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.


Author: pmarcuse

2010: Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome. March 2022: Peter Marcuse passed away, age 93, in March 2022.

5 thoughts on “Blog #47: Anti-Poverty Measures Alone Won’t Do”

  1. > It’s quite possible that […] it doesn’t matter to anyone else if the wealthy have private yachts and 100-room mansions

    Ah, but it *does* matter if the rich have tons of money, because they can spend this on lobbying, political contributions, and advertising to mess with the electoral system. Just look at what kind of influence the Koch Bros. have with all their billions.

    > not only whether the poor deserve their poverty but whether the rich deserve their wealth

    The issue at stake should not be just whether they “deserve” their wealth, but especially whether they are spending their money in ways that benefit society. If they are spending their money manipulatively, it would be better for society to disallow those transactions. This would not affect whether the rich get to keep their money, only *what* they get to spend it on.

  2. The U.S. has more poverty than any other advanced industrial nation in the world even though it has more wealth. The problem is not lack of resources, but how those resources are allocated and used. Stephen Spartan and I endeavored in chapter 1 of Crisis and Commonwealth: Marcuse, Marx, McLaren (Lexington Books, 2013) to demonstrate how a system of capital appropriation and accumulation is embedded within global capitalism’s commodified production process and how this enforces the impoverishment and deformation of the labor force internationally. Our thesis that inequality is not simply a matter of the gap between rich and poor, but of the structural relationships in the economic arena between propertied and non-propertied segments of populations. The model we develop there may serve as a small but necessary contribution to the advancement of a more economically informed critical theory of society and indicate how and why property relations must be addressed in order to root out recurring crises. There has been a systemic over-appropriation of surplus such that a capital glut has saturated the usual high-return investment arenas and the capital overflow cannot easily find maximal returns. Hence there has been an immense and ongoing diversion of Gross Domestic Product into desperate and self-destructive speculative investment strategies attempting to counteract the intensifying capital-valorization crisis. In our analysis of the roots of the contemporary economic and political crisis, we explored the political-economic foundations of the structured wealth inequalities in the U.S. These adversely impact all social institutions, education, criminal justice, and health care, and have generated the crisis and the failure in 2008 of what was considered the world’s strongest financial system, though it could not manage its assets without the near self-destruction of major Wall Street institutions. This society is fully capable of abundance as Herbert Marcuse recognized in One Dimensional Man, yet the material foundation for the persistence of economic want and political unfreedom is commodity-dependency. Work, as the most crucial of all human activities, by which humanity has developed to its present stage of civilization, can be and should be a source of human satisfaction. Under capitalism it is reduced to a mere means for the receipt of wages. Sensuous living laborers are reduced to being mere containers for the only commodity they can bring to the system of commodity exchange, their ability to work. Necessities of life are available to the public exclusively as commodities through market mechanisms based upon ability to pay. Consistent with Marcuse’s obstinate utopianism ([1937] 1968, 143), we must hammer out what we really desire. What are the most intelligent/wisest uses of labor? We emphasize here the transformation of commodified human labor into public work, i.e. work that aims at the public good rather than private accumulation (Boyte and Kari 1996), and how this would undergird progressive political advance. Work in the public interest in the public sector expands areas of the economy traditionally considered the public domain, the public sphere, the commonwealth: social needs oriented projects like libraries, parks, utilities, the media, telephone service, postal service, transportation, social services. Economic processes today divest us from our own creative work, yet these also form the sources of our future social power. We have recast the discussion of dehumanization and rehumanization in terms of the commodification and decommodification of sensuous living labor. We have thus attempted to furnish the beginnings of a more comprehensive critical social theory stressing the centrality of labor in the economy. Critical philosophy and radical pedagogy must theorize the origins and outcomes of economic and cultural oppression, and be engaged politically with the labor force to end them. This is the logic and manifesto that can liberate the fuller potential of any critical theory of society. –Charles Reitz

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