Blog #47: Anti-Poverty Measures Alone Won’t Do


It’s good that the Nation[1] calls attention to 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 needs simply to be ‘helping families pull themselves up through hard work” to let them “climb the ladder of opportunity” (Obama in the State of the Union address). But that skirts the fact that then you have to confront the other half of the problem, the fact that the poor are so poor because the rich are so rich – the two-sided problem of inequality.

Inequality isn’t wrong per se. People are different; they don’t all have the same abilities, the same interests, the same motivations, some are able to do more than others, some have greater natural abilities than others, some need more than others for a decent life. We wouldn’t want everyone to have exactly the same incomes; that would be unfair. But we don’t want anyone to be homeless, or sick, or uneducated, or excluded from the benefits of a socially just society, just because they don’t have an adequate income. And our society is rich enough that it can afford a good bit of inequality and yet provide adequately for all. Why doesn’t it?

What makes inequality an appropriate concern for public policy is not just how much inequality there is, but what its mechanisms are and what the justice or injustice of its effects is – a sort of cost-benefit analysis of inequality. “Inequality”  is not an actor, a thing; beware the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Inequality is the result of the actions of a variety of actors, they produce ine1quality by their actions, and then inequality in turn affects others.

The gross disparity between the rich and the poor is intuitively shocking. Without reflection, most of us believe (using Rawls’ approach to defining justice) that having one person get 1,000 times more of what society produces than another person gets is on its face unfair, inequality can’t conceivably be justified at that scale by any moral standard or rational analysis.

But that intuition needs to be examined. As to moral standards or values, there’s no magic number for what the range should be. Most of us would look at the criteria by which some get more than others, the reasons for the inequality, not simply the extent of it. The question is partly one of analysis: why some are so poor, is it their own doing, are they poor or homeless or unemployed or sick or incarcerated or discriminated against when they could rectify their situation through their own efforts? If so, attention should be focused on the characteristics of the poor and how to influence their behavior. If their poverty is not subject to their remedy, if they are to a significant extent the victims of conditions outside their control, then as a matter of policy  we as a society should be concerned to make sure every individual really has the “inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”

There is I think a general consensus that such a right exists and should be implemented by e effective public anti-poverty policies. That’s one question. How we shape policies to deal with it depends further on rational analysis of the causes of the problem. Public policy will undoubtedly either increase or decrease inequality, but it’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether a given measure leads to more or less inequality.  It’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether it leads to more or less inequality. The discussion on this question is what the debate about anti-poverty policy and it successes or failures is all about – see Blog #43. Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?

Poverty is only half of the issue of inequality. One person can be poor all by him or herself, but it takes two to be unequal. The relative wealth of the rich compared to the poor must take into account not only whether the poor deserve their poverty but whether the rich deserve their wealth. Again, it’s both a matter of the analysis and the moral and justice evaluation of the result.  It’s quite possible that, as a matter of analysis, it doesn’t matter to anyone else if the wealthy have private yachts and 100-room mansions, so long as the poor are not poor below some level considered adequate for a rich democracy. Having great wealth is not in itself bad or unjust.[2] ; It’s rather the social consequence of that wealth, how it was obtained, and the equality or inequality of its distribution, that should concern public policy. The question for analysis here, then, is whether it matters to the poor how rich the rich are.  Are the poor more poor because the rich are so rich, or might it even be that the poor are less poor because of the wealth of the rich, who are the “job-creators?” Again, it’s the validity of the analysis and its moral justice that should determine what should be done, not the simple question whether it leads to more or less inequality.   The discussion on this question is what the debate about inequality should be all about, but unfortunately is not. (yet?)

An exclusive focus on anti-poverty measures targeted at the poor can shift attention from exactly this discussion and its policy implications.  Addressing the role of the rich in creating and maintaining the poverty of the poor smacks of “class war,” raises uncomfortable questions about the 1% and whether they deserve to reap so disproportionate a share of the wealth that increasing productivity provides .It’s no wonder such questions are rarely raised. What’s wrong with inequality is not only that increasing wealth bypasses the poor, but that it increases their poverty.  Seriously addressing poverty requires addressing inequality at both ends, the wealth of those that have as well as the poverty of those who have not, reining in the rich as well as uplifting the poor.

An anti-poverty movement needs to be willing to say that, out loud.

Peter Marcuse[3]


[1] Greg Kaufman, “Building an Anti-Poverty Movement,” The Nation,  [February. 2, 2014]

[2] Although some religions seem to so hold: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

[3] This is a substantially revised version of a letter in The Nation, Marcuse, Peter . 2014. “Call It Anti-Inequality.” March 3, p. 26.

The discussion is extended in blogs from Blog #43 on, and will be extended in Blog #48, .What’s so Wrong About Inequality.

Advertisements