What to read when the elimination of poverty seems impossible

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Poverty, we ask Ng Kok Hoe, Rocky Howe, Lim Jingzhou, and Sammie Ng, editors of They Told Us To Move: Dakota—Cassia, to put together a reading list that one can start with when the topic feels overwhelmingly divergent and impossible to understand. This primer is a collection of works that have been crucial in shaping their perspectives of poverty in their independent lines of work as well as their approach in putting They Told Us To Move together.

'No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age' by Jane F. McAlevey

Rocky: Who eradicates poverty? It is easy to forget that poor people themselves have the agency to demand change, and need to be involved in change. Highlighting the rollback of labour rights and conditions in the United States since the 1970s, Jane F. McAlevey argues through case studies for the importance of worker-led organising in challenging exploitative workplace conditions. While the debate between the effectiveness of organising and activism as strategies for change continues, the book keeps a laser focus on the need for power analysis and people ownership in successful change. It is useful for anyone interested in building power and being part of sustainable lasting movements, whether inside or outside the workplace.

'Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World' by Doug Sanders

Sammie: Migration of the poor and disenfranchised towards more developed and urbanized areas is increasingly problematized around the world as threats and challenges to governance and society. This book brings the reader to various cities around the world, specifically to their fringes to examine the lived experiences of their recent migrants, revealing a completely different story and forming the basis of Sanders’ concept of an arrival city. An arrival city, where migrants ‘arrive’ and make their first contact with the urban sphere is framed optimistically as a site which provides the poor with opportunities for upward social-mobility. This offers the reader a shift in perspective on the relationship between migration and poverty by pointing out and emphasizing the potential of the urbanizing process for the former to transform the latter.

However, Sanders also makes the point that this synergy between urbanization, migration and poverty alleviation cannot be taken for granted—the agency of the migrants, which is crucial to the realization of this synergy for transformation, is to a certain extent dependent on state policy. If urbanization is to be harnessed for socio-economic development, the migrants’ rights to the city must be secured.

'The Hidden Life of Trees' by Peter Wohlleben

Kok Hoe: The Hidden Life of Trees is an unusual and captivating book. It is full of information and insight, told in a direct and precise manner, yet manages to convey the author Peter Wohlleben’s deep personal fascination with trees. Indeed, he seems to make the case that the reader, too, should learn to embrace the wisdom of the woods.

For me, the highlight of the book is a chapter titled “Social security”. In it, Wohlleben explains how trees work together in dense forests, helping out weaker members by redistributing resources, and making sure the forest as a whole stands strong and full. There are many advantages to this. A dense canopy protects the microclimate in the forest, keeping the understory cool and humid. If individual trees were allowed to fall, the gaps that open up will allow harsh sunlight through and weaken the buffer against sudden storms. So trees redistribute sugars through their interconnected roots, warn each other of pest attacks by issuing gaseous distress calls that turn the leaves unsavoury to assailants, and make use of underground fungal networks to exchange electrical impulses. I was particularly struck by his observation that communication across root systems is most active in old, undisturbed forests. Commercial planted forests, where the roots have already been damaged during planting, are silent.

At the time I was reading this book, I was also teaching a course on social welfare policy at NUS. In class, we discuss the merits and costs of welfare systems based on principles of social solidarity, where everyone in society contributes resources to a common pot, from which anyone may draw in times of need. In recent times, this model of welfare has been on the back foot in many parts of the world, replaced by liberal welfare ideologies and market logic. Learning about the hidden life of trees, it is hard to avoid applying the book’s central message about forests to the way we organise human society, and how we seed, nurture and uproot communities. Like old forests, mature communities are resourceful and rich in connections, many of which are invisible to the outsider, yet critical to collective and individual health. But mature communities are also vulnerable to calculated disruption.

If social science is insufficient to make the case for social solidarity, perhaps botanic wisdom can show the way?   

'Made in China: Women Factory Workers in the Global Workplace' by Pun Ngai

Rocky: A compelling ethnographic study of factory women in Shenzhen, Pun Ngai examines their personal struggles negotiating patriarchal family and social life alongside the harsh conditions of the equally patriarchal factory place. In highlighting the coercive demands placed on working class women by a country transforming under global capitalism, the book points to our own complicity in the oppression of the poor elsewhere as participants in the global economy and consumers at the end of the supply chain. Recounting stories of love and desire, trauma and social violence, hopes and dreams in the factory, Pun tells us that we need to confront each individual as they live, and in their stories we find transgression, everyday resistance, and disruption to power and oppression. 

'Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There' by Rutger Bregman

Sammie: Utopia means ‘no place’ and is precisely both loved and derided for being seen as a means to escape reality rather than its ability to replace it meaningfully. However, there exists a school of thought—Utopian Realism, which argues for the pertinence of utopian thinking to respond to problems rooted in reality and their ability to overcome the cognitive limits of realism. Utopia for Realists presents a case for Universal Basic Income, shorter work weeks and open borders as a panacea to poverty and inequality, all seemingly impossible policies to implement in today’s world. Whether or not one is convinced of this bold proposal by the end does not take away from the experience of having gone through an exercise in utopian realist thinking. After all, if we cannot imagine a better world, how can we get there?

This book is also interesting because Bregman is looking to the future as a historian. He includes in his arguments for his policy recommendations historical references to turning points when they nearly became reality, to remind us that existing policies are not inevitable workings of economics or science, but based on choice and driven by politics. One thing we can learn from history is that humans make them.

'The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma' by Bessel van der Kolk

Jing Zhou: This book traces the intersections between trauma, community, poverty, and mental health and I would very much recommend it. The book also talks about the importance of relationships and community, and in transforming social conditions rather than treating individual persons, as the keys to well-being and healing.

'Development as Freedom' by Amartya Sen

Rocky: Sen’s now classic text highlights how poverty is not just the lowness of income and wealth, but the absence of the capacity to enjoy substantive individual freedoms. This integrated analysis of the relationship between economic oppression and the presence of social and political coercion, also allows us to reclaim the meaning of development—instead of merely economic growth, we might instead focus on development as enabling us to lead lives that we find enriching and valuable. 

'Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much' by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir 

Jing Zhou: In this book, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir helps us understand scarcity and poverty through everyday experiences of scarcity that all of us can relate with. The impact of scarcity on mental bandwidth must not be underestimated, and delivers a powerful reminder that the poor are not usually poor due to "bad individual choices", but the circumstances and environment which have impacted the possibilities of good choices. If one is a believer in the narrative that individual faults lead to poverty, then this book is a must-read, for it will show you how scarcity affects cognition and our ability to make choices about our lives.

'Estates: An Intimate History' by Lynsey Hanley

Kok Hoe: Lynsey Hanley’s Estates is at once a detailed historical account of the development and decline of social housing in Britain and a memoir of her childhood years in social housing – colloquially known as council estates. To make sense of why the term council estate is “a sort of psycho-social bruise”, evoking a mix of judgement, shame, and pride, she surveys the complex reasons that transformed social housing from a major pillar of the British post-war welfare state to housing of last resort today.

My interest in British social housing arose from a curiosity about the differences between how it is perceived in British society, and the place that Singapore’s public housing occupies in popular consciousness. Much has been said about the success of the public homeownership programme in Singapore. But I came to realise that the comparison should in fact be between social housing in Britain and public rental housing in Singapore.

There are many parallels between the two. Both are highly residualised in service of an ideology of property ownership. The supply of subsidised rental housing was in both cases dramatically reduced. Quality also declined, through shoddy construction, poor design and lack of maintenance in Britain, and through the removal of larger flat types from the social housing stock in Singapore and a programme of demolition without replacement which saw the remaining stock age. What was initially intended to be affordable and adequate housing for the many became a residual strategy to accommodate – perhaps even to contain – the poor.

Hanley’s main argument that housing segregation between public tenants and homeowners both mirrors and entrenches class inequalities in society applies equally to Singapore. But the story of Singapore’s public rental housing is not nearly as thoroughly analysed and well-told as the story of British social housing. They Told Us to Move will hopefully help to narrow this gap in our understanding. 


If you have any books that shaped your perspective of poverty to add to this primer, let us know in the comments!


About the editors of They Told Us To Move

Lim Jingzhou has been an active and dedicated volunteer since 2013, serving and learning with local and international communities. He hopes to share moments of sadness, joy and love with the people around him, and in the process grow to become a better person. His experiences include serving in various capacities at Advocate For Refugees – Singapore, Tana River Life Foundation, and more. He is the Co-Founder of the Cassia Resettlement Team and currently leads the team. When he is not serving in the community, he can be found attempting to complete his undergraduate studies. In any remaining time, he is addicted to Chinese books and music as they teach him life.

Ng Kok Hoe received his PhD in Social Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science where he was a UK Commonwealth Scholar and won the Titmuss Prize. He is Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and was formerly from the civil service. Kok Hoe’s research investigates Singapore’s public housing policy, homelessness, and income security for elderly people. His past projects include studies commissioned by the government, local NGOs, and UN-Habitat. He shares his findings through public talks and commentaries in the hope that policy research will inform understanding, facilitate participation, and serve wider public interest.

Rocky Howe leads research and advocacy at the Cassia Resettlement Team. He is working on an environmental history of mangroves in Singapore, searching for old and new relationships with and in nature. During barely existent free time, Rocky visits museums and can be found striking out drafts of his Chinese poems.

Sammie Ng considers herself a lover of knowledge and an aspiring advocate. After taking a gap year where she volunteered both locally and overseas, she has transformed into someone who believes she can do much more than just scoring in examinations. She is passionate about various causes, mostly to do with elderly care, early childhood education, the environment, development and the list goes on. Currently, she is happily studying in the University of Hong Kong and leading sustainability initiatives like Urban Farming and Energy Innovation in her residential college.