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Taking into account a medieval-ish lifestyle, one of the most important things, I would imagine, correct me if I am wrong, is food. If you could eat food, you were probably also not poor.

Now, imagine a kingdom, such as the one depicted here, with the presence of a special grasstato plant, that is grass above ground, with a potato tuber underground. This special plant can only grow in this certain kingdom, due to magical reasons, but it grows really fast, with no maintenance needed. It grows all over the place, like a weed. Another thing to note is that the harvested grasstato has an extreme acquired taste, so foreigners really do no like the taste of it, to the point of being thought as poisonous, while everybody in the kingdom is probably fed since birth with it.

The consequence of that would be that food will be very plentiful, even a homeless crippled begger could pull a grasstato out of the ground and eat it raw. This means that nobody would be starving to death. If food was this plentiful, what would poverty stricken life be like?

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    $\begingroup$ If it's as fast-growing as bamboo, why would they just let it grow all over the place? That seems like a really terrible idea, since some bamboos can grow noticeably--up to ten inches in vertical height--in the course of a day, and they spread like crazy. The grasstatos would get into everything and wreck it. $\endgroup$ – plagueheart Feb 22 '15 at 3:22
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    $\begingroup$ @plagueheart which was what I was going to do, basically, it seems like a utopia where nobody goes hungry, but the grasstatos wreck stuff all about $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 22 '15 at 5:19
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    $\begingroup$ You don't have to look very far to find a pretty close historical example: the potato in Ireland (and indeed, much of Europe). Easily grown in poor soil & nutritious, a nearly perfect crop until it was hit by blight. And that, I think, is the problem with the basic idea here: in normal years, food was/is abundant. It's when crops fail due to disease, bad weather, or some other cause that you have famine. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 22 '15 at 6:08
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    $\begingroup$ Think about any modern-day rich country. Almost no one ever starves in America. That doesn't mean there's no poverty. $\endgroup$ – abcde Feb 22 '15 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ Imagine a world in which air is a commodity, and people must make it or buy it or die. They dream of a world like ours, where air is abundant and free, and wonder what poverty would be like here. Also, almost everyone there is born with a working immune system. $\endgroup$ – Beta Feb 22 '15 at 16:20
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Let's take a look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Although obsolete according to newer psychological research, it is still a useful model for storywriting:

Pyramid showing Maslow's hierarchy of needs

The quality of life of a person can be estimated by looking at which level of the need pyramid is fulfilled. As you can see there is a lot more than just food which makes a person's life worth living.

Looking at the lowest layer (physiological needs) the need for food would be satisfied. Water too, when there is a source of clean drinking water available. But what about the need for warmth and rest? Poor people will still need a shelter, clothes and heating to not suffer from inclement weather and even freeze to death during the winter. Also, eating only grasstato would be a stigma of the poor. For the middle-class, the grasstato would still be the basic food source, but they would differentiate themselves from the lower-class by combining their grasstato with other food sources like fruits, dairy products and meat to have a more varied flavor experience. The upper-class would pride itself in not ever having to eat grasstato.

Then we have the safety need. In today's world, the poorest people of most societies perceive the police rather as an additional threat to their personal safety than a protection. Very often, the police are tasked with keeping the homeless out of the more prestigious areas of a city, sometimes with very violent methods. When a homeless beggar gets beaten up and robbed, nobody cares. But when the same happens to a millionaire, the police will do everything they can to hunt down the perpetrator. While you see a policeman at every corner in the better areas of the city, the slums are often crime herds of anarchy ruled by more or less organized criminals who do as they please. The law enforcement has given up about them and tries to contain the criminal activity in the slum instead of fighting it. Does the law enforcement system in your world care about protecting the poor? Or are they even reducing their safety by discriminating against the poor in favor of the rich?

Intimate relationships and friends: Poor people will of course have intimate bonds with each other which won't be any less sincere than those between rich people. But social class barriers will be there: higher classes will look down upon lower classes and won't want anything to do with them. Socializing with higher society will be impossible for poor people and having an intimate relationship with someone from the upper class will always be a dream. Sure, not an impossible dream - the Cinderella love story is a very common romance trope - but when exploring such relationships on a level which goes deeper than the average fairy tail or romantic comedy, they will usually suffer from the power difference between the partners and turn out to not have a happy ending after all. On the other hand, a rich person could easily have an affair with any poor person they want. They would just buy them something nice - everyone's dignity has a price, especially when they don't have much dignity to begin with. And when they refuse, they could just take them by force. It's not like anyone would care. At least nobody who has the power to stop them (see safety needs).

Esteem needs: The poor people are likely poor because they either are unemployed or work very unpleasant jobs which are menial, dirty and boring. That means they don't have any feeling of prestige or accomplishment in their work-lives. The middle-class who have jobs which require special skills and training (craftspeople, scribes, small-scale merchants...) will experience recognition for their work more or less regularly, and the upper class (landowning nobles, large-scale merchants, high-ranking government officials, famous artists...) will bath in prestige and feeling of accomplishment. Another thing which falls into this category are aesthetic needs like fancy clothes or a pleasing interior decoration in your home. The rich people could afford much nicer things in general.

Self-actualization: As said in the previous paragraph, the poor wouldn't get any of this through their work. And with the few resources they have they wouldn't have any left for any creative hobbies. The rich, however, will have enough disposable income and spare time to indulge in any passion they feel interested in, be it an expensive sport, studying an interesting subject, supporting talented artists, changing the world by promoting a new philosophical idea or just amassing even more money and power.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for Maslow's Hierarchy; I thought about it for my own potential response, but found I couldn't work up the energy to write one. $\endgroup$ – plagueheart Feb 22 '15 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ Maslow's Hierarchy can be quite a useful tool for story-writing. As long as you don't believe anyone in the psychology field still uses it seriously (say, a psychologist character that uses it as a significant tool in their collection (unless the setting is closer in time to its introduction)). :P $\endgroup$ – AlbeyAmakiir Feb 23 '15 at 3:27
  • $\begingroup$ Maslow's hierarchy is very western. Those levels move about with different cultures. For example, Esteem is probably more important to the Chinese than Self-actualization. $\endgroup$ – fredsbend Feb 23 '15 at 6:51
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    $\begingroup$ @fredsbend Lower in the hierarchy does not mean less important. Maslow's Hierarchy tells us that meeting Self-Actualization needs have limited value unless Esteem needs are also met. $\endgroup$ – Taemyr Feb 23 '15 at 9:46
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This super spud is not going to magically make life better, as it was not hunger that killed the most people in medieval times, not by far.

Malnutrition, a lack of shelter, a lack of money, a lack of health care or clean water, a lack of safety from bandits or wild animals, a lack of clothing, a lack of somewhere besides the streets to crap and so on.

Your magical grass potato is exceedingly unlikely to have every single nutrient a person needs to survive healthily on, after all, so instead of starving of EVERYTHING, you could have to deal with scurvy, protein deficiencies etc etc. Life would be as harsh and miserable as you want it, an easily acquired tuber will not change it.

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    $\begingroup$ I was imagining that the super grass potato would be nutritionally similar to a real potato, which is remarkably all-encompassing in terms of nutrition $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 22 '15 at 5:17
  • $\begingroup$ Also note that many of the 'medieval' problems (which IMHO are much more linkely to be seen in the "dark Satanic mills" of the early industrial revolution) aren't really due to lack of resources, but lack of knowledge. If you don't KNOW that eating fruits & veggies is necessary for health, or that diseases can be transmitted by putting the outhouse too close to the well... well, you're going to do what's convenient, and chalk up the adverse consequences as the will of the gods. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 22 '15 at 19:03
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Consider the terms absolute poverty and relative poverty. Your magical plant will increase agricultural output per capita and help to kick-start an industrial revolution, but it won't make the poor suddenly rich. They'll still live in absolute poverty.

  • Who owns that "grasstato" field and what does he or she have to say about squatters who steal the harvest?
  • Could a poor squatter/homesteader build a decent shelter? Even if there are trees for a log cabin, where does the axe come from?
  • Could the poor find "grasstato" fields where the jobs are, or do they have to choose between a full belly and a few coins for all their other needs?

Assuming that there are unclaimed lands, the "grasstato" makes it easier for the poor to live off the land -- at least until winter comes.

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  • $\begingroup$ The impression I'm getting is that grasstatos aren't so much a field crop as growing literally everywhere like kudzu does. So the poor might be doing a civic service by digging them out of the streets... $\endgroup$ – plagueheart Feb 22 '15 at 22:15
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The question describes Star Trek, where there is no money and people get food from replicators. No one has to work or be worried. I assume for such a society to function someone must be concerned about something, but we don't know what that is.

Current technology is a good example. A rich man and poor man use the same type cell phone. Third world countries have been able to leap-frog forward, using cell phones and not having to lay wires. Technology then, is an equalizer. People become dependent on technology rather than slaves.

If there was infinite food we would need to assess that evolutionally. Food is of course a major contributing factor to evolution. If food goes away, what is left? There is still a need to procreate. There is intellectual competition. Probably there would be less violence. According to Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer we have reduced violence in our world today, and it is attributed possibly to the greater abstract or intellectual world we live in compared to physical or medieval times.

To reference Steven Pinker please see: http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature . He's one of my favorite authors and helps dissuade much of the incessant negativity we hear. To reference Michael Shermer see http://www.amazon.com/The-Moral-Arc-Science-Humanity/dp/0805096914 , or see Skeptic Magazine at http://www.skeptic.com/ .

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.se! Can you add a link which points to a source for Steven Pinker's and Michael Shermer's opinions? Also, as many individuals in this site may not know who these people are, can you say why their opinions are important? $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Feb 22 '15 at 4:41
  • $\begingroup$ Answer edited pursuant to request. $\endgroup$ – subjectivist Feb 22 '15 at 4:53
  • $\begingroup$ Great references, very academic, much more than the average user here is like, me included. While I would imagine that violent crimes would decrease, due to food, which would be just about the only thing plebs would/can worry about, being more available, I was sort of wanting to wonder what would poor people live like. Imagine real life Africa, but without the starving people, what would that be like $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 22 '15 at 5:22
  • $\begingroup$ If people don't have to worry so much about food, then they have to worry about crime, violence, and old age! But if we solve food we will probably solve some of that to. So, people will worry about how to spend their time! They won't be worshiping god. Technology met their need and not god. Maybe they will do art and other aesthetics. $\endgroup$ – subjectivist Feb 22 '15 at 5:27
  • $\begingroup$ I am not an academic. I listen to a lot of podcasts. $\endgroup$ – subjectivist Feb 22 '15 at 5:28
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I have lived below the poverty line. Food was NEVER a problem. Food is cheap. A bag of rice will last you approximately forever. On fifty bucks you can live for three months, and reasonably well. If you can scrape together five bucks a day, you'll find why obesity is a big problem amongst the poor.

In the west, you'd still have trouble with bills, though.

These bills include but aren't limited to:

  • Taxation (still an issue in medieval times).
  • Housing (still an issue).
  • Health care (all home remedies, for the poor).
  • Transport (nobody really traveled back then).
  • Education (hah! No chance).
  • Water (water was free back then, if you could carry it).
  • Energy (electric, gas - not around then, but wood was. Free if you could gather it).
  • Clothing (not a huge deal in warmer climes).

Nowadays, most countries provide some or all of these free for everyone, or at least for those below the poverty line. This is what society and government is for: to lift people up to the point where they aren't worrying about merely staying alive and out of debt, and can instead start contributing to society.

This is also arguably what a liege-lord should do - he should be a carer and manager for those under him, ensuring that they all at least have a chance to get what they need.

Downside is, the higher you raise the bar for "minimum acceptable lifestyle for the lowest earner", the fewer people think it's worth bothering to do more than that. And the more you cap the earnings of the highest fliers, the fewer people think that rising above is worthwhile.

So while every government provides some life-support for those unable to cope, the level of support varies wildly.

In a medieval setting, you can expect pretty darn low support, but with low population density, a physically able person can probably survive.

How would it be different? Well... I reckon it wouldn't be, really, except that famines wouldn't happen. In most temperate areas, most times of the year, there's food enough to live on just by wandering the hedgerows. In very populated or hard-to-farm areas, famines can happen, but they were typically less of a problem than plague or war: that is, famine wasn't a constant existential threat to the poor. I'm not saying people didn't starve through poverty (or that they still don't, even in the West). I'm just saying that I think the difference it would make to society overall is minimal at best. More temperate environments with easier availability of food tend to have higher populations, have larger cities, and to be more advanced than their neighbors both socially and educationally.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for good observations, but the setting this is presumably for is a medieval one. So we'd have to look at it in a setting where it's less "government" and more "private charitable organizations" helping the poor--and some kinds of bills just wouldn't exist yet. $\endgroup$ – plagueheart Feb 22 '15 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ @plagueheart Good call, I had forgotten the very first line by the time I was done reading the question. Hrm. In that light, I'd best update my answer to apply more closely to the question,,. $\endgroup$ – Dewi Morgan Feb 23 '15 at 0:46
  • $\begingroup$ Looks great now! $\endgroup$ – plagueheart Feb 23 '15 at 1:48
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    $\begingroup$ "but wood was. Free if you could gather it" That is not entirely true: The forest owners indeed often forbade the gathering of wood in their forests. However they typically had little chance to actually enforce that. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Mar 21 '15 at 10:22
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As always, the problem is not the scarcity of food but the social mechanism of control over it. In medieval times, your liege lord owned the land on which the food grew. Peasants lived and worked on the land, and in return were given some of the food they grew, with the lord retaining the rest.

Even if your magic potatoe requires no care whatsoever, there is no guarantee you will have access to any. Those who have (or want) power will create artificial scarcity (through taxes, land ownership and selling their surplus supply on the market) as a means of control and enrichment.

Your magic potatoe may grow easily, but the local lord will control the supply and will sell it to you, or else make you work for it. The wealth generated through this is profit, which further enriches the owner.

This is really no different to how things work under capitalism, except that we've (mostly) eliminated nobility and it's now just about money and ownership.

This topic is a great launching point into the economic theory of scarcity and why it exists as well as the historical rise and fall civilisations. The short answer is that every society in history which has developed job specialisation (i.e. past the hunter-gatherer stage and into agriculture) inevitably becomes inequitable, concentrating wealth and power (through control of resources) at the top.

If you think about your magic potatoe situation, it's really not all that different to how the world was before the concept of land ownership was developed. Once upon a time, we wandered around, gathering and hunting what we needed. Fast forward to medieval times, and someone owned the land, and simply taking what you needed was "stealing" and you had to work for it.

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There were societies in which this was the situation. For instance, the Tlingit Indians in Alaska had fish (salmon and other), seaweed and other ocean products in such abundance that they could always eat whatever they wanted. This did not mean that other resources were not highly restrained. (Humorously enough, their only agricultural product was tobacco. They didn't bother to domesticate any other plants).

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Unless the Grasstato is a complete food, there are vanishingly few of those by the way, you haven't done all that much to change the poverty equation. Poverty has never really included a lack of food in terms of calories but rather a lack of food nutrients, the staple diet's lack of certain key vitamins and minerals was usually the killer aspect of poverty in medieval Europe. These days it's the same story different the poor eat bad food, too many "empty" calories, too much salt, too much fat, not enough fibre. It's not just poverty that can kill you that way either, historically the Roman elite died of lead poisoning from their water pipes and had their growth stunted by shunning animal protein as unclean and in modern Japan one of the prestige dishes is puffer fish, it's hideously expensive and people get killed by it every year.

Back to the Grasstato, having such an abundant staple crop is not without it's uses but there would still be issues of malnutrition because a pure Grasstato diet would have too much and/or too little of certain things in it. A staple that can be grown on very marginal land does free up good cropping land to grow the rest of the bodies' needs, as well as cash crops, in greater abundance and would thus increase the wealth of the kingdom as a whole accordingly. You would probably show a better overall quality of life in compared to the neighbours (at their expense, which wouldn't last long before they felt threatened) but the very poor are still going to be without the material trappings that their countrymen take for granted and very probably still going to be in ill health due to a deficient diet.

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