Conclusion: Toward a New Paradigm for Understanding Poverty
Abstract and Keywords
This concluding article proposes a new paradigm in which to understand poverty, focusing primarily on the United States even as several dimensions of the paradigm apply globally across other countries. It first considers the major tenets of the “old” paradigm, which is to a large extent a reflection and affirmation of both the free market economic structure and the culture of individualism that have profoundly shaped the American ideology. It then introduces the new paradigm, which aims to stimulate a fundamental shift in how we conceptualize and act toward the problem of poverty, and some of its major themes: poverty results from structural failings; poverty is a conditional state in which individuals move in and out; poverty constitutes deprivation; poverty as injustice; the condition of poverty affects and undermines each one of us.
Toward a New Paradigm for Understanding Poverty
In 1984, John Kenneth Galbraith gave a commencement address to graduating students at American University that was entitled “The Convenient Reverse Logic of Our Time.”1 The central theme of Galbraith’s talk was that rather than moving from diagnosis to remedy in social policy, we have witnessed with greater frequency the rise of employing a reverse logic—that of moving from a preferred remedy to an appropriate diagnosis. As Galbraith explained:
Increasingly in recent times we have come first to identify the remedy that is most agreeable, most convenient, most in accord with major pecuniary or political interest, the one that reflects our available faculty for action; then we move from the remedy so available or desired back to a cause to which that remedy is relevant. (1986:35).
Galbraith went on to illustrate with the example of poverty. Referring to poverty as “our most devastating social failure in this greatly affluent age and land” and “the heaviest burden on our social conscience,” he noted that rather than devising social policies that would address the root causes of poverty, we have instead defined the causes of poverty in such a way that are consistent with our preferred policy strategies. These strategies have included cutting back on the role and scope of the federal government, seeking policies that are relatively inexpensive, devolution to (p. 867) the state and local levels, stressing personal responsibility, and so on. Galbraith observed:
From this need as to remedy we move back to the new cause of poverty. It is that the poor lack motivation—and they lack motivation because they are already unduly rewarded. That cause, once agreed upon, then calls for reduced expenditure on public services and less aid to the disadvantaged. So, in the recent past we have had, as an antipoverty measure, a broad curtailment of income and services to the poor. (p. 36)
This tendency to view the nature of social problems in terms of a desired policy was echoed one hundred years earlier by the French historian Albert Sorel who observed, “There is an eternal dispute between those who imagine the world to suit their policy, and those who correct their policy to suit the realities of the world.”
The argument presented in this chapter is that there is a need for a new paradigm in which to understand poverty. The chapters in this handbook represent important pieces of such a paradigm. The old strategies of addressing poverty have rested upon imagining a world that reflects a preferred set of myths, agendas, and policies, whereas a new approach to poverty alleviation must put in place a set of policies that reflect the realities of the world. These policies should be grounded in a new understanding of the nature and meaning of poverty. This chapter is intended to provide the details of such a paradigm. I will focus primarily on the United States, but several dimensions of the new paradigm apply globally across other countries.
The premise for beginning this treatise is a simple one—how we view poverty is critical to guiding how we will address it. Part of America’s ineffectiveness in reducing poverty during the past three decades stems from a skewed and incorrect perception of impoverishment. Imagine a doctor treating a patient based upon the wrong diagnosis. The chances are that the prescribed cure will have a negligible effect on the illness and perhaps make the patient worse. Such has been the case with U.S. poverty.
In short, we have followed a paradigm that has reflected a view of the world as many would like to see it rather than being led by a paradigm that reflects the world as it really is. Fundamental change must therefore begin with shifting our understanding of poverty from one based on traditional ways of thinking about it to one based on a new conceptualization.
I begin by briefly describing the major tenets of the “old” paradigm. Much of what I say will be quite familiar, since variations of it can be heard in political sound bites, mainstream policy research, the popular media, or informal discussions with one’s neighbors (see Chapter 9, Celeste Watkins-Hayes and Elyse Kovalsky). I then describe the foundations of a new paradigm for comprehending poverty. This paradigm is based (p. 868) upon my prior work and several of the major themes found within this handbook and represents a notable departure from more traditional ways of viewing poverty.
The Old Paradigm
The old paradigm has been the dominant poverty perspective over a prolonged period of time. Indeed, aspects of it have been with us since the beginnings of the country. It is to a large extent a reflection and affirmation of both the free market economic structure and the culture of individualism that have profoundly shaped the ideology of the United States. It has experienced ebbs and flows over time but appears to have been gaining in ascendency since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. At its core is the belief that both the causes and solutions to poverty are found within the individual.
This paradigm begins with the key assumption that the American economic system generates abundant economic prosperity and well being for all. The familiar phrases of “rags to riches,” “the land of opportunity,” or the “American Dream” are emblematic of this. The assumption is not that everyone will be rich, but that with enough hard work and initiative, nearly everyone is capable of achieving and sustaining a modest and comfortable lifestyle (Rank et al. 2014). Given this assumption, poverty becomes largely understood as a result of individual failure.
According to this view, both the causes and solutions to poverty can be found within the context of the individual. With respect to the causes of poverty, they are viewed primarily as a result of individual inadequacies. There is a conservative and a liberal version of this. The conservative version of individual inadequacies tends to focus more heavily on personality characteristics. These would include various character flaws, such as an absence of strong morals, failure to exert responsibility, laziness, an inability to save and plan for the future, a lack of intelligence, addiction to alcohol and/or drugs, and so on (Gilder 2012; Herrnstein and Murray 1994; Sawhill 2003; Schwartz 2000). As a result of these character flaws, individuals are thought to be unable to take advantage of the opportunities that are readily available. In addition, it is believed that government policy exacerbates these problems when it puts in place social programs that do not encourage morality or the incentive to work (Mead 1986, 1992). As Robert Rector and William Lauber wrote in their Heritage Foundation report, America’s Failed $5.4 Trillion War on Poverty,
… the welfare system has paid for non-work and non-marriage and has achieved massive increases in both. By undermining the work ethic and rewarding illegitimacy, the welfare system insidiously generates its own clientele…. Welfare bribes individuals into courses of behavior which in the long run are self-defeating to the individual, harmful to children, and increasingly a threat to society. (1995:23)
Consequently, according to the conservative version of the old paradigm, badly designed social welfare programs can encourage people into making destructive decisions during (p. 869) their lives, such as dropping out of school, having children out of wedlock, not getting married, failing to take a low-paying job, engaging in crime, and so on.
The liberal version of the old paradigm tends to focus more on the lack of marketable skills, training, and education, as well as other demographic characteristics that put the poor at a disadvantage in competing in the labor market. The focus is largely on the inadequate human capital that the poor have acquired. This, in addition to particular household characteristics (such as being a single parent or having large numbers of children), hinders the ability of particular Americans to compete in the economy and thereby raises their risk of poverty. Rather than focusing on individual inadequacies as represented by character flaws, the liberal version views individuals as inadequate in terms of their skills, training, and education. As Alice O’Connor notes in Chapter 8 of this volume, the mainstream research community has basically reinforced this approach by focusing on individual and demographic attributes to explain individual behavior such as impoverishment.
What follows from either version is that the poor are by and large at fault for their poverty. This is the result of their not having enough fortitude and morality for getting ahead, making bad judgments in life, and/or because of a failure to acquire the necessary skills to compete in today’s economy. The concept of blame permeates the old paradigm.2 The age old distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor as discussed by Celeste Watkins-Hayes and Elyse Kovalsky in Chapter 9 is of course central to this—unless the working-age poor have a very good reason to explain their poverty (such as a debilitating illness not brought on by their own doing), they are seen as largely undeserving of help from others. Rather, they have only themselves to blame.
Closely connected to the issue of blame is that the poor are viewed as different from mainstream Americans (see Chapter 5 by Matthew Hunt and Heather Bullock). Perceptions of the poor frequently consist of not being motivated enough, dropping out of high school, having a child out of wedlock, failing to have the qualified skills for a higher paying job, and so forth (rather than working steadily at a low-paying job, trying to be good parents to their children, paying taxes throughout their lives, etc.). The poor are not only to blame for their impoverishment, but they also are portrayed as not playing by the rules and therefore outside the mainstream American experience. These differences can also be physically seen within the popular media, where the poor are often depicted as inner city minority residents, women on welfare, street criminals, the homeless, or taken together, synonymous with what has been labeled the underclass. Such images graphically convey a sense of physical separation from middle America.
In addition to this physical separation, the human dimension of poverty is rarely discussed within the old paradigm, once again creating a distance between the poor and the rest of America. The pain of poverty is largely wiped away. Within the old paradigm, the deeper meaning of poverty is rarely discussed. Rather, poverty is largely viewed through the lens of individual inadequacy. Much of the empirical literature has also reinforced this superficiality. Poverty has routinely been reduced to a set of numbers and correlations.3 The old paradigm tends to treat poverty in a one dimensional fashion, either as an unflattering stereotype or as a set of regression coefficients.
(p. 870) Turning to solutions, the key according to the old framework is to address personal inadequacies. Again, there is a conservative and a more liberal version of this. The conservative view is that encouraging and rewarding individual initiative and responsibility is critical. These behaviors include working harder, staying married, and not having children out of wedlock. Social policy should reinforce and encourage such behavior. Indeed, the title of the 1996 welfare reform act was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
On the other hand, cash assistance and generous welfare programs are believed not to be the answer because they often create disincentives for engaging in responsible behavior. Such was the argument made by Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1832 address to the Royal Academic Society of Cherbourg (1983), and such was the argument popularized 150 years later in Charles Murray’s book Losing Ground (1984). As President George W. Bush noted, “Many are learning it is more rewarding to be a responsible citizen than a welfare client” (Bush, 2002). The distinction between responsibility on the one hand, and the use of welfare on the other, is critical from this perspective. Mainstream economic studies have also devoted considerable attention to the issue of incentives and disincentives within the welfare system, and although the effects have been small, the fact that such a large body of work continues to focus on this question serves to legitimate the issue.
The more liberal solution to poverty according to the old framework is to provide greater opportunities and access to job training and education, while demanding personal responsibility and motivation in return. The concept of the New Democrat epitomizes this view. As Bill Clinton stated in his 1992 Democratic National Convention acceptance speech in New York City, “We offer our people a new choice based on old values. We offer opportunity. We demand responsibility” (1992:226). Or as former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said 10 years later regarding welfare reform, “As we demand responsibility, we need to provide greater opportunity” (Toner, 2002). Thus the focus is on providing opportunities intended to upgrade the poor’s limited human capital, with the strong expectation that individuals will make the most of these opportunities.
Finally, from the viewpoint of the old paradigm, our collective responsibility toward poverty is somewhat limited. Since poverty is viewed as the purview of the individual, it is up to the poor themselves to improve their condition. From the conservative view, society and those in authority should use their positions as a moral bully pulpit to encourage the poor to behave in responsible ways. In addition, welfare programs and social policy should be structured in a manner that supports such behavior. Within the liberal version of the old paradigm, society should ensure that the poverty stricken have access to the means of building their education and skills. It is then up to the poor to take advantage of such opportunities. As John Kingdon writes in describing this American approach:
If unfortunate people were regarded as the victims of forces beyond their control, or simply down on their luck, then we could see our way clear to having government provide for them: “There but for the grace of God go I.” But if, in the land of (p. 871) opportunity, they’re responsible for their own condition, then self-help rather than government help is the appropriate prescription. At most, government programs should be designed to enhance opportunity, but nothing more. (1999:37)
Ultimately, the old paradigm reflects and reinforces the myths and ideals of American society—that there are economic opportunities for all, that individualism and self-reliance are paramount, and that hard work is rewarded. It should not be surprising that the dominant paradigm of poverty is a reflection of the overall dominant ideology of America. While there are conservative and liberal versions of this paradigm, both reflect these ideals and myths.
The old paradigm also reflects an overall perceived sense of justice. Opportunities exist for all who are willing to work for them, while the poverty stricken have largely brought their condition upon themselves. Although poverty may be regrettable, it would be a mistake to call it unfair. It is an economic consequence that would appear consistent and in balance with prior actions and behaviors.
It is particularly ironic (and indicative of its strength) that even those in poverty tend to adhere strongly to this paradigm. Surveys have consistently found that the poor tend to reiterate the mainstream values reflected in the old paradigm. Furthermore, those in poverty are often quick to characterize the overall situations of the poor and welfare recipients along the lines of the old paradigm, while carefully distinguishing their own circumstance as different from this pejorative view (Rank 1994). The process of both believing in yet distancing oneself from the common stereotype is often the case for members of stigmatized groups (Goffman 1963).
One of the reasons that American poverty is so high is precisely because of this mind set. The old paradigm offers little in the way of truly understanding and addressing poverty, and in fact, provides a justification for doing so little. The one task that is undertaken is the never ending charge of reforming and analyzing welfare. Yet as we continue to modify the incentives and disincentives that are embedded in the social safety net, poverty remains at the highest levels in the industrialized world. This would appear to be a modern version of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Fundamental change in confronting poverty must begin with a fundamental change in how poverty is viewed and understood. We now turn to what such a new paradigm might look like.
A New Paradigm
A new paradigm must be built not upon the myths of America but rather upon its realities. It should reflect a fuller appreciation of the meaning of poverty rather than the one dimensional view that we are too often exposed to. It must ultimately stimulate a fundamental shift in how we conceptualize and act toward the problem of poverty. Drawing upon prior work and chapters in this handbook, several themes are highlighted that are intended to lay the foundation for such a paradigm.
(p. 872) Poverty Results from Structural Failings
The starting point for a new paradigm is the recognition that American poverty is largely the result of structural failings. There simply are not enough viable opportunities for all Americans. Individual deficiencies, such as the lack of human capital, help explain who is more likely to be left out in the competition to locate and secure such opportunities, but it cannot explain why there is a shortage of opportunities in the first place. In order to answer that question we must turn to the inability of the economic, political, and social structures to provide the supports and opportunities necessary to lift all Americans out of poverty.
The most obvious example of this is the mismatch between the number of decent-paying jobs and the pool of labor in search of such jobs. The failure of the labor market to lift all households out of poverty is substantial. For example, approximately one-third of Americans are working at jobs that pay less than $11.50 an hour. It should be noted that this proportion does not include discouraged workers who have dropped out of the labor force or the over 2 million Americans currently in prison. The inability of the economy to produce enough viable job opportunities can also be seen in the levels of unemployment, which have averaged between 4 and 10 percent during the past 40 years.
Exacerbating this situation is the fact that the American social safety net is extremely weak, resulting in sizeable numbers of families falling through its rather large holes (see Chapter 31 by Cheol-Sung Lee and In-Hoe Koo, and Chapter 32 by Laura Lein, Sandra Danziger, Luke Shaefer, and Amanda Tillotson). The United States has also failed to offer the types of universal coverage for childcare, medical insurance, child allowances, or affordable housing that most other developed countries routinely provide. The result is an increasing number of families at risk of economic vulnerability and poverty.
Let us use the analogy of musical chairs to illustrate the relationship between these structural failures and the fact that those who experience poverty tend to have characteristics such as less education or devalued skills. Picture a game of musical chairs in which there are ten players but only eight chairs available at any point in time. Those who are likely to lose at this game tend to have characteristics putting them at a disadvantage in terms of competing for the available chairs (such as less education, fewer skills, single parent families, and so on). However, given that the game is structured in a way such that two players are bound to lose, a deficiency in marketable attributes only explains who loses out, not why there are losers in the first place.
The critical mistake that has been made in the past by those employing the old paradigm is that they have equated the question of who loses at the game with the question of why the game produces losers in the first place. They are, in fact, distinct and separate questions. While deficiencies in human capital and other marketable characteristics help explain who in the population is at a heightened risk of encountering poverty, (p. 873) the fact that poverty exists in the first place results not from these characteristics, but from the lack of decent opportunities and supports in society. By focusing solely on individual characteristics, such as education, we can shuffle people up or down in terms of their being more likely to land a job with good earnings, but we are still going to have somebody lose out if there are not enough decent-paying jobs to go around. In short, we are playing a large-scale version of a musical chairs game in which there are many more players than chairs.
The recognition of this dynamic represents a fundamental shift in thinking from the old paradigm. It helps explain why the social policies of the past three decades have been largely ineffective in reducing the rates of poverty. We have focused our attention and resources on either altering the incentives and disincentives for those playing the game or, in a very limited way, upgrading their skills and ability to compete in the game, while at the same time we have left the structure of the game untouched.
When the overall poverty rates in the United States do in fact go up or down, they do so primarily as a result of impacts on the structural level that increase or decrease the number of available chairs. In particular, the performance of the economy has been historically important. Why? Because when the economy is expanding, more opportunities (or chairs) are available for the competing pool of labor and their families. The reverse occurs when the economy slows down and contracts. Consequently, during the 1930s, early 1980s, or from 2007 onward, when the economy was doing badly, poverty rates went up, while during periods of economic prosperity such as the 1960s or the middle to later 1990s, the overall rates of poverty declined.
Similarly, changes in various social supports and the social safety net available to families will make a difference in terms of how well such households are able to avoid poverty or near poverty. When such supports were increased through the War on Poverty initiatives in the 1960s, poverty rates declined. Likewise, when Social Security benefits were expanded during the 1960s and 1970s, the elderly’s poverty rates declined precipitously. Conversely, when social supports have been weakened and eroded, as in the case of children’s programs over the past 35 years, their rates of poverty have gone up.4
The recognition of poverty as a structural failing also makes it quite clear why the United States has such high rates of poverty compared to other Western countries (see Chapter 24 by David Brady and Markus Jäntti). These rates have nothing to do with Americans being less motivated or less skilled than those in other countries but with the fact that our economy has been producing a plethora of low-wage jobs in the face of global competition and that our social policies have done relatively little to support families compared to our European neighbors. From this perspective, one of the keys to addressing poverty is to increase the labor market opportunities and social supports available to American households.
In sum, a shift in thinking about the causes of poverty from an individually based explanation to a structurally based explanation allows us to distinguish and make sense of two specific questions. First, why does poverty exist? And second, who is more likely to experience poverty? The earlier described musical chairs analogy handles both (p. 874) questions. Poverty exists primarily as a result of a shortage of viable economic opportunities and social supports for the entire population. Given this shortage, a certain percentage of the population is ensured of experiencing poverty. Individuals with a heightened risk of being on the short end of this economic stick will be those who are least able to effectively compete for the limited number of decent economic opportunities. This includes those with fewer marketable skills, less education, ill health, as well as single parents, racial minorities, and/or residents in economically depressed areas (as evidenced in Chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20). A new paradigm recognizes the fundamental distinction between understanding who loses at the game versus understanding how and why the game produces losers in the first place.
Poverty Is a Conditional State that Individuals Move in and Out Of
A second major premise underlying the new paradigm is the recognition of poverty as a conditional state that individuals move in and out of. Within the old way of thinking, we have talked and written about poor people. Yet the term poor people is in many respects a misnomer. As we have seen in earlier chapters, the majority of individuals and households move in and out of the state of poverty, rather than remaining poor people throughout their lives. In addition, most Americans will experience impoverishment at some point during the life course (Rank 2004; Rank et al. 2014).
Rather than framing the issue as one of poor people, our focus should be on the condition of poverty. This condition affects a very large percentage of the population at some point across the life span. The typical pattern is that individuals may experience poverty for a year or two, get above the poverty line for an extended period of time, and then perhaps experience another spell at some later point (see Chapter 13 by Anirudh Krishna). The recognition of poverty as a conditional state in which a majority of the population will move in and out of is a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing poverty than the static concept of poor people.
One way to illustrate this is with the concept of sickness. Most people are healthy for varying periods of time but periodically experience some kind of illness such as a cold or the flu. In such cases we would not define the lives of these individuals as sick people (even though they have experienced sickness), but rather that they are individuals who occasionally experience the condition of being ill. The appropriate focus is on recognizing the episodic nature of the condition, rather than defining the lives of such individuals in terms of the condition.
Certainly it may be the case that some people are more prone to sickness (just as some people are more prone to poverty). But even in these cases, we would generally not define such individuals as sick people. Only in the case of a chronic disease might we characterize such a person in terms of their illness.
(p. 875) The dynamics of poverty are much the same as that of sickness. Yet the old paradigm of poverty often lumps everyone who experiences poverty into the category of poor people or the underclass. A quick scanning of the bibliography of books on poverty will reveal a wide variety of titles such as, Do the Poor Want to Work?, Freedom for the Poor, or Jobs for the Poor. The point I am making here is not to deny that people experience periods in their lives when they are poor but that the label of poor people reinforces a very static and unchanging image of who encounters poverty. Returning to our analogy, it would not make much sense if we were to define everyone who at some point experienced a sickness as sick people. Yet this would appear to be the case with defining those who have experienced poverty as poor people.
An additional consequence of such labeling is to solidify poverty as a dividing line that separates the population. The old paradigm strengthens the separation between the notions of poor and nonpoor. It fails to recognize the critical point that most Americans are actually both (Rank et al. 2014). Rather than pulling us together, the old paradigm pulls us apart.
Conversely, a new paradigm recognizes that poverty is a conditional state and an economic risk that many Americans will encounter. There is an awareness of the fluid nature of poverty, and the fact that a majority of Americans will experience poverty at some point during their lives. Individuals typically move between the states of being nonpoor and poor during several periods of their life course.
A new paradigm considers the condition of poverty, rather than those who occupy the condition, as harmful and deleterious. As discussed below, poverty has the potential to undermine human well-being and development. It creates a number of problems for those who occupy its ranks. It can result in long-term consequences, depending upon the severity and the length of poverty experienced. This would appear particularly true in the case of children’s development. Children who grow up with extended bouts of severe poverty may experience permanent scars in terms of their health, educational attainment, or acquisition of skills and abilities (see Chapter 7 by Vonnie McLoyd, Rosanne M. Jocson, and Abigail Williams).
Once again we can return to our illness analogy. On the one hand, ill health creates temporary pain and suffering for those experiencing it. Yet individuals will generally pass through such a condition, returning to a state of relatively good health. On the other hand, severe health problems such as a heart attack or stroke may produce more lingering damage. Here there may be permanent harm to the heart or brain that will undermine the individual’s quality of life in the future. The dynamics of poverty can be understood in a similar fashion. Severe poverty over a prolonged period of time may create permanent damage to individuals and their families.
A second important building block for a new paradigm is therefore the recognition of poverty as a conditional state that individuals move in and out of. It represents an economic risk that most Americans will encounter. The appropriate focus is on the (p. 876) condition of poverty and the temporary and sometimes long-term effects that such a state has upon individuals who pass through it.
Poverty Constitutes Deprivation
A third component of the new paradigm broadens the scope and meaning of poverty from that of low income, to the wider concept of deprivation. As we have seen in prior chapters, poverty acts to deprive individuals and families in a number of ways. A new conception of poverty must recognize that impoverishment represents more than just a shortage of income (Chapter 3 by Barbara Rylko-Bauer and Paul Farmer and Chapter 4 by Rod Hick and Tania Burchardt). This has been emphasized in the attention that European governments and scholars (particularly in England, France, and the Netherlands) have been placing upon the concept of social exclusion or “the inability to participate in the activities of normal living” (Glennerster 2002).
We have seen many illustrations of this in prior chapters. Poverty serves to undermine the quality of life for those inhabiting its ranks. As discussed in Section V, it results in serious compromises and struggles in terms of acquiring basic resources such as food, clothing, shelter, health care, and transportation. These struggles then produce considerable stress in the lives of the poverty stricken and their families.
Poverty also results in reducing the quality of one’s health. Poverty is associated with a host of health risks, including undernutrition, elevated rates of heart disease, dental problems, diabetes, lead poisoning, and mental illness as discussed by Ronald Angel in Chapter 29. The result is a decline in one’s physical well-being, culminating in a death rate for the poverty stricken that is substantially higher than that for the affluent.
Another area of reduced capabilities lies in the stunted or diminished life chances for children and adults (Chapter 7 by Vonnie McLoyd, Rosanne M. Jocson, and Abigail Williams and Chapter 23 by Liana Fox, Florencia Torche, and Jane Waldfogel). For example, growing up in poverty stricken neighborhoods can result in an inferior education (Chapter 15 by Mary Pattillo and John Robinson and Chapter 20 by Emily Hannum and Yu Xie). Both the quality and quantity of education received are often substandard. There is also a greater exposure to other risks, such as crime, discussed in Chapter 27 by Patrick Sharkey, Max Besbris, and Michael Friedson. These risks, in turn, result in a lowered likelihood of acquiring the necessary skills to compete effectively in the labor market.
In addition, poverty undercuts the ability of adults to build their economic assets, which can affect later life chances. The old saying that it takes money to earn money is certainly true and applies to financial and property assets as well. The ability to build equity in a house or a retirement fund is severely constricted by poverty.
(p. 877) Impoverishment is also closely associated with deprivation in the area of work. Those in poverty may be out of work or employed at part-time or dead-end jobs that simply do not pay enough to support a family (Chapter 21 by Jérôme Gautié and Sophie Ponthieux). In addition, such work is often physically demanding and intellectually deadening. Employment and work have historically been a central part of the American identity. The failure to have a job that supports oneself and/or one’s family is a major source of frustration and loss.
Finally, poverty undermines the capability of individuals to fully partake in the freedoms, rights, and opportunities to which all citizens are theoretically entitled. Poverty diminishes one’s ability to fully exercise specific rights such as receiving a fair trial or participating in the democratic process.
A new paradigm of poverty must therefore recognize that impoverishment encompasses more than just low income. The lack of income is clearly a critical component of poverty and represents a convenient, logical, and pragmatic starting point and measuring stick. But we must go beyond thinking of poverty solely in terms of low income.5 This involves incorporating a wider set of experiences and deprivations into our understanding as detailed by Rod Hick and Tania Burchardt in Chapter 4. As Amartya Sen writes, “poverty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities rather than merely as lowness of incomes, which is the standard criterion of identification of poverty” (1999:87). He goes on to note:
Policy debates have indeed been distorted by overemphasis on income poverty and income inequality, to the neglect of deprivations that relate to other variables, such as unemployment, ill health, lack of education, and social exclusion. Unfortunately, the identification of economic inequality with income inequality is fairly common in economics, and the two are often seen as effectively synonymous. If you tell someone that you are working on economic inequality, it is quite standardly assumed that you are studying income distribution. (p. 108)
An example of bringing several aspects of deprivation to bear upon the measurement of poverty is the United Nations development of a human poverty index for industrialized countries (United Nations Development Programme 2012). This index incorporates four measures: (1) deprivation in survival—the percentage of people not expected to survive to age 60; (2) deprivation in knowledge—the percentage of people aged 16 to 65 who are functionally illiterate; (3) deprivation in income—the percentage of the population below the income poverty line; and (4) social exclusion—the percentage of the total labor force that has been unemployed for 12 or more months. Such an index begins to reflect the wider meaning and scope of poverty.
Finally, conceptualizing poverty in terms of deprivation brings with it a more humane and accessible image. It is sometimes difficult to imagine what $23,834 a year really means (the U.S. poverty line for a family of four in 2013). It may be more intuitive to talk about long-term unemployment, illiteracy, or a shortened life (p. 878) expectancy. Broadening our focus to one of deprivation brings a more human dimension and scale.
Poverty as Injustice
Whereas the old paradigm’s moral compass has been largely centered on individual blame, the moral compass of a new paradigm rests upon the notion of injustice. There is a recognition that poverty constitutes an injustice of substantial magnitude. This is based largely upon a juxtaposition of the first and third premises discussed earlier.
We have seen that poverty represents severe deprivation and hardship. This has been documented in countless studies not to mention millions of human lives. The question of justice centers on whether such deprivation is deserved. From the perspective of the old paradigm, the answer is largely yes, with the blame for poverty lying with the poor themselves.
In contrast, a new paradigm views the condition of poverty as undeserved and unwarranted. As discussed in the first premise, its roots can be traced back to the lack of economic opportunities and social supports (see Sections III and IV). There simply are not enough decent-paying jobs and mechanisms in place (such as affordable health care, housing, or childcare) to adequately support all American households. The condition of poverty represents an economic wrong falling on too many of our fellow citizens. What makes this injustice particularly grievous is the stark contrast between the wealth and abundance of America on the one hand, and its levels of destitution on the other.
Let us employ Adam Smith’s thought experiment of what this might look like to an “impartial spectator” (1759). Smith raises the question of what would an impartial spectator make of a particular scenario—in this case the high levels of U.S. poverty within the context of vast material resources and wealth. As the impartial spectator delved into the current situation, he or she would soon learn that at any point in time over one-third of the poor are children and another 10 percent are elderly. Those of working age who encounter poverty have labored most of their lives but are often employed at jobs that do not pay enough to raise their families above the poverty line. Health care and childcare assistance for such families are minimal. For those not working, they may be suffering from a physical disability or illness preventing employment. In fact, one out of six of the poor between the ages of 25 and 64 have some type of disability. The impartial spectator would also see isolated cases of individuals who appear to have brought their poverty upon themselves. He or she would observe that these cases are often used to characterize the entire population who experiences poverty.
On the other hand, the impartial spectator also would see the vast amounts of American prosperity and wealth. The standards of living for families in the upper (p. 879) portions of society surpass all other nations in the world. The impartial spectator would note that such families enjoy many tax benefits and public policies to further strengthen their economic position. He or she would observe that although these individuals work hard, much of this wealth has been inherited from generation to generation. Yet the impartial spectator would rarely hear this dynamic being used to characterize the affluent portion of the population. Rather, hard work and ingenuity have become the key words used to account for their success. She or he would also note that there are scattered cases in which individuals have indeed risen from rags to riches.
The impartial spectator would soon learn that in spite of the material resources of American society, and in spite of the assistance for the well-to-do, the U.S. government does the least of any nation in the industrialized world to help its economically vulnerable escape from poverty. Rather, it resorts to encouraging the poor to engage in moral and responsible behavior, while at the same time cutting back its social safety net and economic supports. By doing so, the argument is made that it is helping the most vulnerable in society to escape poverty.
What would an impartial spectator make of all this? I believe that the answer would be moral outrage at the injustice of the situation. The impartial spectator would be able to see this for what it is—a masquerade that gives to the economically comfortable while taking away from those who have the least, and then justifying the whole process in terms of virtue. The injustice of this situation would be abundantly clear.
A new paradigm acknowledges this. Injustice, rather than blame, becomes the moral compass on which such a perspective is based. Poverty is viewed as a societal injustice and an economic wrong. It is particularly glaring because it is both unnecessary and preventable. If the United States were an extremely impoverished country with a broken economy, widespread poverty would be regrettable but certainly understandable given the economic constraints. Yet this is not the situation we face. The United States has both the means and the resources available to address and substantially reduce its high levels of poverty. Yet we have chosen not to. This inaction is simply unconscionable given that we have the ability to confront such deprivation and human misery.
This type of injustice constitutes a strong impetus for change. It signals that a wrong is being committed that cries out for a remedy. From the Revolutionary War, to the abolitionists, through women’s suffrage, to civil rights, all have been fueled by an understanding and a passion to correct specific injustices taking place in particular historical times. The existence of poverty amidst widespread prosperity must be seen in a similar light.
The new paradigm recognizes this and is premised upon the idea that change is essential in addressing the injustices of poverty. This is in sharp contrast with the old paradigm, in which the moral focus is on individual blame. This has had the effect of simply reinforcing the status quo of doing little, resulting in continued rates of elevated poverty. A new paradigm allows us to actively engage and (p. 880) confront poverty, rather than comfortably settling for the status quo of widespread impoverishment.
The Condition of Poverty Affects and Undermines Us All
A final building block of a new paradigm is the recognition that poverty impacts and undermines us all. Indeed, the subtitle of my earlier book—Why American Poverty Affects Us All—reflects this central theme. In the past we have viewed poverty as primarily affecting those who fill its ranks and occasionally their proximate neighborhoods. The old paradigm has consistently failed to recognize the connections that all Americans have to poverty. This is epitomized by the distinction that we often implicitly make between them versus us—that is, the poor versus the nonpoor.
The new paradigm breaks down this distinction by demonstrating that virtually all Americans are affected by poverty in one way or another. There are significant economic costs that are incurred by the entire population as a consequence of excessive poverty. Impoverishment produces greater numbers and more severe health problems, inadequately educated children, and higher rates of criminal activity. As a result, we pay more for health care, produce less productive workers, and divert needed resources to the building and maintaining of correctional facilities. In each of these cases, money is being spent on the back end of the problem rather than on the front end, which is assuredly a more expensive approach to take. In fact, one study found that the annual cost of childhood poverty was conservatively estimated at $500 billion per year or 4 percent of GDP (Holzer et al. 2007). To argue that we do not pay a steep price for our widespread poverty is putting our head in the sand.
It has also been demonstrated in some of my prior work that a majority of the American population will encounter poverty directly at some point during their lifetimes. Between the ages of 20 and 75, 59 percent of Americans will experience at least one year below the official poverty line, 76 percent will encounter poverty or near poverty (at the 1.50 level), and 33 percent will experience dire poverty (below .50 of the official poverty line). In addition, two-thirds of Americans will utilize some type of safety net program by the time they reach age 65 (Rank 2004). These numbers drive home the fact that poverty casts a very long shadow across the population. Rather than it being a question of them, poverty is clearly a question of us.
Yet we are also connected to poverty in a somewhat different fashion as well—its presence undermines us as a people and as a nation. It diminishes us all by tarnishing the integrity of our values. For example, the presence of widespread poverty juxtaposed against immense material prosperity would appear to contradict much of what the Judeo-Christian ethic stands for. The Judeo-Christian ethic emphasizes that the barometer for a just and compassionate society lies in its treatment of the poor and (p. 881) vulnerable. As a nation and as a people we would appear to be badly failing at this test. Similarly, poverty impedes the ability of lower income Americans to enjoy the full blessings of liberty, equality, or justice. The words “liberty and justice for all” take on a hollow meaning when a significant percentage of the population is economically and politically disenfranchised. This undermines every citizen, for it suggests that the American ideals we profess to believe in apply to some more than others. This contradicts the very core of the American promise, diminishing us all.
Just as each of us is affected by poverty, each of us also has a responsibility for ending poverty. The new paradigm suggests that the alleviation of poverty will require a collective commitment from all Americans. This is in sharp contrast with the old paradigm, where the poor are basically left to fend for themselves. The new paradigm recognizes that poverty is an issue of public policy and requires a broad-based commitment. Within the old paradigm, the public’s apathy toward the poor has been part of the problem. Within the new paradigm, the public’s engagement in alleviating poverty is part of the solution.
In conclusion, a new paradigm asks us to view poverty on a different conceptual level. As discussed earlier, we have traditionally placed both the problem and the solution to poverty within the context of the individual. In contrast, a new paradigm suggests that we understand the condition of poverty within the wider context of an interconnected environment. This handbook has stressed the importance of such a context.
This shift in thinking can be illustrated in how we have begun to think differently about the environment and environmental protections. Until recently, we failed to recognize the harm befalling us all as a result of air, water, and ground pollutants. These had been seen as having little consequence beyond the immediate location of the pollution. However, mounting evidence suggested that this way of thinking about pollution was incorrect and dangerous. We have begun to understand the impact that pollution has within a wider environmental context. Pollutants that occur in one community may very well affect those in other communities down wind or down stream. The use of coal in midwestern power plants results in acid rain in northeastern forests. The burning of fossil fuels or the use of chlorofluorocarbons can have a profound impact upon the global climate, such as global warming or the loss of the atmospheric ozone layer. The physical environment is increasingly being understood as an interconnected system. What occurs in one part of the system may very well affect other parts.
As our awareness of these interconnections has increased, we have begun to realize that we each have a role to play in the solution. The increased popularity of recycling programs illustrates this. The very small individual act of bringing newspapers or aluminum cans to the curbside for a weekly pick up can collectively have a large impact on reducing environmental degradation. At the same time, we have also realized the (p. 882) necessity of regulation and governmental controls to help curb pollution. Leaving the problem solely up to the individual polluters is no longer viable. Structural changes are increasingly needed to help alleviate levels of national and global pollution.
In a similar fashion, we must begin to understand poverty within the context of an interconnected environment. Here, however, our environment consists of the social, economic, and political institutions of society. Poverty must be understood as having profound ripple effects that denigrate and diminish those environments. This understanding also allows us to appreciate the fact that we each have a role to play in the alleviation of poverty. Individual actions over a sustained period of time can result in sizeable changes. Yet, as with our environmental problems, it is vital to recognize the importance that local, state, and federal governments must play in providing the resources, supports, and structure needed for a sustained effort.
Such a shift is now needed in the case of poverty. Widespread poverty amidst prosperity must be seen as unacceptable. The status quo of an exceedingly high risk of poverty during the life course must be recognized as detrimental to us all. This chapter and book has sketched out a rough framework for what a new understanding of this issue might look like. Now it is time to act on this understanding.
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(1.) Portions of this chapter have been adapted and updated from One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All.
(2.) This is much more the case within the conservative version of the old paradigm. The liberal version recognizes to a greater extent that certain opportunities (such as a decent education) must also be made available.
(3.) This is not to say that numbers and empirical work are unimportant. On the contrary, I view them as highly important. However, my point is that empirical work represents only one aspect of poverty. It is essential to understand and appreciate the human meaning as well and to let that inform one’s work. As I have argued before, such an understanding calls for a variety of approaches to studying poverty, including a range of qualitative methodologies.
(4.) However, one must always exert caution in making these types of one-to-one arguments at the macrolevel. Various factors may be operating in society to raise or lower the overall poverty rates. Simply because two trends are occurring at the same time by no means proves that one is causing the other to occur.
(5.) There has been much discussion with respect to revising the manner in which poverty is measured in the United States (see Chapter 2 by Timothy Smeeding). Yet these discussions have almost exclusively focused on better ways of measuring low income, not the wider concept of deprivation that has been proposed here.