward

In a recent commencement speech at Harvard, J.K. Rowling praised the character building benefits of experiencing failure. She correlates that to her own personal struggle with poverty, but Rowling carefully qualifies that statement by saying, "Lifting oneself out of poverty is to be admired, but there is nothing admirable about being poor." [sic]

The speech is posted on the TED site here:

I think the concept of "nobility in poverty" is a fallacy, made up by people on the other side of the fence who aren't quite satisfied with the colour of their grass.


May I quote you, Mike? =)
As a single mom, rearing 7 children in constant poverty (at least by American standards), I know how the grind of everyday life threatens to extinguish creativity. Money allows you choices and choices engender creativity.


I suppose the question "Is there an upside to poverty?" can be morally offensive to those of us who don't have to face it on a daily basis, but once I get past the initial shock of poverty having its pros, I'm able to come up with a few benefits.

1. Better relationships with friends and families. By being less focused on what others can do for you, it's possible that you might be better equipped to enjoy those qualities that make them enjoyable to be around.

2. Greater attention to conservation. Whether you're dealing with toilet paper or food, someone who's living in poverty is probably less likely to be wasteful.

3. Less whiny. I personally get tired of hearing co-workers and people I know complaining about having to pay taxes (despite falling in the top 1% of earners). The weather, shopping options, problems with the BMW--the haves often seem unable to put things in perspective. Meanwhile, the have-nots tend to save their complaining for big issues (lack of food, no heat, poor health).



J.K. Rowling gave a commencement speech at Harvard in which she spoke about the romaticizing of poverty. Having been in poverty (Western-style), she quickly refuted that notion.

Yet she said that out of it all, she learned some things. She learned what she could do without. She learned that she could survive.

Alas, an educated woman in a Western country has options that a sub-Saharan villager does not have. There, poverty just grinds and grinds and grinds. Yes, they can still smile, thank God. But nevertheless they are being eaten by a monster called poverty, with very little chance of escaping.

There are no food stamps there. No unemployment. Just survival.

And that is far, far beneath what we call poverty in America.


I must add that many conservatives tend to think that the impoverished have some burning desire that can lift them out of poverty. While I am a conservative, I have found that this is the rare exception.

In truth, the impoverished are so beaten down, so much in despair, that they no longer look beyond the bars of the cage except in distant dreams. They simply await the zookeepers to throw them scraps (so to speak). No longer do they dream of prowling the prairie and prospering...they simply hope for survival.

A lottery ticket gives them a forlorn hope for a few days, thinking that maybe, just maybe, they can win. They'd be happy to escape if they could just do it all at once. But they are often too demoralized already for the tough, hard slog that it usually takes to escape from poverty.

In ancient Egypt. the Bible says that the Hebrews had so much "anguish of heart" that they at first REJECTED the deliverance that Moses offered to them after his burning bush experience. You can be so low that even God can't touch you, it seems...let alone another goverment program or encouragement to "get your education" and so forth.

What people don't understand (that I now do) is that at some point about the only thing that will work for the impoverished, the only thing that will excite them, is a sliver bullet opportunity that ejects them from poverty overnight. They simply no longer have the heart, at some point, to keep trying and failing, trying and failing.

Which is why us conservatives need to to find a BLEND that helps the poor RIGHT NOW...while also offering them opportunities to go much, much further. Too often, our idea of helping the poor is giving them "just enough" to stay poor. I know the moral hazard. But I also know about being poor. They simply have to have enough "food in their belly" to WANT to make the journey set before them.



Oh, I think the point of this is that there is an upside, not to being impoverished, but to being SEEN as impoverished by outsiders with means. There's money to be made there - and that goes away when your apparent poverty goes away.

It's not the poverty that's advantageous, it's the perception of poverty in the face of those with means.


Re #9 Jennifer: In the same vein, I remember reading somewhere (probably Marginal Rev) that necessity isn't the mother of invention, it is actually abundance that engenders invention.

And I agree with #8 & disagree with #10; poverty doesn't make you a good person. Sometimes it makes you value what you already have, sometimes it doesn't.

Lastly, considering that I haven't seen the documentary and am not inclined to do so, I hazard a guess that within a cohort of poor people, the slightly better off could capitalize on their group's poverty (just like that photographer who actually has a camera).

science minded

I guess one could say that there are real benefits to giving somewhat `freely' when it comes to ideas determined to be correct in the real sense that ideas have to be correct if one is to accomplish anything worthwhile in science. In my case, I can now say- ok - now what? I can breath easier and hence begin working again worry free from the burdens that I have been shouldering for so long or certain of what I already have accomplished. A blessing perhaps.

Sean O'Donnell

Is there an upside to poverty?

Hell yes. You get to grow a cool beard, not shower, live like a nomad, don't have to worry about a spouse or kids, do all kinds of cool drugs.... I mean, really, what are the DOWNSIDES?

Alan Schwarz

In a literal sense, without poverty there is no wealth.


i have not read all the comments, i can say i agree with the first one. coming from a very poor country i can truly say there is no upside to poverty. and i'm talking about real poverty, not the one, sorry, that i can see in the us.. but the one in which children work and die of hunger and cold if they don't. poverty does not make you appreciate "the simple things in life", to say that is just idiotic. anyway, i just wanted to point your attention to the way the news are reflecting the situation in haiti: that is exporting poverty as a product. "poor haitians, we powerful us government are going to save you"... with a military invation that is..

Republican analyst

Dear Mr. O'Donnell;

You missed the point of the benefits of giving. It feels good to help others in need. Is this what the Republican Party stands for-- corporate and individual greed (me) and more corporate and individual greed (more me). I used to think of myself as an independent- willing to vote my conscience and seeing the real value of both sides. You have deprived me of my dad's vision of a real democracy (checks and balances i.e., real accountability) and left me with one of my teacher's thoughts concerning the direction in which the state has been evolving.


I would invite you to grow old in a rented room. No furniture of your own, continual noise, no security from either the landlord or the other tenants. Neo-cons no longer say "Let them eat cake" - they now say, "Let them exercise ingenuity and be happy".