Consensus on Inequality Unlikely
It’s good to call attention to the shameful way in which our economy exploits the poor and how inadequately our government responds to the problem. But calling the problem “poverty” focuses on just half of the problem. It accepts the idea that the poor are responsible for their own problems, and government ‘helping families pull themselves up through hard work’ will let them ‘climb the ladder of opportunity’ ” (Obama in the State of the Union message).. But that skirts the fact that the poor are so poor today because the rich are so rich, because the poor have been exploited by the rich for so long, because inequality is so great..
The focus on poverty can obscure that important conclusion. Not by accident. Criticizing the rich smacks of “class war,” raises uncomfortable questions about the 1% and whether they deserve to reap so disproportionate a share of the wealth the increasing productivity of the 99% provides. Seriously addressing inequality rather than just poverty would undercut the President’s justification of inequality in that message, that “we don’t resent those who, by virtue of their efforts, achieve incredible success.” Even if their efforts come from financial and employment practices that cause wide-spread low pay and joblessness from which the poor suffer?
Tackling poverty involves tackling inequality, involves tackling the wealth of the rich as well as the poverty of the poor. An anti-poverty movement needs to be willing to say that, out loud. An inequality reduction strategy has some win-win aspects (see Keynesian arguments), but it has some win-lose aspects too, and the rich prospective losers are likely to fight it. Consensus won’t be reached. That has to be faced by any ultimately effective anti-poverty program.