Poverty: plus ca change…

03/02/2014 § Leave a comment

While it is in vogue to talk about inequality, it would be better to focus on poverty. The inequality strategy is intended to reduce the ‘othering’ effect of poverty: the poor are those other people over there, who are different from us. However, it lets all of us non-poor, non-elite assume the stance of victim. We get to say that we, too, are suffering. In our heated houses and comfortable clothes, wondering what to eat from our full pantries.

The biggest mistake with the inequality strategy is that it activates our demands for fairness, which prompts people to make judgements about whether the poor are ‘deserving’. On the one hand are people arguing that it is inequitable for lots of children not to have enough to eat and two pairs of shoes, while on the other hand are people arguing that it is inequitable to take money from people who work hard and scrimp and save and give it to people who don’t. Two sets of judgements, two set of preferences, and no clear solution.

Barbara Ehrenreich had a column in The Atlantic last month, ‘It is expensive to be poor‘:

I was also dismayed to find that in some ways, it is actually more expensive to be poor than not poor. If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced.

She also traced the development of attitudes towards poor people. The US War on Poverty started by President Johnson arose from the idea that government should do something to help the disadvantaged. The conservative backlash argued, instead, that people were not ‘disadvantaged’ — which is a social condition, and speaks of what is done to someone — but that ‘poverty arises from the twisted psychology of the poor themselves’. She continued,

pundits and politicians have bemoaned the character failings and bad habits of the poor for at least the past 50 years.

Of course, it has been going on much longer than that. I’m currently reading Emile Zola’s Germinal, a story about miners in a company town in the 1860s. The life of the miners is juxtaposed with that of the bourgeois investors, the Gregoires. Zola captures the attitude of the comfortable bourgeois towards the miners (source):

One must be charitable. They said themselves that their house was the house of God. Besides, they flattered themselves that they performed their charity with intelligence, and they were exercised by a constant fear lest they should be deceived, and so encourage vice. So they never gave money, never! Not ten sous, not two sous, for it is a well-known fact that as soon as a poor man gets two sous he drinks them. Their alms were, therefore, always in kind, especially in warm clothing, distributed during the winter to needy children.

In the meanwhile, M. Grégoire repeated aloud the reflections inspired by the sight of these starving ones.

“There is evil in this world, it is quite true; but, my good woman, it must also be said that workpeople are never prudent. Thus, instead of putting aside a few sous like our peasants, miners drink, get into debt, and end by not having enough to support their families.”

We are still having the same argument.

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