Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Poverty of Knowledge

A couple of days ago in the Post, Michael Gerson lamented the "poverty of solutions" in political debates, which revolve around ideology (the Tea Party's free market ideology vs. the Occupy Movement's rejection of capitalism) instead of talking about poverty and what to do about it. The article quickly sets aside the Occupy Movement and focuses on the fact that both political parties basically won't talk about poverty. Gerson argues that below-the-radar government programs have actually helped to reduce poverty -- welfare reform to reduce caseloads, food stamps, earned-income tax credit. Center-right and center-left politicians supporting these programs "take market forces seriously" and take government policy seriously. Gerson throws in: "The main challenge of poverty is not a lack of consumption but a lack of social capital -- measured in skills and values -- and of opportunity" and the poor's "failing community." Yet, welfare programs, in fact, do increase the incomes of and thus consumption by those living and working in poverty, which may be why they are so effective.

Gerson's argument works very well with some of the most cutting edge work in sociology done by Duke University professor David Brady. In his comparison of 18 Western democracies, Brady finds that welfare state generosity reduces poverty and therefore ending poverty is a political choice. The United States proportionately has more people living and working in poverty than the other 17 Western democracies because of political choices.

In contrast to Gerson, one should not only talk about the poor without also talking about the wealthy. As all social scientists know, one has to compare groups to figure out if there are any differences between them. The old studies of the "culture of poverty" and the "underclass" have been discredited because, as historian Alice O'Connor showed so brilliantly in her book Poverty Knowledge, scholars 1) studied only those living in poverty and not in comparison with those in other social classes and 2) focused on individual pathologies and welfare dependency, rather than on the economy and the opportunity structure. The wealthy and the poor are in fact relational to each other.

Different social classes and subclasses not only have different amounts of income and wealth, but they also have different social capital (networks) and cultural capital (education, artistic knowledge, etc) that they desperately seek to protect and expand so as to make themselves distinct from other social classes and to maintain their class status. In the Post, a book reviewer recently wrote:
More affluent parents face a different set of pressures. As it becomes increasingly difficult for middle-class families to transmit their class position to their children, many have come to regard childrearing - like the economy - as a zero-sum game, where they must pit their children against other people's offspring. This has encouraged parents to view their child as a project to be perfected and other children as a problem.
Affluent parents desperately want their children to be in the right school, which might mean taking a seat from a working class or low-income family. This form of opportunity hoarding works along with exploitation (not paying people enough) in a variety of venues, including education, housing, medical care, etc. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu showed, these class distinctions are further reinforced by lifestyles shaped by economic, social, and cultural capital. So, when one meets another person of one's subclass, one recognizes that person as one of us and feels physically comfortable. For example, two people of the same sub-class might order Peroni beers, eat high-end burgers, and discuss the White Stripes, while being physically repelled by hamburgers bought in vending machines and easy listening music. Preferences felt in everyone's bodies -- including in boughies' bodies -- help to maintain the social class structure. Therefore, the problem is not that the poor's "lack of social capital" or their "failing community," but rather the more affluent's opportunity hoarding in an attempt to maintain their class status in the face of feelings of insecurity for themselves and their families.

Gerson is correct that there is a poverty of solutions, but there is also a poverty of knowledge, knowledge about mechanisms of social inequality and knowledge about what the Occupy Movement might be offering as solutions.

2 comments:

  1. A really nice article that was worth reading. Sometimes when I am driving around Lawrence Park, one of Canada’s ten richest neighbourhoods and see local people with their children, I think to myself, “Man, these kids will never have to worry about money.” Their parents will do anything just to ensure even better future for them. That is how it goes. People who already have a lot will always want even more. Not just for themselves, but for their children, too. That is why social inequality is such a complicated issue.

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  2. A really nice article that was worth reading. Sometimes when I am driving around Lawrence Park, one of Canada’s ten richest neighbourhoods and see local people with their children, I think to myself, “Man, these kids will never have to worry about money.” Their parents will do anything just to ensure even better future for them. That is how it goes. People who already have a lot will always want even more. Not just for themselves, but for their children, too. That is why social inequality is such a complicated issue.

    ReplyDelete

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