Reducing poverty is frustratingly difficult. The good news is that there is broad agreement on the goal of such efforts: that ordinary families should be able to support themselves by gainful, meaningful work. The bad news is that there is little agreement about which policies are most likely to achieve this goal, and the confidence with which various anti-poverty policies are proposed often seems to have more to do with ideology than with evidence.
Once, when I was in La Paz to give some lectures, I had a long conversation with the distinguished chair of the department of economics at the Catholic University of Bolivia. He told me that, under different political parties, his nation had tried every conceivable policy for economic development, and none of them had lifted Bolivia’s poor out of poverty. International forces were part of the problem—he was no neoliberal—but the primary problem was just that poverty is so difficult to overcome.
A big part of that problem for poor nations around the globe is rural poverty and the fate of small farmers. The most recent struggle over agriculture to make the news came from India, where tens of thousands of farmers gathered in Delhi to protest against recent policy changes enacted by the ruling BJP party and its prime minister, Narendra Modi.
Three laws passed in September 2020 allowed farmers to sell their rice and wheat outside the current government-regulated wholesale markets, where farmers are guaranteed a minimum price. The farmers feared this was only the first step of an effort to end government-funded minimum prices for these grains and to open the way for fewer, larger farms. Following more than a year of protests in the streets of Delhi and elsewhere, Modi capitulated in November 2021. Emboldened by the victory, many Indian farmers are now calling for price supports for all farm products.
Commonweal correspondent Jo McGowan’s latest dispatch from India (“Modi Backs Down,” January 1, 2022) celebrates the political victory of the farmers; but, like her previous article on the protests (“Why the Farmers Are Angry,” February 23, 2021), it seems to be based on the assumption that India can sustain its current number of farmers while providing them all with a better life in the long term. But no nation on earth has been able to do this, for one simple reason.
McGowan herself notes that agriculture made up 60 percent of India’s total production (GDP) in 1960 but makes up only 15 percent today, while 50 percent of the population still depends on agriculture for its livelihood. But why has agriculture’s share of GDP dropped so precipitously in the past half century? McGowan blames it on neoliberal globalization and the policies of India’s current government. Neoliberalism is guilty of a host of terrible problems around the planet, but this isn’t one of them.