Qu’ils mangent de la brioche. Those famous lines are often attributed (abeit incorrectly) to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France in the late 18th century, responding to food shortages and widespread hunger. While the origins of the utterance are still hotly debated, the sentiment behind them and what they represent is quite powerful. An impoverished segment of the population complains of a lack of food - of no bread - and the wealthy, bourgeousie's response is to "let them eat cake". It demonstrates the complete lack of understanding of why people are going hungry, and the lack of empathy for the plight of those in poverty.
It's interesting that as a society we seem convinced that both the nature of and responses to contemporary poverty have changed drastically. We may no longer confront the feudal societies of lords and serfs, but there are vast inequalities present today, not only between countries but also within nations. Income inequality, one of the best studied of these topics, is still striking and a testament to the fact that capitalism and democratic societies breed elites just as do monarchies. But income is not the only measure of poverty, nor is it considered a complete one.
Another school of thought, adopted by media sources like Fox News, reduces poverty down to material possessions, arguing that ownership of modern appliances like refrigerators and TVs negates any claims of need. Yet, it is increasingly accepted that material goods don't tell the whole story, either (see study on car ownership). Particularly where showy items are a sign of social standing - or are at least used to give this impression - people may opt for the seemingly less rational choice of buying a flatscreen rather than necessities. This complexity is part of the challenge, and why the questions of not only of how do we measure poverty, but also how we define it, continue to plague the 'development' sphere. These are no trivial matters, as what we measure and why to a large extent informs what we do.
There seems to be two tracks of interest for those of us who happen to study topics related to poverty. On the one hand, we spend a lot of time identifying where poor people exist. A recent study used an interesting combination of survey data from national statistics bureaus in Africa, 'night lights' or luminosity data, and daytime satellite images to build a model that predicts areas of poverty. This could allow poverty tracking to enter the 'data age', filling gaps and potentially replacing costly and often inaccurate household surveys.
On the other hand, what we really need to address are the root causes of poverty-driven inequities and suffering. For instance, groups that have historically been oppressed, because of ethnicity or social caste, may be more susceptible to the poverty trap. Some argue that freedom and empowerment enhance individuals' capacity to get out of poverty. Oftentimes, underlying factors are perpetuated and exacerbated by poverty itself, resulting in a viscious cycle. Poor neighborhoods many times have underperforming schools, fewer skilled job opportunities, and perhaps greater violence and drug use, making it difficult to break the cycle. These murky waters of poverty (and social injustice) were evident in a recent article in the New York Times, which explored divides resulting not just from wealth and education but by race. Of course, if this were all simple and straightforward, we would have met the Milennium (and now Sustainable) Development Goal of ridding the world of poverty ages ago. But acknowledging it's not clear-cut is a first step.
Now for those of you who only clicked the link because you thought I was offering cake, well you're partly in luck. However, rather than simply handing out sugar-laden baked goods or approving the act without providing means of obtaining or consuming, I'm giving you the first tool to enable you to bake your own cake. Sure, this assumes you live in a house with an oven and at least a bowl, spoon, and baking pan. It also assumes you have the resources to purchase the necessary ingredients. But seeing a roadmap (ie recipe) and knowing that eating your cake is possible, can be very empowering.
Citrus Polenta Cake
⅓ cup vegetable oil (canola, sunflower, etc.)
½ cup sugar (I used raw/unrefined)
1 tbs honey (or agave)
½ cup almond milk (or other non-dairy)
Zest of 2 oranges or lemons
1 ⅓ cup fine cornmeal/polenta (can also substitute up to ⅓ cup almond meal)
1 cup plain flour (unbleached)
¼ cup cornflour/cornstarch
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda/bicarbonate
1 tbs cider vinegar or lemon juice
¼ cup chopped almonds
Juice of 2 oranges or lemons
¼ -⅓ cup sugar (respectively; or to taste)
1. Combine first five ingredients (‘wet’ ingredients) in a large bowl.
2. Mix five ‘dry’ ingredients (flours, salt, and bicarb) in a separate bowl* so that everything is well-incorporated.
3. Combine wet and dry ingredients until everything has come together. Add acid (vinegar or lemon) and almonds, mixing just to incorporate.
4. Pour batter into a loaf pan or small cake round (grease and flour, if not a silicone pan). Bake at 180°C for 25-30 minutes, until a knife comes out clean.
5. Meanwhile, heat citrus juice and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until it comes to a soft boil. Lower heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. It should be a bit syrupy and lightly coat the back of a spoon.
6. When cake is done, remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Pierce the top of the cake with a fork, so that the citrus syrup will the able to filter into the cake, then pour the syrup over the cake. Allow to cool completely. It will be dense!
*Can also do this in the first bowl, but make sure cornflour is added after the cornmeal and flour, otherwise it will clump.