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For the story I'm planning out, the setting is on one of the worlds of a technologically advanced extraterrestrial race well-known for their economic infrastructure, which includes incredibly efficient logistics networks that are capable of transporting matter across continents and between neighboring planets at low cost. The availability of resources for those who are truly in need is practically a guarantee; charity is considered to be a respectable, but not at all mandatory, action, and many of the largest companies -- alongside the tens of thousands of smaller businesses and wealthy individuals -- are generally happy to contribute. Charities determine who gets what, and for how long. Generally, if the recipients are able to work, but don't have jobs, they are given supplies so long as they are actively seeking out employment. Various safeguards are in place to assure that nobody slips through the cracks, while simultaneously ensuring the system isn't cheated.

The problem that I am facing is the issue of poverty in such conditions: I had imagined the main character's backstory as one of poverty, coming from a very poor family, without considering the exact details as to how that's possible in their society. With faster-than-light communications and transportation, coupled with the availability of both work and affordable goods, and the presence of such vast amounts of resources for the genuinely impoverished ("genuinely" as determined by the agents who determine eligible recipients), is there any reasonable way to remain in poverty?

I've thought long and hard on this, and the only justifiable answers I've been able to come up with are:

  • if a frontier world or a distant colony is outside the usual logistics routes;
  • if some physical disruption (i.e., debris fields, singularities, raiders, etc.) were to cut off routes;
  • if individuals are too stubborn to receive aid, but aren't capable of holding down a sufficient job, either.
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    $\begingroup$ 'Generally, if the recipients are able to work, but don't have jobs, they are given supplies so long as they are actively seeking out employment. Various safeguards are in place to assure that nobody slips through the cracks, while simultaneously ensuring the system isn't cheated.' That sounds pretty much like a lot of the unemployement benefits and social insurances in Western European countries. Maybe looking into why there is still poor people in these places might lead you to some interesting ideas. $\endgroup$ – drat Mar 25 '15 at 8:07
  • $\begingroup$ @drat I actually took that into consideration, looking at the Nordic countries and Switzerland and their welfare systems, but I found the cultural and societal differences to be too great. It did provide some good ideas, though $\endgroup$ – Aunvre Mar 25 '15 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ Well, if an enclave "set out on their own to explore" and got lost, the whole party would quickly lose the infrastructure needed to sustain this economic charity. Imagine they move to a new planet and barely survive touchdown at the cost of their functioning FTL communications and transport (the ansible broke, etc.) They might even be in the SAME SOLAR SYSTEM as another colony, but be impoverished because no one knows that they are there. You can't help the people you don't see. $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky Mar 25 '15 at 12:32
  • $\begingroup$ You say "Generally ...", what are the exceptions? Thats where you want to look... $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Mar 25 '15 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Is charity viewed as a basic right that everyone should have if they're impoverished (with charities having firm procedures in place to make sure people don't get denied help if they need it), or is it ultimately a judgement call? If the latter, would a complete pariah get charity? $\endgroup$ – cpast Mar 26 '15 at 6:38

19 Answers 19

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As someone once said, "The poor are always with us". That's because poverty is relative, not absolute. The people who are considered poor in Western society today have, in many ways, wealth exceeding the wildest fantasies of medieval aristocrats: indoor plumbing, modern medicine, TV and cell phones, the work of writers & musicians available at the wave of a hand.

So the bottom fraction of a population will always be 'the poor'. Even in a Communistic society: it's just that there the poor are the 99% who aren't Party functionaries.

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    $\begingroup$ Umm, that would be the J-man who said that (that long-haired commie hippie). In Mark 14:7, and also Matthew 26:11, both probably paraphrased allusions to Deut. 15:11. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Mar 25 '15 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ Not necessarily. Yes, the baseline standard of living is higher today, but there are plenty of poor people (even in rich countries) that live at a standard of living that would be recognizable as "poverty" in ancient times: the homeless. And "the people who are considered poor in Western society today" but who are not homeless are generally considered poor because they are at risk: one financial disaster could put them out on the streets. In modern, civilized society, wealth/poverty isn't about standard of living so much as financial security. A highly charitable society would mitigate this. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Mar 25 '15 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ For one example, look at the state of Utah, which has managed to greatly cut down on homelessness through the simple expedient of providing free, decent housing to the homeless. This seems to fly in the face of conservative ideology (in one of the most stereotypically conservative states in the US, no less!) but it's actually saved the state quite a bit of money overall, as they make up more on reduced cost of medicine and emergency services than they pay out on the housing program. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Mar 25 '15 at 20:28
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What about a non-participating community?

There could be something similar to the Amish - a separate minority subculture that rejects large portions of the primary culture. They could either object to the technology, or even charity itself on theological or ideological grounds.

Then your character can originate from that community, basically living in poverty until he's exposed to the primary culture and decides to switch.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 That is quite a good idea, I hadn't considered theological restrictions before. $\endgroup$ – Aunvre Mar 25 '15 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ Are the Amish living in poverty, though? From what I've read, most are fairly well off financially. They live as they do because they want to - and isn't the ability to live as you choose a good measure of wealth? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 25 '15 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf, there's a "how do you define wealth" question here that actually might be rather useful to the OP. I'm guessing the Amish don't equate wealth with having a large flat-screen TV. So the answer to OP's question could be that some people don't want material wealth, or not the same kind of material wealth as other people, because they have different criteria for what constitutes 'wealth'. $\endgroup$ – A E Mar 26 '15 at 10:52
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    $\begingroup$ @A E: It's not just the Amish who don't equate wealth with having a large flat-screen TV. I suppose I'm in the upper middle class to marginally wealthy range (by US standards), yet have never owned a TV, or much else that prosperous Americans are expected to spend their money on, because I just don't want them. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 26 '15 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ If you concede the Amish are comfortably off, the basic idea still stands - there may be those who decline even Amish comforts. Possibly on religious or moral grounds, or possibly simply as a lifestyle choice. Buddhist monks were traditionally meant to live as beggars, so that humility served as an antidote to "mental poisons" such as pride or arrogance. $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Mar 27 '15 at 17:38
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I doubt this fits your scenario, but all charity/welfare systems that make efforts to "prevent cheating" have a fundamental weakness that you may be able to exploit. That is the concept that some people are not worthy of charity or support, are less deserving than others. This is confirmed by the "actively seeking out employment" mention.

This means that members of minorities or people with other issues will fall through the cracks. This is an issue even in state ran welfare systems where the bureauacracy often fails at managing people that don't fit the expected patterns. On a system based on voluntary charity the charity organizations will have a natural tendency to focus on people they concern most deserving, and people who don't fit the definition that particualar organization has of "deserving" will never even make the list.

If all the charitable organizations available share the same definition of deserving, the affected people will get support from nowhere. This obviously works better if the location is some backwater where the availability of charity sources is more limited. People might also be unfamiliar with the system for some reason and have reduced ability to seek aid. This is common for people with mental health issues, addictions, immigrants, minorities... Pretty much all systems that are in danger of falling thru the cracks, really.

From the utopian flavor of your system, I'd assume there is some system for fixing such issues. So the issue would be short lived. Something that first affects the parents of the character and gets fixed after he has grown up. Having it take that long also supports some more remote location and that the particular minority/issue is specific to that location and largely unknown elsewhere.

I can't really give specific suggestions to fit your setting, but generally this would be an ethnic or religious minority that for some reason is considered undesirable by their neighbours. Visibly different, different customs...

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Even with plentiful aid delivered perfectly efficiently, there are still reasons why people might be 'poor' (relative to the average in your world). Perhaps they spend unwisely and end up over their heads in debt. Or they gamble everything away. They sell the aid they do receive to buy drugs or other illicit items/services. They might be mentally ill and not able to take care of themselves... but refuse to willingly be placed in homes. Or they might just be flat out lazy and irresponsible, refusing to get jobs or unable to keep them.

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How good are the safeguards? All it takes is one corrupt bureaucrat who decides to make the protagonist's life miserable.

Even if there is normally enough oversight to prevent abuse, that might not apply to a frontier world which nobody pays much attention to.

To make the local environment even worse, add in a bit of crime. The money is only adequate if it isn't constantly being stolen/extorted by those who have given up on finding a legitimate income.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is the best answer because it is the most plausible. I think the OP's premise is totally unrealistic, but assuming it were possible to actually achieve you know it would be screwed up by some power hungry bureaucrat. $\endgroup$ – Dunk Mar 25 '15 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Dunk These charities are watched like hawks for wrongdoings by dozens (if not hundreds) of organizations whose sole job is to keep the powerful honest. "Pussyfooting" doesn't begin to describe what those in seats of power must do when they act. If a corporate official were to prevent an individual from getting aid, it would blow up in their face, and they are likely to end up just as bad, if not worse than the protagonist. $\endgroup$ – Aunvre Mar 26 '15 at 14:55
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  • Option #1: The person is mentally ill

    Use a realistic approach that is true even in the modern First World countries. A large chunk of truly poor (homeless) is that way due to a mental illness.

    I can expand into more detail if you're interested in exploring that approach.


  • Option #2: Micro-society with the strong/powerful taking from the weak.

    Again, pretty much modeled on what we see in reality: in many poor countries, the amount of aggregate aid from rich countries dwarfs the needs of the poor. BUT, that aid doesn't go to the poor who need it - it goes to either corrupt local people in power, OR to whoever is strong enough to take the resources by force from those weaker - which could very well be your uncle or someone else in the family, so donors don't know about it.


  • Option #3: Deliberate living off-the grid.

    Someone is paranoid about being on-the-grid.

    Remember, if you aren't paying for the product - you ARE the product!

    Or you run a criminalish underground enterprise and don't want connection to modern infrastructure that can track you.


  • Option #4: Poverty by choice.

    People rejected material wealth and underwent privation by choice often - for religious or philosophical reasons. Ascetics, early-Christianity Syrian monks who sat on poles, assorted vows of poverty. You can't charity-help someone who prefers to remain impoverished.


  • Option #5: You are abhorrent to everyone.

    You (your actions or opinions) are so abhorrent that NOBODY wants to give you charity. That's the libertarianish beauty of charity vs. welfare - you aren't forced to support someone who wants you dead/hates you/etc...

    OK, out of all my approaches, this one is ironically the one that is 100% definitely "fictional" and doesn't possibly exist in our modern real Earth world.

    Women fall in love with, marry and send money to serial killers in jail. People follow Hitler. People wear Che Guevara tshirts. People vote for "(GWBush|Obama:pick one)". People defend Saddam, Stalin, Al-Assad and Mao. People give money to ISIS.

    There's literally NOBODY who is so abhorrent that 100% of human race would shun and not support them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Living off the grid was the choice of Baz Jesek in Bujold's Warrior's Apprentice (he was a deserter from a foreign planet's military). By the way, one does not need to be abhorrent to everyone to be denied aid, only those who know of your need (and they only need to not be sufficiently motivated to help). $\endgroup$ – Paul A. Clayton Mar 26 '15 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ The real reason I +1'd was Option #1, but can I say that the reason +1'd was "People vote for '(GWBush|Obama:pick one)'."? :-) $\endgroup$ – ruakh Mar 28 '15 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ "(GWBush|Obama:pick one)" - this answer is so last year! :) $\endgroup$ – Andrew Grimm Nov 29 '16 at 9:41
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The protagonist's parents could have been self-sufficiency fundamentalists who were not only too stubborn to accept aid but also philosophically opposed to all the philanthropy around them. In their evangelism of the virtues of personal integrity, they may have offended their potential employers, leaving them at the mercy of the charities which they loath.

Alternatively, the protagonist's parents might be charitable extremists who insist on giving away all of their assets and revenues. Despite holding respectable and highly compensated jobs, neither parent keeps enough of the income to provide more than a spartan existence for the children.

As usual, the extreme points on any spectrum seem to resemble each other more than either of them resemble the median centerpoint.

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  • $\begingroup$ In then protagonist's society, altruism is looked upon as acceptable until the philanthropic intent of an individual becomes part of their core being, harming themselves in the process. Your first suggestion is quite possible, however, given their cultural norm of seeing self sufficiency as virtuous, to say the least $\endgroup$ – Aunvre Mar 25 '15 at 13:56
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You summed up the problem very nicely: "Generally, if the recipients are able to work, but don't have jobs, they are given supplies so long as they are actively seeking out employment." If a family has a culture which spurns the available jobs, just how much aid do they get? They might, for instance, hold that they are intrinsically superior (bloodlines, ethnicity, a famous ancestor, etc.) and reject any job which pays less than they believe they deserve. Or they might reject the attitudes which would allow them to keep the jobs they do get - things like showing up for work every day, or working for a boss who does not "treat them right".

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  • $\begingroup$ I would think that'd still fall under the category of "too stubborn". If they held themselves as an intrinsically superior individual and rejected paying work that was available in times of need, they would likely be rejected from receiving any kind of private aid. $\endgroup$ – Aunvre Mar 25 '15 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ Exactly - And that would make them poor. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Mar 25 '15 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. I have a brother-in-law who cannot find a job in the field he wanted to work in, and trained in, and refuses flat out to contemplate anything else. He sponged off my sister-in-law till she threw him out. He is really down and out, but will not let anyone help him. He says the government should create a job for him. $\endgroup$ – RedSonja Mar 26 '15 at 14:51
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A few alternative ideas!

Maybe your protagonist comes from a 'military' family and was raised on the front lines of a conflict where resources were scarce. Or perhaps he grew up in space, serving the needs of people working on transports and freighters. He would never have enjoyed the luxuries of those who lived a 'normal' life. Thus, his family would likely have no real estate holdings or a planet to really call home.

Another thought: If your main character's father was once a well-known criminal or otherwise disgraced the family name, would that not affect him adversely growing up? If so, he would likely have been (unfairly) denied opportunities and rewards that others received freely.

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I'm not sure whether you meant "reasonable way" or "plausible way".

One way that occurs to me immediately is that some people might choose to remain in poverty. It seems inconceivable that anyone would actively make that choice. And yet... in the middle ages, there were several monastic traditions that required, on entry, a vow of poverty. People took that vow, and many took it seriously. A cynic might argue that everyone who took such a vow did it out of some form of disguised self interest. I choose to look at it differently. I think that some people want to get things out of life that poverty enables more than comfort.

For some tradition other than Christian, all you have to do is look at the life pattern of Gautama Siddhartha (the Buddha). He gave up a life of wealth and power to pursue a different goal.

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I saw several answers that posit that maybe your main character either refused charity or did something terrible enough that everyone refused to give him charity. What if this society is not post-discrimination - and the main character falls into a class of person, through no fault of his own, that the charitable don't feel so charitable toward?

This doesn't necessarily have to be one of today's hot-button topics of inequality, though it could be (likely turned on its head), especially in a space-faring fiction: race could be redefined as species, or else as discrimination based on world of origin. Perhaps your society believes they have transcended gender and virtually everyone is either hermaphroditic or neuter - and they all view your male character as backwater or strange. Perhaps your character's sexual orientation differs, or his religion (maybe just having a religion is stigmatizing - many people today seem to think of religion and science as incompatible, maybe that viewpoint spread)?

My personal recommendation is that your character was originally born into money - a high class family who lost everything. The reason would need to be worked into your story, of course: maybe they supported a failed coup (or supported a supplanted ruler), perhaps they invested in a failure/rebel/con artist too heavily, any number of random, natural, or intentional events could bankrupt a family. And then those in charge of doling out charity don't feel they deserve any more help, given how poorly they managed the wealth they had or their history of bad decisions (even if it was just the one, not the character's fault at all).

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I agree with an earlier post about wealth/poverty being relative.

I assume that you are thinking of the kind of poverty where you can't maintain one or several of the basics - food/clean water/decent healthcare/accomodation. And you would really want people in the underclass to die from the lack of any of these things to up the ante. So you really need to make something essential scarce, and then it doesn't matter how good the transportation/welfare system is, the scarcity won't make it to the lower classes.

Perhaps some essential vaccination that is expensive to make (or purchase from a private company). Or poorly designed and dangerous accomodations - these won't be improved by good transportation.

But remember, once basic needs are met, there are other higher level needs. The underclass may not have the same opportunities for education, or travel. Perhaps they have to work hard labour from an extremely young age.

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A few ideas:

Perhaps the parents have a job, and thus are not eligible, but it is low paying, and they lose the money that they do have quickly, for some reason.
-Maybe gambling, or rent.
-Paying the local gangs to leave them alone.
-It's big family, so the money is stretched too thin.
-Or maybe they just donate everything they get!

For some reason, people could refuse to let them spend their money.

They are secretly rich, but they don't want to spend money because they don't want to draw attention to themselves(they are hiding from something from the past).

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 - while you may want to format the posts for better readability, great ideas! Both high level (poverty depends on the balance, not the income) and the implementations (gambing etc..) $\endgroup$ – user4239 Mar 28 '15 at 22:14
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Poverty is relative.

As another answer explains, what is considered poverty in some parts of the world would be considered wealthy in other parts of the world. For example, in the USA, the poverty line is roughly $11000 for an individual. Whereas in other parts of the world such an income per year would be considered quite wealthy.

Secondly, if you are dependant on government aid to live day to day, you will struggle. The amount of money or other resources made available is inherently less than what a person would earn when working - other wise there is no incentive to work. As such the protagonist would feel poor as they are not able to get new toys or other things that kids at school might have.

This also brings up the social stigma relating to being on some kind of government hand out or benefit. Rough neighbourhoods, or bullying of those who have to rely on government aid.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is definitely a stigma associated with accepting outside help; in general, it's viewed as taking what isn't yours to compensate what you couldn't provide yourself with. Despite the preachings of the charity organizations, there are still those who look poorly upon those who receive aid, and those who are hesitant to accept it because of their almost sacred views on property. $\endgroup$ – Aunvre Mar 25 '15 at 14:06
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There is probably a lot of unemployment in your universe. Quote:

technologically advanced extraterrestrial race well-known for their economic infrastructure, which includes incredibly efficient logistics networks that are capable of transporting matter across continents and between neighboring planets at low cost

Sounds like there are few people involved.

The jobless who are provided charity as long as they actively seek employment might easily make up over 50% of the population, and many will be forced to "actively seek employment" for their entire lives without ever finding any.

People will be depressed and cynical, and will drop out of that system. Better to be poor but free than somewhat more comfortable but forced to do pointless job searches forever.

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  • $\begingroup$ Those sound like completely arbitrary conclusions with zero basis in reality, especially since I neither did nor am I willing to describe the workings of their entire economy; you have nowhere near enough statistical information from which you could have drawn that conclusion. $\endgroup$ – Aunvre Mar 28 '15 at 12:13
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All the current real world ways. Nothing really changes.

Poverty means not having the income to sustain a certain standard of living, either by not having any income, or that income being too low.

Charities giving food and shelter do not attack the root of the problem, they only alleviate it. Your poor won't starve or be homeless (well, there's always the ones who refuse the help), but they'll stay poor until they get that income.

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There is a difference between charity (given at the discretion of the donor) and welfare (an entitlement of the recipient by law).

Welfare ultimately means that the government redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor through tax collection according to laws and regulations. You don't mess with the tax men unless you have really good lawyers ...

If there are more poor people and fewer rich people, initially the state goes into deficit to pay out the welfare as prescribed by law. This deficit will have to be made good somehow, through taxes or budget cuts (possibly welfare cuts) or currency devaluation, but that takes time.

Charity means individuals decide to pay or give. Perhaps this month they're busy. Or they have less to give. Or it isn't Christmas season and they don't feel like giving. Or there was a disaster on another continent and too many donate for that.

The bottom line, you can't rely on charity. You can only hope for it.

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    $\begingroup$ The protagonist's society is both economically sturdy and sympathetic. Charity, meaning the voluntary giving of wealth or resources, has strong cultural and societal roots. Forced redistribution through governmental intervention is unheard of. If you any kind of federal agent/worker/officer is looking for you, you have likely committed a crime. $\endgroup$ – Aunvre Mar 25 '15 at 14:13
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Just because a society is "highly charitable" doesn't mean they think everyone deserves it. There may be strings attached, there may be open racism or religious discrimination, etc.

Even on a purely economic basis, your description provides one easy opening:

Generally, if the recipients are able to work, but don't have jobs, they are given supplies so long as they are actively seeking out employment.

If the definition of "actively seeking out employment" is too burdensome, or the definition of "able to work" is incorrect, then someone might remain in poverty. Someone might obtain (be required to, or they obviously weren't really seeking it) a job whose salary puts them below the poverty line, but not considered to "truly need" charity because they have a job.

All of these problems exist today for welfare, and there's no obvious reason that they wouldn't likewise exist for private charity even in a "highly charitable" society.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, as there are multiple routes through which aid is available (I.e., different companies or organizations), I think it'd be safe to assume that the definition of "truly in need" both varies between charities and between the agents or representatives responsible for interpreting situations. Of course there are going to be cases of discrimination, but given the weight that reputation bears in this society's economy, the agent in question would likely be terminated should that be found the case. $\endgroup$ – Aunvre Mar 25 '15 at 17:38
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While this is an extraterrestrial race if you start with the fundamental needs of humans:

  • subsistence - food, shelter, clothing
  • protection - social security, health systems
  • affection - friendships, family
  • understanding - school, literature
  • participation - responsibilities, duties, work, rights
  • leisure - games, parties
  • creation - invent, build, design, compose
  • identity - places one belongs to
  • freedom - autonomy, passion, self-esteem

You can imagine a world where a charitable society only fulfils some of these needs but withholds others thereby making one poor:

  • Giving you food and shelter (subsistence) but not friendship (affection). Perhaps going so far as to make people leave existing friends and family and live in a poorhouse.
  • Giving you clothing that is really a uniform that identifies you as poor. Causing other members of the community to treat you as a pariah.
  • Not giving you protection (perhaps on this planet you have to subscribe to a police service) so that you constantly fear for your life.
  • Not giving you access to computers/Internet or limiting it in some way. This could deprive you of many things leisure, social networking sites, etc. You could even have a planet where everything is very drab, utilitarian looking and there is no visible form of recreation. However, people spend much of their time in "the better world" which is some sort of virtual reality or holodeck where you can meet other people, engage in almost any leisure activity with them, create and view works of art, etc.
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  • $\begingroup$ This is really stretching the definition of "poor". Oh My! I'm deeply improverished because I can't Facebook! $\endgroup$ – user4239 Mar 26 '15 at 13:14

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