Development ethnography and the life of the poor

Indian economists V. K. Ramachandran and Madhura Swaminathan have edited a highly interesting volume, Telling the Truth, Taking Sides: Essays for N. Ram, that will be of interest to anyone concerned with the progress of India in recent years. The book is a set of essays dedicated to the impact and progressive legacy of N Ram, journalist, writer, and important voice of the Left in India, and all the essays are very good.

Ramachandran’s own contribution is a piece of what we might call “development ethnography”, a pair of interview (link) with the Tamil Nadu landless worker Gabriel Selvam. This case study is a valuable document for anyone interested in poverty and global justice. Ramachandran conducted interviews with Selvam at both ends of Selvam’s working life, in 1977 and 2017, and the experiences that Selvam describes are emblematic of the extreme poor in India and elsewhere throughout that forty-year period. Selvam has lived most of his life in rural Tamil Nadu, near the town of Gokilapuram. And Selvam’s life history illustrates many of the deep themes of enduring poverty and inequality in rural India — debt, bonded labor, inadequate access to land, caste, and extremely limited opportunities for collective action.

Usury involving a sum of only 100 rupees forced Selvam into a form of debt bondage to a landlord: “Selvam attached himself as a farm servant for a remuneration of Rs 65 per month, plus one sheet, a dhoti, a shirt and a thunda (towel-cloth) a year.” He worked 13 hours a day for the salary of Rs 65 per month. After four years the salary increased to Rs 100 per month. (At the 2000 exchange rate of Rs 45 / dollar this is about $2.22 / month.)

Debt bondage has been formally illegal in India since 1976. But Selvam’s condition is clearly one of debt bondage: “There is no choice, I can’t leave my mudalali [employer, landlord] unless I can clear my debt of Rs 300. I would certainly like to leave.”

Largescale eviction from farm land is also a part of Selvam’s story. Green Revolution seeds and techniques made farm land more profitable, and landlords had an interest in evicting poor farmers from the land they had previously rented at low rents. Poor farmers became landless workers.

The persistent and debilitating disadvantages of caste in rural India are evident in this story as well. Selvam is of a scheduled caste, and it seems apparent that the wage differentials that he experienced throughout his working life had much to do with his dalit status.

Destitution-level housing is also a striking part of the story that Selvam tells. In 1977: “As for his home, Selvam cannot afford to erect a complete hut. When he gets a small amount of money, he adds a row of bricks to the hut. Some months ago, he bought a door-frame. Now, there is a door-frame, fixed with mud into a few rows of country-made brick, with no wall around it or roof above. The single room in the hut is 8 feet by 6 feet.” In 2017, the time of the second interview, the hut has been completed: “it is completed and expanded now: a neat, whitewashed structure that has the meagre furniture and appurtenances of a house that is still, after all, the house of a full-time rural manual worker.”

In 2017 Selvam’s wage has also improved; he now earns Rs 4000 per month for hard agricultural labor — in today’s exchange rate, about $40 / month. As Selvam says, they are better off. And yet it is clear — “better off” in Selvam’s village still means poor access to education and healthcare, limited nutrition, an extremely low income, and a life of toil that few Americans can even imagine.

I hope that you will read the whole interview. It is a more powerful testament to the depth of poverty and inequality in rural India than any set of economic statistics could ever convey.

Here is a World Bank report that makes for excellent parallel reading alongside Ramachandran’s case history (Raji Jayaraman and Peter Lanjouw, “The Evolution of Poverty and Inequality in Indian Villages”; link).

Guest post: VK Ramachandran on details of life as a day laborer in India

[V. K. Ramachandran was a Professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, and is at present vice chairman of the State Planning Board of the state of Kerala. He is the author of Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study. Previous discussions of Ramachandran’s work in Understanding Society can be found here (link, link, link, link), and here is an interview I conducted with VK in 2008; link.]

[Acknowledgement: Extracted from Ramachandran, V. K., and Madhura Swaminathan, (eds.) (2018), Telling the Truth, Taking Sides: Essays for N. Ram, Tulika Books, New Delhi. This is a set of essays dedicated to the impact and progressive legacy of N Ram, journalist, writer, and important voice of the Left in India.]

“Gabriel Selvam: A Biography of Work”

V. K. Ramachandran

Among the many the many things in which N. Ram was an early instructor (and I not good enough a learner) was on how to interview, take notes, edit copy, and present the results from conversation and observation.

NR was the first among us to meet Gabriel Selvam, and the description “upstanding young agricultural labourer” is his.

An Interview in Two Parts, 1977 and 2017

1977: Young Bonded Worker

G. Selvam (35) is an upstanding young agricultural labourer who has bonded himself as a pannaiyal (permanent farm servant) out of economic necessity. Selvam’s family is of the Parayar scheduled caste.

A loan of Rs 100 taken over six years ago from CT, a petty usurer, led directly to his present condition as farm servant. At that time, the loan was taken for subsistence needs and was perceived as a temporary expedient. On account of a 120 percent interest rate, the loan of Rs 100 became a liability of Rs 220 over a year. The usurer pressed Selvam, then 31 years old, to sell his house in order to repay the loan. Selvam, refusing to abandon the family house site, went around asking for a way to work off his debt. The opportunity presented itself in the form of the landlord SCC. This landlord, who was looking for a young and strong farm servant, was willing to advance the money to clear the debt, provided Selvam attached himself as a farm servant for a remuneration of Rs 65 per month plus one sheet and a dhoti, a shirt, and a towel-cloth (thundu) a year.

Selvam took an advance of Rs 100 for going to work as a farm servant, and used that to clear just under half his debt. Then, after the first month of work, he took a loan of Rs 120 to clear the debt.

Since then, that is, for six years, Selvam has been working for well over 13 hours a day. He worked at the salary of Rs 65 a month for four years. Two years ago, when paddy prices soared to nearly Rs 150 per 58-kilogram bag, the farm servants in the village asked their employers for a raise. Selvam was given a wage rise that was long overdue: in 1977 he was paid Rs 110 a month.

SCC, like some other big landlords in the village, has found it much to his advantage to hire a farm servant in this way. He has advanced small sums of money to Selvam over the years, sums always taken “temporarily,” but with no real chance of the debtor repaying the debt and getting out of his present condition. Selvam makes it clear that he is not paid anything near the remuneration he should be getting for this work. “There is no choice,” he says, “I can’t leave my mudalali (employer, landlord) unless I can clear my debt of Rs 300. I would certainly like to leave.”

In his childhood, Selvam was not as badly off as he is today. His father, Gabriel, was a poor or lower-middle peasant, cultivating surface-irrigated land that had been leased in from landlords of the village. His mother worked as a hired labourer.

His father sent Selvam to school. Selvam studied in the Mission School in Gokilapuram, down the road from where he lives today, up to the fifth class. He completed the sixth class at the NMR School in Gokilapuram. Selvam was a good student and his father sent him to Vatthalakundu, where Selvam studied in the seventh and eighth classes, finishing when he was 16 years old. He stayed at a hostel at Vatthalakundu, and his father sent him Rs 20 a month. Selvam returned to the village after finishing the eighth class. He can read and write Tamil and can still read some English.

Selvam’s father tilled 6 kuzhi (3.6 acres) of surface-irrigated land belonging to landlord ST on kuthagai (fixed rent) for 20 years. He also worked 1.5 acres of groundwater-irrigated land belonging to SP, a landlord of Uthamapalayam. Selvam also worked on the land leased in by the family. Selvam married when he was 20 years old. His wife, Alphonse, is from a family of tenant cultivators from Pudupatti in Uthamapalayam taluk.

In about 1967, there was a sharp decline in the agriculture conducted by the family. The surface-irrigated land had poor soil and bad drainage, and standing water after the rain affected the crop. The land was manured only for one crop, one of the reasons for the yield being poor. The groundwater-irrigated land had a well with plenty of water and had a pulley and rope to draw water with. But household cultivation was in decline, the family began to incur debt, and the age-old symbol of a peasant family heading towards destitution became apparent: the cattle owned by the family became thin and weak.

About the same time, eviction took place on a large scale in the village. Earlier, the paddy crops were the traditional parunnel and samba varieties; later, with the introduction of new seeds, yields were higher, and agriculture became more profitable for the landlords. There was also fear among them, Selvam said, that the tenants would assert their right to cultivate the land. Landlords brought pressure on the tenants to leave the land. Rents were raised, rack-rents were imposed on tenants. In some cases, landlords brought great pressure on tenants to leave, offering them small amounts of money to do so. The peasants were disunited, Selvam said, and, out of fear, accepted the money and left the land.

Agricultural Wage Work

Selvam made it clear that the big landlords can always bring pressure on agricultural labourers; as for agricultural labourers, there is little scope for their advance today. Opportunities for employment in some tasks have gone down since the arrival of tractors, Selvam pointed out. The tractor has robbed those with ploughs and bullocks of ploughing work, and those with carts and bullocks of work in basal manuring. Even during threshing, the tractor has deprived agricultural labourers of employment. While earlier, there would be four days’ work at the threshing-floor and four bullocks would be needed to trample the grain for the second threshing, now the tractor can be driven over the sheaves to complete the task in less than an hour.

Unemployment is high and wages are poor, and women’s wages have actually been brought down, from Rs 3 per day to Rs 2.50 per day. There was agitation by Communists five years ago in southern villages of the Valley, Selvam recalls, when men workers won an increase in their grain wages, from 4 measures per day to 5 measures, and women an increase to 3 measures for threshing.

While wages in the village do not vary directly with the caste of the worker, discrimination against the scheduled castes, the overwhelming majority of whom are landless labourers, is deeply entrenched. Most of the farm servants in the village are Dalit.

Selvam has an extremely busy working year. During the 1976-7 agricultural year, he worked on both crops of paddy on surface-irrigated land, in different operations in the cultivation of irrigated sorghum (cholam), finger millet (ragi), tomato, and banana on groundwater-irrigated land, and in little millet (samai) on unirrigated land. In addition to agricultural work every day, he did domestic tasks at the landlord’s house. Selvam’s wife Alphonse laboured at agricultural operations for 57 days in 1976-7, and earned Rs 158.70 as wages. She seeded and cleaned tamarind for 3 days, for which she earned Rs 7.50.

Selvam’s wage is lower than other farm servants in the village, some of whom are paid Rs 130 and Rs 140 by their landlord employers. But when Selvam asks for a wage increase, the landlord arrogantly insists: “I have already increased your wages. You used to get Rs 65, now you get 110.” The standard that SCC uses, Selvam says, is not the wage paid to other farm servants in the village, but the Rs 65 pittance that Selvam himself used to receive before he was paid Rs 110 a month.

When Selvam is unwell, the landlord may give Selvam a small amount of money to buy medicine, but he will not pay for treatment for Alphonse or the children when they fall ill.

As for his home, Selvam cannot afford to erect a complete hut. When he gets a small amount of money, he adds a row of bricks to the hut. Some months ago, he bought a door-frame. Now there is a door-frame, fixed with mud into a few rows of country-made brick, with no wall around it or roof above. The single room in the hut is 8 feet by 6 feet. “We do not know when this hut will be built,” Alphonse said. “We lay a few bricks, and it may be a few months before we can add more bricks. It may take years to complete the hut in this manner.”

With all this, Selvam must also face rudeness and shouts from the landlord, the loud arrogance of SCC as taskmaster of “his” farm servant.

“Life is difficult for me,” Selvam said. He sees his children at 5 a.m. (when he leaves the house), when the older children may be just beginning to wake up. It is seldom, and only in the slack season, that he comes home before they are asleep for the night. And the hours in between are filled with arduous, back-breaking labour that covers every task that an agricultural labourer in the village can perform.

I have seen Selvam, early in the morning, heaving farmyard manure on to a cart and driving the cart to the paddy-fields, unloading it in neat piles across the field. I have seen him, bare-chested, barefoot, and dressed in an old and torn lungi, with a soiled cloth on his head to protect him from the sun, walking with a hoe across his shoulder over the ridge east of the village on the road leading to SCC’s groundwater-irrigated field in neighbouring Anamalaiyanpatti. I have seen him at the field, cutting and clearing water channels before the electricity comes on and irrigation water rushes up; and in the banana field, hacking at the tough young shoots that grow by the banana trees, cutting dry and withered leaves off the tree, and straightening tree trunks with wooden props that have been chopped and shaped by him. I have seen him, in the evenings, working in SCC’s house, watering, feeding, and washing the cattle or chopping a tree trunk for firewood for SCC’s kitchen. I have seen him at the bus-stop in Uthamapalayam, straining to lift a motor pump, newly repaired, on to the carrier of a Gokilapuram-bound bus. Standing under a bus-shelter in Gokilapuram after 11 o’clock at night, I have heard the sound of a cart coming down the road from Anamalaiyanpatti. It is Selvam, urging the bullocks through pouring rain back to the house of SCC. I have seen him after 11.30 at night, rain smudging the red mud that clings to his face and body, entering his hut and eating gruel and pickle by the weak light of an oil lamp, and preparing to catch some sleep before the next day of labour begins.

Selvam states clearly that it is not “loyalty” that keeps him with the landlord. It is his debt and the difficulty of finding alternative employment if he were to leave. “I have heard of the union of agricultural labourers in East Thanjavur. A union is needed, unity of agricultural labourers is needed. If there were a union in Gokilapuram, I would join it.”

May 1977

2017: A Working Life

Selvam worked for a total of 13 years with SCC. When he left, he was paid a mere Rs 400 a month. Selvam said that about 4000 rupees were due to him and unpaid when he left SCC’s employment.

Selvam worked 15 years as a daily worker after he left the employment of SCC. Three years after he left, Selvam’s son Arokiyasami was married. Over the three years, Selvam spent one year as a worker in a cardamom estate in Parathodu in Kerala, owned by Shanmughavel of Pannaipuram.

Alphonse worked as a wage labourer all her working life, that is, until four years ago.

Ten years ago, Selvam began to work for Venkatesan, a retired college teacher. Selvam was hired at a wage of Rs 2000 a month. Venkatesan owns 10.8 acres of thottam land and 1.8 acres of nanjai land in the north of the village, on the banks of the Thamaraikulam irrigation tank, where he grows nendran banana and coconut.

Selvam comes to the field at 7 am every day, takes a break from about 11:00 to 2:30, and works again at the field till 6 pm. He takes care of the field, clears the channels for irrigation, works the locks of the pipes for drip irrigation, supervises and works with other wage workers at some operations (planting and harvest), and weeds and cleans the fields. He also keeps the main trunks of the banana trees free of unwanted side-shoots, and applies fertilizer and undertakes all other plant protection tasks.

After three years with the landlord, Selvam asked for a raise. His new wage was fixed at Rs 4,000 a month (the worker on the neighbouring field gets Rs 6,000 a month, he told us). The landlord agreed, and said that he would henceforth account for Selvam’s withdrawals against the new wage. For Selvam is not paid his wage on a fixed day every month. He takes money for expenses from the owner “whenever I need it,” for household expenses, for festivals. The employer says he is keeping an account; Selvam trusts him and says that he, too, keeps track of how much he has taken from the landlord. He estimates that he has credit of about Rs 10,000 with the landlord. There is no formal account of Selvam’s savings with the landlord.

Four years ago, Alphonse developed a swelling on her right knee. A doctor in Uthamapalayam gave her drugs and an injection, and the swelling “sank to her foot.” Blood and pus was drained with a large syringe from the foot. Alphonse was discharged from the hospital, and was told to spread an ointment on the wound. Selvam did this every day. Alphonse began to scratch the itchy wound before it had healed completely. She eats betel leaf and nuts with lime, and the lime paste on her finger began to inflame the wound. It turned septic. Selvam took her in his son Sekhar’s autorickshaw to Cumbum, where the doctor said that she needed emergency treatment at Theni. Alphonse was taken by ambulance to the Theni Government Medical College and Hospital, where the doctors advised emergency surgery. She had a second surgery, followed by a skin graft.

In the post-operative ward, Selvam watched people on the other beds, and began to realise the importance of dressing Alphonse’s wound correctly – that it was a task that needed an expert, something he could not do himself. He hired a person to change the bandage – at Rs 50 a day – for the three months they spent in the hospital.

Alphonse is back home now. She can move a bit – to the sitting platform in front of the house, to change her clothes, to go to the bathroom; but not more than that. “We do not know how long she will survive. She has never done anyone any wrong. When she goes, it will be to heaven.”

The Children

Arokiasamy (50), the oldest child of Selvam and Alphonse, works as a mason and has a small business as a contractor for constructing small houses. His wife, Sumathi, has a tenth class school-leaving certificate, and works in the panchayat office as a data collector. They have two children, a son, Maniprathi (22), now a student at a polytechnic in Namakkal, and a daughter, Sunitha (21). Sunitha completed a B. A. degree and is now married. Her husband works on the staff of a tea estate owned by N Ramakrishnan, former MLA from Cumbum.

Arokiamary (48), the only daughter of Selvam and Alphonse, is now almost completely blind. She looks after her parents and brother, the much-loved carer in the home.

Shekhar (46) lives in Gokilapuram. He owns an autorickshaw, from which he which earns an income of Rs 500 to Rs 1000 a day. His wife, Thilakam, is a manual worker in agriculture and at non-agricultural tasks. Their children, Merlyn Marcia and Praveen, their grandparents’ joy, study in class 1 and class 2 in the English-language medium section of the Savarimuthu Udayar Memorial Higher Secondary School, a reputed school in the neighbouring village of Rayappanpatti.

Vedamuthu (44) stays at home with his parents. He is a person with intellectual disabilities, and is unable to go regularly to work.

Xavier (41), the youngest son of the family, works at loading and unloading bags of rice at the government civil supplies godown in Uthamapalayam. His wife Muthuarokiyam and he are now residents of Uthamapalayam, where his children Akhilesh, Vimalesh, and Pratibha go to school. Xavier earns 600 rupees a day, and an extra 1000 rupees a month for the manual work at the godown.

Forty Years On

Selvam and family live today in the house whose initial construction costs led him into bondage in 1977. It is completed and expanded now, a neat whitewashed structure that has the meagre furniture and appurtenances of a house that is still, after all, the house of a full-time rural manual worker. They were exploited and extremely poor – near destitute – in 1977. Today, they are still poor, Selvam’s wages are low, and he has no knowledge of how much of his earned wages are held by his employer. But he is no longer destitute, no longer in bondage, and no longer at the mercy of a harsh and cruel landlord of the old type.

They are better off now than they were in 1977 – oh yes, of course we are, Selvam says. Our house is complete, and we never go hungry, we have special things to eat: egg curry twice a week, chicken on Sundays, fish once in about twenty days. Thanks to the public system for the distribution of cereal, there is enough rice for the family. The house has been electrified (Selvam says that they received their electricity connection at the same time, conveniently, as their son Arokiasami’s wedding).

I have continued to meet Selvam over the years. I was associated with resurveys of Gokilapuram village in 1986 and 1999, and continue to be interested in changing agrarian relations in the village and region. I return to the Cumbum Valley regularly for tasks connected with the Gokilapuram Educational Trust, an organisation of which the honoree of this volume is a founder trustee. Travel to the Valley gives me an opportunity to keep in touch with Selvam; as we grow older, we grow more conscious of the value of old friendships.

Selvam asks me if I remember the little kerosene lamp (of course I do — made of tin and with a flimsy glass chimney) that I used during our survey in 1977. I used it after dark during conversations and interviews in homes that had no electricity. You gave it to me when you left the village after the survey, he says. After electricity came to the house Selvam stored the lamp deep in a loft, where it remains today. He keeps it as a reminder of his friend — and of the days when they had only a single lamp for light in a half-constructed house.

December 2017

Why a war on poor people?

poverty illinois

American conservatives for the past several decades have shown a remarkable hostility to poor people in our country. The recent effort to slash the SNAP food stamp program in the House (link); the astounding refusal of 26 Republican governors to expand Medicaid coverage in their states — depriving millions of poor people from access to Medicaid health coverage (link); and the general legislative indifference to a rising poverty rate in the United States — all this suggests something beyond ideology or neglect.

The indifference to low-income and uninsured people in their states of conservative governors and legislators in Texas, Florida, and other states is almost incomprehensible. Here is a piece in Bustle that reviews some of the facts about expanding Medicaid coverage:

In total, 26 states have rejected the expansion, including the state of Mississippi, which has the highest rate of uninsured poor people in the country. Sixty-eight percent of uninsured single mothers live in the states that rejected the expansion, as do 60 percent of the nation’s uninsured working poor. (link)

These attitudes and legislative efforts didn’t begin yesterday. They extend back at least to the Reagan administration in the early 1980s. Here is Lou Cannon describing the Reagan years and the Reagan administration’s attitude towards poverty:

Despite the sea of happy children’s faces that graced the “feel-good” commercials, poverty exploded in the inner cities of America during the Reagan years, claiming children as its principal victims. The reason for this suffering was that programs targeted to low-income families, such as AFDC, were cut back far more than programs such as Social Security. As a result of cuts in such targeted programs-including school lunches and subsidized housing-federal benefit programs for households with incomes of less than $10,000 a year declined nearly 8% during the Reagan first term while federal aid for households with more than $40,000 income was almost unchanged. Source: The Role of a Lifetime, by Lou Cannon, p. 516-17, Jul 2, 1991

Most shameful, many would feel, is the attempt to reduce food assistance in a time of rising poverty and deprivation. It’s hard to see how a government or party could justify taking food assistance away from hungry adults and children, especially in a time of rising poverty. And yet this is precisely the effort we have witnessed in the past several months in revisions to the farm bill in the House of Representatives. In a recent post Dave Johnson debunks the myths and falsehoods underlying conservative attacks on the food stamp program in the House revision of the farm bill (link).

This tenor of our politics indicates an overt hostility and animus towards poor people. How is it possible to explain this part of contemporary politics on the right? What can account for this persistent and unblinking hostility towards poor people?

One piece of the puzzle seems to come down to ideology and a passionate and unquestioning faith in “the market”. If you are poor in a market system, this ideology implies you’ve done something wrong; you aren’t productive; you don’t deserve a better quality of life. You are probably a drug addict, a welfare queen, a slacker. (Remember “slackers” from the 2012 Presidential campaign?)

Another element here seems to have something to do with social distance. Segments of society with whom one has not contact may be easier to treat impersonally and cruelly. How many conservative legislators or governors have actually spent time with poor people, with the working poor, and with poor children? But without exposure to one’s fellow citizens in many different life circumstances, it is hard to acquire the inner qualities of compassion and caring that make one sensitive to the facts about poverty.

A crucial thread here seems to be a familiar American narrative around race. The language of welfare reform, abuse of food stamps, and the inner city is interwoven with racial assumptions and stereotypes. Joan Walsh’s recent column in Salon (link) does a good job of connecting the dots between conservative rhetoric in the past thirty years and racism.  She quotes a particularly prophetic passage from Lee Atwater in 1982 that basically lays out the transition from overtly racist language to coded language couched in terms of “big government”.

Finally, it seems unavoidable that some of this hostility derives from a fairly straightforward conflict of group interests. In order to create programs and economic opportunities that would significantly reduce poverty, it takes government spending — on income and food support, on education, on housing allowances, and on public amenities for low-income people. Government spending requires taxation; and taxation reduces the income and wealth of households at the top of the ladder. So there is a fairly obvious connection between an anti-poverty legislative agenda and the material interests of the privileged in our economy.

These are a few hypotheses about where the animus to the poor comes from. But there is an equally important puzzle about the political passivity of the poor. It is puzzling to consider why the millions of people who are the subject of this hostility do not create a potent electoral block that can force significant changes on our political discourse. Why are poor people in Texas, Florida, and other non-adopting states not voicing their opposition to the governors and legislators who are sacrificing their health to a political ideology in the current struggles over Medicaid expansion?

Two factors seem to be relevant in explaining the political powerlessness of the poor. One is the gerrymandering that has reached an exact science in many state legislatures in recent years, with unassailable majorities for the incumbent party. This means that poor people have little chance of defeating conservative candidates in congressional elections. And second are the resurgent efforts that the Supreme Court enabled last summer to create ever-more onerous voting requirements, once again giving every appearance of serving the purpose of limiting voter participation by poor and minority groups. So conservative incumbents feel largely immune from the political interests that they dis-serve.

This topic hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves in studies of American politics. One exception is the work of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. In Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Failthey offer a powerful interpretation of the challenge of bringing poverty into politics.

Most poor people are “working poor” and are not homeless. But there are hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the United States, and their living conditions are horrible. Here is a powerful and humanizing album that captures some of the situation of homeless people in America. Give US Your Poor is worth listening to.

Poverty and economics

How important should the subject of poverty be within the discipline of economics? Some economists appear to think it is a very small issue compared to the magnificent mathematics of general equilibrium theory. Others believe that economics should fundamentally be about the sources of human well-being and misery, and that understanding poverty is absolutely fundamental for economics. How should we try to sort this out?

Among the contemporary economists who have given the greatest attention to poverty and deprivation, Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze are particularly outstanding. Their research on well-being, quality of life, and hunger set a standard for the point of view that says that life quality and deprivation need to be at the top of the list of economic research goals. Here I’m thinking of books like Inequality ReexaminedPoverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, and Hunger and Public Action.

The neoclassical free market purists stand at the other end of the garden.  The economists of the Chicago School put primary emphasis on the beneficent effects of untrammeled market behavior, and they give little attention to the “market imperfections” that poverty and deprivation represent. (The word “poverty” does not occur in the index of John Van Overtveldt’s good intellectual history of the Chicago School, The Chicago School: How the University of Chicago Assembled the Thinkers Who Revolutionized Economics and Business.) Poverty seems to be viewed as a normal and fair result of the workings of market institutions: some people make large contributions and earn high income, and others make small or zero contributions and earn low income.

The closing chapter of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom is entitled “The Alleviation of Poverty.” Here Friedman admits that poverty is a problem, but conceives of only two solutions: private charity (which he agrees will not work in a large complex society) and direct transfers from tax revenues to payments to the poor (which is limited by the willingness of citizens to provide taxes for this purpose). The mechanism he prefers is a negative income tax: persons with incomes below a given threshold would receive payments determined by their income levels. “In this way, it would be possible to set a floor below which no man’s net income (defined now to include the subsidy) could fall” (192).

What this analysis leaves out is any consideration of the economic mechanisms that produce poverty within an affluent society, and how institutions could be adjusted so that poverty and inequality tended to fall over time as a consequence of the normal workings of economic institutions. Take race in America, for example — a set of institutions that many observers see as being crucial mechanisms in the production of urban poverty. Writing in 1962, Friedman argues that racial discrimination in employment is essentially impossible within a competitive market system (link). But we now understand the geography and social structuring of poverty much better. Racial segregation in housing has not disappeared; it has only worsened. Low-quality and ineffective schools are concentrated in low-income and racially segregated neighborhoods, so poor people have reduced educational opportunities. Access to jobs is also constrained by geography and educational opportunity. (Here is a recent post on the mechanisms of racial disparities; link). So it seems clear that our economy systematically reproduces poverty in inner cities rather than reducing it. And the situation of rural poverty is not substantially better.

This all has to do with the dynamics of income at the bottom end. But we have also seen persistent widening of income at the top end. American capitalism has produced ever-widening inequalities of income for at least the past forty years. Consider these two graphs of income by percentile provided by Lane Kenworthy:

(Source: Lane Kenworthy, Consider the Evidence blog (link))

So the idea that a properly functioning market economy will tend to reduce poverty and narrow the extremes of income inequality has been historically refuted — at least in the case of American capitalism.

It is apparent that the ills of poverty are debilitating to the families who experience it; their quality of life is dramatically lower than it needs to be in an affluent society. So that is one reason for economists to give higher priority to the study of the mechanisms and structures that reproduce poverty in the United States. But there is a more systemic reason as well: if 15% of all Americans live in poverty (46 million people), and if 22% of children live in poor households (16 million children), this implies a huge drain on the productive capacity of the American economy. Education, health, and inclusion are important components of economic growth; and each of these is harmed by the persistence of poverty. So economists ought to be in the lead when it comes to placing a priority on poverty research.

We need to have a much more systematic understanding of the institutions and structures through which access to income and the necessities of life is created. And this implies that the mainstream might be well advised to take counsel from structuralist economists like Lance Taylor. Here is how Taylor describes the intellectual foundations of structuralist macroeconomics in Reconstructing Macroeconomics: Structuralist Proposals and Critiques of the Mainstream:

In the North Atlantic literature, structuralism’s intellectual foundations lie within a complex described by labels such as [original, neo-, post-]-[Keynesian, Kaleckian, Ricardian, Marxian] which nonmainstream economists have adopted; numerous variants exist in developing countries as well. The fundamental assumption of all these schools is that an economy’s institutions and distributional relationships across its productive sectors and social groups play essential roles in determining its macro behavior. (1)

This emphasis on study of the concrete institutions embodied in a given economy, and the distributive characteristics that these create, seems like a very good starting point for arriving at a better understanding of the economic foundations of poverty than we currently have.

(Here is a post on some of the approaches to this kind of economic research taken by contemporary alternative economists.)

Life quality across structural change

 

Periods of rapid structural change are particularly likely to lead to decline in the quality of life of some sections of the affected population. Change creates winners and losers; and it is common that the gains and losses are channeled into very distinct groups of people.  This is true during periods of large-scale migration, technology change, and structural change within an economy. Important components of life quality include health, nutrition, education, economic wellbeing, economic security, and security from violence and coercion. Each of these properties is affected by several important dimensions of social life:

  • legal and political institutions
  • institutions of economic production and distribution
  • economic opportunities and income
  • public provision of income supplements
  • public provision of food subsidies
  • public provision of health care resources
  • household support provided by family and community

When a society’s governmental and economic institutions are enmeshed in a period of rapid change, many of the components of life quality are likely to be affected — positively or negatively. The basic institutions of a society determine the value of the private and public assets individuals and households control on the basis of which to support their pursuit of a decent life; this is what Amartya Sen refers to as “entitlement bundles”. (Sen applies his entitlement theory to the study of famine in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation; link.) And shifts in the composition of the entitlement bundle are likely to lead to abrupt worsening of the conditions of the least-well-off.

For example: It is likely that the austerity policies of the Spanish or Greek governments will have a negative effect on the health and nutritional status of the bottom half of those societies. Working people will have lower incomes and they will have reduced access to the social safety net; health status is likely to decline. As another example: Life expectancy in the former Soviet Union declined measurably following the collapse of the Soviet system (link). One part of that decline was the disappearance of the social security net created by state-owned industry — the smashing of the “iron rice bowl”.

This concern is particularly relevant in the context of the rural-urban transformation currently underway in China. Since 1980 China’s rural sector has been subject to at least two major kinds of structural change. One has to do with the economic and political institutions that governed daily life for rural households, from communes to market institutions. And the other has to do with the rapid structural transformation of China’s economy from agriculture to export-led manufacturing. The first set of changes led to a withdrawal of forms of “social insurance” that had been associated with the commune system, including healthcare and old-age care. The second has led to mass migration of younger workers from villages and towns to factories in cities. This migration leaves the remaining population in the countryside older, poorer, and less economically secure.

These observations have several important implications. Foremost among these is the crucial importance of maintaining effective systems for monitoring and measuring life quality across the society. It is important to have good measures of health status, nutritional status, educational status, and old age life quality across regions and sub-populations. So national governments need to create and fund the social research activities necessary to measure health and other quality of life properties across the population. (Here is a recent post on a spatial study of quality of life in China based on 1982 data; link.) Sen argues that it was the availability or lack of availability of information about famine conditions that explained the difference in outcomes between China during the Great Leap Forward and post-independence India; Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.

Second, when it turns out that there are large numbers of “losers” in a large social process of change, it is important for the state and non-governmental actors to find institutions and resources that will help to improve their outcomes. “Winners” need to help to fund the amelioration of harms created by the processes that led to their gains. If NAFTA led to the increase of overall national income for Canada, Mexico, and the United States, but also led to the displacement of workers in a significant set of industries — then it makes sense to tax part of those gains to compensate the losers. And in fact, the NAFTA agreements were premised on such compensation, though this has not occurred reliably (link). This means redistribution across sectors and regions; and it is justified by the fact that the overall gains created by the transformation would not have been possible without imposing these losses on the disadvantaged sector or region.

What might this kind of redistributive policy look like in the context of China’s rural-to-urban transformation? It would seem that public moneys will be needed for several types of problems:

  • Maintenance of income and quality of life and health for the elderly
  • Investments that increase the productivity of labor and the level of employment in rural areas
  • Investments that work to ameliorate the negative environmental effects of rapid change
  • Investments in the institutions of public health — clinics, hospitals, and medical personnel

It might be asked, “Why should developing nations concern themselves with this issue?” There are several answers. Basic justice and fairness entails that the wealth of a society should be distributed in ways that allow all segments of society to improve their quality of life and wellbeing. A society’s wealth and income is a joint product of its entire population; so fairness dictates that everyone should benefit from improvements in productivity. But prudence lines up with this answer as well. A society that ignores the widening of the gaps between rich and poor, and does not concern itself about improving the wellbeing of the poor, is likely to suffer a rising level of social strife as well. It can either go the route of creating gated communities for the rich, or it can use its resources to create fair life outcomes and fair access to opportunity for all its people. Everyone is better off in the long run with the second choice.

In The Paradox Of Wealth And Poverty: Mapping The Ethical Dilemmas Of Global Development I argued that a developing nation should choose an economic development strategy that spreads the benefits of growth over a broader population, over a strategy with a higher growth rate but with substantially greater inequality. I still think this is the right answer to the question. And this approach has the best likelihood of improving the quality of life of the poorest segment of society. The graphs below make the case based on three stylized strategies:

  1. NL neo-liberal growth: choose those policies and institutional reforms that lead to the most rapid growth: unfettered markets, profit-maximizing firms, minimal redistribution of in­come and wealth 
  2. PF poverty-first growth: choose those policies and institutional reforms that lead to economic growth favorable to the most rapid growth in the incomes flowing to the poorest 2 quintiles 
  3. WF immediate welfare improvement: direct as much social wealth as possible into programs that immediately improve the welfare of the poor (education, health, food subsidies, housing subsidies)  
 

The neo-liberal strategy consistently maximizes GDP; but the poverty-first strategy, which is more redistributive from the start, leads to consistently better improvement for the income for the bottom 40% of the economy.  It embodies the idea that Hollis Chenery advocated forty years ago in Redistribution with Growth: Policies to Improve Income Distribution in Developing Countries in the Context of Economic Growth.

Urban marginality

If you live within the reach of a major American city — and most Americans do — then you know what “marginality” is. It is the sizable sub-population of metropolitan America of young men and women who have been locked out of what we think of as the indispensable mechanisms of social mobility: decent education, healthcare resources, job opportunities, and safe neighborhoods. It is the young people of inner-city Baltimore depicted by The Wire. (Take a look at Richard Florida’s detailed analysis of the spatial class structure of Detroit and a number of other cities; link.) The facts of compacted poverty and lack of opportunity, and the disaffection of young people that goes along with these absences, represent one of the most pressing social problems we face.

How should we go about studying and changing this appalling social reality? Alford Young’s The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances is one striking approach, using extended interviews to gain insight into the minds, worldviews, and social realities of some of these young people. (Here is an earlier discussion of Young’s work; link.) Another approach is the large body of mainstream poverty research in the social sciences and policy studies. (Here is a penetrating critique of some of the assumptions of this research by Alice O’Connor; Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History.) But an important and original voice on these issues is that of Loïc Wacquant, and particularly important is Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (2008).

Wacquant’s Ph.D. work was done at the University of Chicago (like Young’s), and he too immersed himself in the street-level realities of segregated, impoverished Chicago. Wacquant’s approach was a novel one: he took up boxing in an inner city boxing club to gain access to the ordinary lives of the young men of the neighborhoods. His ethnography of this experience was published in the fascinating book, Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer.

Wacquant is French and comparativist; he is interested in investigating the experience of marginality in the United States and comparing it with equally marginalized neighborhoods in France, the banlieue of Paris. (Here is an earlier post on the banlieue and the sociological research of Didier Lapeyronnie’s Ghetto urbain; ségrégation, violence, pauvreté en France aujourd’hui.) In each instance modern cities are found to have large populations of apparently permanently marginalized under-class people. Here is how Wacquant frames the issue in “The Rise of Advanced Marginality: Notes on its Nature and Implications” (link) (1996):

The resurgence of extreme poverty and destitution, ethnoracial divisions (linked to the colonial past) and public violence, and their accumulation in the same distressed urban areas, suggest that the metropolis is the site and fount of novel forms of exclusionary social closure in advanced societies. (121)

But Wacquant’s summary finding is perhaps a surprising one: he finds that the “Black Belt” in Chicago and the “Red Belt” of Paris are substantially different social phenomena. Rather than a homogeneous social reality of “ghetto” extending from Chicago to London to Amsterdam to Paris, he finds a differentiated social reality:

A paired comparison between neighborhoods of relegation in Chicago’s ‘Black Belt’ and the Parisian ‘Red Belt’ shows that the declining French metropolitan periphery and the Afro-American ghetto remain two sharply distinct sociospatial constellations. And for good reason: they are heirs to different urban legacies, produced by different logics of segregation and aggregation, and inserted in different welfare state and market frameworks, all of which result in markedly higher levels of blight, segregation, isolation, and distress in the US ghetto. (122)

Wacquant introduces the idea of “advanced marginality” to describe the social reality of isolation and deprivation created by advanced capitalism in the rich cities of the North. Here are the criteria he offers for a social system embedding advanced marginality:

  • the growing internal heterogeneity and desocialization of labor,
  • the functional disconnection of neighborhood conditions from macro-economic trends;
  • territorial fixation and stigmatization; spatial alienation and the dissolution of place;
  • the loss of a viable hinterland; and
  • the symbolic fragmentation of marginalized population (121)

An element that Wacquant finds to be in common across advanced marginality in modern cities is what he calls “territorial fixation” — the confinement of the marginal in specific neighborhoods of the city.

Rather than being diffused throughout working class areas, advanced marginality tends to concentrate in well-identified, bounded, and increasingly isolated territories viewed by both outsiders and insiders as social purgatories, urban hellholes where only the refuse of society would accept to dwell. (125)

In Urban Outcasts Wacquant provides a much more developed comparative sociology of marginalized urban populations. It is significant that he begins his treatment of marginality with the topic of riot and uprising — a recurring social reality in the United States (Chicago, Watts, Detroit, …), London, Strasbourg, and Paris. This seems significant, because it seems like a logical correlate with the deprivation and stigmatization associated with advanced marginality.

Most of the disorders, big and small, that have shaken up the French working-class banlieues, the British inner city and adjacent barrios of North American have involved chiefly the youths of impoverished, segregated and often dilapidated urban neighbourhoods caught in a spiral of decline; they appear to have been fuelled by growing ethnoracial tensions in and around those areas. (20)

And Wacquant thinks these uprisings stem from three large social causes: mass unemployment, relegation to decaying neighbourhoods, and heightened stigmatization in daily life of the marginalized young people (25). He quotes a young man from Bristol:

I don’t have a job and I’ll never have one. Nobody wants to help us get out of this shit. If the government can spend so much money to build a nuclear submarine, why not for the inner cities? If fighting cops is the only way to get heard, then we’ll fight them. (31)

This is a superb piece of sociology, making use of multiple means of inquiry (ethnographic, comparison, statistical) to arrive at credible theories of the causes of urban marginality. And, contrary to the critique offered by O’Connor of mainstream poverty studies, there is not an ounce of “blaming the poor” in this study. Wacquant wants to understand the social processes that create and reproduce the urban spatial reality of marginality. And in doing this, he aims to provide some of the understanding we will need to begin to take this system apart.

Excerpt The Wire

Quality of life in China

One of the important developments in efforts to measure economic progress has been the creation of various measures of quality of life.  Average income by itself is not a good indicator of wellbeing; instead we need to have a way of assessing the health, nutrition, and education status of a population over time.  The Human Development Index is one such measure, developed by the United Nations Development Programme. (Here is the 2011 report — Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: Towards a Better Future for All, and here is a resource describing the methodology associated with the index.) A defect in many such efforts is the fact that they are assessed at the country level, so internal regional variations in quality of life are not observable.

Walter H. Aschmoneit provided a truly fascinating effort in 1990 to provide a disaggregated study of quality of life in China circa 1982. The research is contained in Delman, Ostergaard, and Christansen, Remaking Peasant China: Problems of Rural Development and Institutions at the Start of the 1990’s and the map that he constructs is represented above.

Aschmoneit incorporates eight factors into his index of life quality (205):

  • gross value of industrial and agricultural output per capita
  • employment rate
  • rate of industrial workers by total employed population
  • rate of illiteracy and half-illiteracy
  • rate of middle school graduates
  • rate of university graduates
  • infant mortality rate
  • death rate 

The data Aschmoneit uses to populate this index for the local administrative units (xian and shi) into which the Chinese population was divided derive from the 1987 Population Atlas of China (collected in 1982).  There were 2,378 administrative units represented in the study.  This means the data reflects the period shortly after the beginning of the reform of agriculture which led to China’s extended period of rapid economic growth.

The map displays a number of important patterns.  Low quality of life is heavily concentrated in the western half of China, with the absolutely lowest areas being the extreme southeast and western parts of the country. Sichuan is almost wholly red and brown on the map, with the exception of the hinterlands of Chengdu, indicating below-average quality of life throughout the province. Yunnan and Tibet are almost uniformly substantially below average (purple and blue) in quality of life.  Areas of high quality of life are generally coastal in 1982, with the lower Yangzi Delta, Shandong, and the coastal northeast doing the best. The city of Wuhan in Hubei shows up as an above average district for quality of life, reflecting its advantaged position on the Yangzi River.  The environs of Beijing also show up as a high quality of life district. And in fact many of the isolated green districts appear to correspond to cities of various sizes; extreme poverty was primarily a rural phenomenon in China. (I haven’t been able to identify all of the isolated green districts on the map in eastern China, but a number of them are significant cities like Wuhan, Changsha, Hangzhou, and Nanjing.  It would be interesting to determine whether there are exceptions: rural districts with high quality of life.)

There is a fairly close correspondence between this quality of life map and William Skinner’s representation of the macroregions of China:

The regions of Lingnan, Southeast Coast, Lower Yangzi, and North China have the highest quality of life, while Upper Yangzi, Northwest China, and Yungui have the lowest.

Today it would be possible to present this data in the form of an interactive map, so the reader would be able to click on a specific place and view its data. This would be of interest because the index combines income data with longevity and education data. So the poverty of a region already gives it low quality of life, irrespective of the performance of the human development characteristics.  It would be interesting to see whether the most extreme districts with low quality of life are uniformly disadvantaged, or perhaps have a mix of better and worse health or education outcomes.

It would be genuinely interesting and important to reproduce this study today to see whether the basic pattern has changed through these decades of intensive economic growth and the acceleration of inequalities in China. If the 2011 Census includes the same data categories this would be a reasonably straightforward effort.  One would expect that the quality of life has gone up in the eastern and southern coastal areas. And it is very possible that quality of life has gone down in rural areas in the interior and the west of China as inequalities have increased and state subsidies have decreased for poor rural areas.

Remaking Peasant China is a book worth owning, not least for the Life-Quality Index map that it provides. The articles are well designed to address some of the key issues that China faced in rural development in the 1980s and 1990s. The book also includes as front paper a map of rural poverty areas at the xian level receiving national support 1986-1990, which gives a visual impression of the distribution of high-poverty areas in the late 1980s. Extreme poverty is defined as regions with more than 40% of rural households with annual per capita income below 150 yuan in 1985. (The map also represents xian with extremely low annual rainfall.) This map was also based on Aschmoneit’s research.

Thinking poverty in the inner city

I find the question of how other people think to be one of the most interesting angles we can raise about the social world. By “thinking” I mean breaking down the world of experience into useful categories, reasoning about cause and effect among these items, and organizing one’s activities around how he/she understands the world.  What are the mental frameworks through which people conceptualize and organize their daily social experiences? This is pertinent to the notion of an actor-centered sociology, and it is resonant as well with the social-ethnographic research done by people like Erving Goffman. (Here is an earlier post on the topic of social cognition, and here is a thread of posts on Goffman.)

This set of questions is particularly important across the lines of division that separate us in modern US society. The question of how poor Appalachian women think about America, or young black inner city men do, or how white suburban teenagers think about their futures, are all deeply interesting questions. And I fully expect that there are interesting and profound differences across and within the mental frameworks of these various groups.

A sociologist who breaks new ground on this kind of question is Alford Young, a sociologist at the University of Michigan.  His work falls within the field of “cultural sociology”, and he works on issues of race and poverty in urban America. His recent book The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances is a brilliant effort to get inside the mental frameworks of poor young black men in Chicago.  As he points out, most of American society has a pretty simple theory of the consciousness of inner city young men, and it fears what it sees.  Violence, drugs, and disaffection are the main correlates.  And Young demonstrates that these ideas are wrong in a number of important ways.

Rather, this work aims to show that research that focuses on these men’s anger and hostility hinders a more complex exploration of how they take stock of themselves and the world in which they live. (8)

Young’s book builds a case on the basis of twenty-six interviews he conducted in 1993 and 1994 in the West side of Chicago. Young emphasizes the value of conversation:

What stayed with me over the years, especially as I went to the University of Chicago for graduate studies, was that a great deal could be learned about other people from extended conversations about mundane, everyday matters. (preface)

This is, obviously, a work of qualitative research. It is based on interviews with a relatively small number of individuals. Young’s research hypothesis is that these individuals, while not statistically representative, can shed a great deal of light on the lived experience of young black men in their circumstances and the ways in which these individuals come to think about those circumstances.

Young wants to probe the worldviews of these young men; and he also wants to develop some theories about how they acquired these worldviews.  What were the factors — structural, cultural, familial — that led to these fairly different bundles of assumptions, frameworks, and beliefs about how society works?  And he is particularly interested in probing how these young men conceptualize stratification, inequality, racism, and discrimination.  If there is one major surprise in the book, it is the fact that for many of Young’s respondents, these topics are not important and not much thought about.

Young argues at length that the mentalities he discovers through these conversations defy stereotypes. He rejects the idea of a “lower-class sub-culture” with a distinctive set of ideas about consumption and favors instead the idea that there are significant and interesting variations within the population of young black urban men.

Thus, it is important to pay attention to what people articulate as their own understanding of how social processes work and how they as individuals might negotiate the complex social terrain, rather than simply looking at their actions…. In order to advance this type of understanding, this study seeks to elucidate these men’s worldviews about a particular range of issues and concerns related to socioeconomic mobility. (10)

One thing that is particularly interesting that emerges from Young’s analysis is the fact that these men turn out to have fairly different ideas about their own possibilities for mobility and a better life. And Young finds that these differences correspond to the extent of experience the individual has had outside the neighborhood. 

The degree of exposure that the men have had to the world beyond the Near West Side emerges as key to understanding the differences in the breadth and depth of their worldviews. Such exposure might have come about for some through a few months of work in a downtown fast food restaurant, for others, through incarceration in a penal institution. Whatever the circumstances, such exposure provided opportunities for these men to interact across racial and class lines. Overall, interaction with other worlds led to the acquisition of a more profound understanding of the inequities in social power and influence, and how these forces can affect individual lives. Quite often it led to intimate encounters with racism. (14)

In addition to the inherent ethnographic importance of better understanding of this segment of our society, Young believes that this kind of inquiry can shed light on important social mechanisms that influence mentality.  He singles out social isolation and poverty concentration.

Social isolation refers to the lack of contact or sustained interaction with individuals or institutions that represent mainstream society…. Poverty concentration refers to the social outcomes resulting from large numbers of impoverished people living in great proximity to each other…. The introduction of the concepts of social isolation and poverty concentration created an analytical space for including and assessing the effects of an enduring lack of social and geographic connection between the urban poor and other, more affluent people. (31-32)

This connects to Young’s other recurring theme, the idea of the importance of social capital and social networks for the formation of one’s cognitive frameworks and for the horizon of opportunity that presents itself.

Cultural capital is the knowledge of how to function or operate in specific social settings in order to mobilize, generate responses from, or affect others such as social elites. Finally, social capital has a twofold definition. On one hand, social capital depends on the degree to which an individual is embedded in social networks that can bring about the rewards and benefits that enhance his or her life. In this way, social capital is seen as a precursor to the acquisition of other forms of capital (money, information, social standing, etc.). On the other hand, social capital has been identified as the package of norms and sanctions maintained by groups so that positive or desired outcomes occur for all members, especially those that no single member could achieve on his or her own. (59)

The extracts from interviews that Young provides — on home life, school, work, life in the streets, and other topics — are superb, and you feel like you’ve had a rare opportunity yourself to talk with these young men. 

There are many surprises in Young’s findings; for example, the less contact residents of the Henry Horner Homes had with the rest of Chicago, the less concerned they seemed to be about racial discrimination and injustice. Here is an exchange with Barry:

When I asked him “Do you think you are treated fairly in society?” he paused for a moment and then said, “I guess so. I guess I’m treated fairly, I guess.” I waited to see what else he might say, but nothing was forthcoming. After some gentle prodding Barry told me that he “just didn’t know no white people,” and that was why it was so hard for him to say more in this part of our discussion. (113)

Here is how Young understands Barry’s responses about race:

Barry’s life history involved extreme social isolation not only from labor markets and other institutions relevant to upward mobility, but also from some of the most mobile and connected people in his own neighborhood, such as gang members, college-bound athletes and other students, and other individuals who maintained social ties beyond neighborhood boundaries. Barry’s lack of social ties denied him much-needed experience with people in different positions along the social hierarchy of American life. Barry’s social world included few people other than the low-income residents of the Near West Side. These are the same people he went to school with, sold drugs to, and lived amongst. The scantiness of Barry’s social networks paralleled the narrowness of his views on mobility and opportunity. (115)

Barry was highly isolated, but Devin was not. And here is how Devin answers similar questions:

Devin amplified his earlier remarks by making the following point about black-white relations in America:

I think they [white people] look at me as the, not my people, but to the racists, they look at me like the enemy. They feel that we all blacks is out to get them. Which I believe like this here, I’m is out to get them. . . . Yes. . . . Because they getting too much money. We fight for, we fought for the United States, not them. We went to war. We got to stand up for our rights. We not getting treated right. We’re not even getting equal rights.

Having lived lives that involved either the most interpersonal conflict or the most intimacy with people of high social status and wealth, it is not surprising that Ted, Casey, Peter, and Devin had the most conflict-oriented worldviews about stratification and inequality in American life. (131)

How does this research help with the practical challenges of moving forward in a more just way?  Young addresses this question too:

If a better day is to come for poor black men, then researchers and other parties who are sensitive to their plight must commit themselves to a new perspective on these men. In order for their lives to truly improve, increased employment and job-training opportunities need to be brought into their lives. These men certainly would benefit from an expanded and more secure labor market, but, as we have seen, there is much more that must occur for them to improve their lives. As the men’s testimonies about work make clear, however, increased employment opportunities alone will not deliver them from socioeconomic disadvantage. Information about municipal labor market opportunities, including the options and possibilities in the modern urban world of work and the means and mechanisms for accessing better employment, are as important as the jobs themselves.

Of course, this is the utopian vision of change. The current public view of these men is perhaps best conveyed by the “three-strikes and you’re out” rationale of recent governmental initiatives on crime and delinquency, increased incarceration rates for nonviolent offenders, and other law enforcement initiatives that have resulted in the removal of many low-income black men from the public landscape. This approach goes hand in hand with the public reaction to notions of the underclass, which centers on control and containment of an apparently troubling constituency. (202)

Economic development is of course needed in our cities.  But Young makes a crucial point that I would paraphrase in different terms. The extreme residential segregation that most American cities contain is itself a major obstacle to social mobility — not only in terms of economic opportunities, but in the very fabric of how different groups understand the social world around them. Segregation is epistemic as well as economic.

Where is poverty on the national agenda?

Our elected officials are charged to do their best to create legislation and policies that work best to secure the important life interests of all citizens. Can we take that as a shared assumption? This is how we want it to work, and we feel morally offended when legislators substitute their own wants and opinions for those of the public. 

If this is a fair description of the role obligations connected to elected office, then there are some important discrepancies that arise when we look at the actual work that legislators do, both nationally and at the state level. For example, a striking number of legislators bring their own personal and religious convictions into their work. Legislators all too often attempt to draft legislation that furthers their moral opinions on issues like stem cell research, gay marriage, abortion, and even birth control. But given that reasonable and morally grounded people disagree about these issues, how could they possibly be the legitimate object of legislation? Legislation needs to be designed to treat all citizens equally and fairly, so how can the personal moral or religious opinions of the legislator ever be a legitimate foundation for legislation? How is it any different from a legislator who tries to steer a highway project over a particular piece of land in order to favor his own business interests? In each case the legislator is substituting a personal interest for the public interest as a foundation for legislation. 

Or how about this puzzle: every state in the country has serious problems of poverty and discrimination. That means that every state has a percentage of its citizens who live under demeaning and impoverishing circumstances. And in many cases this current fact derives from a past history of segregation, discrimination, and unfair treatment. These problems are urgent and pressing. If the responsibility of legislators is to identify and address urgent, pressing problems, they ought to be intensely interested in poverty, discrimination, and racial disparities. So why is it that virtually all governors and state legislators continue to ignore these facts — even when their own departments of human services are fully able to document the human results of these facts about poverty? Why is it virtually impossible for elected officials to address the facts of racial inequality in American cities? Can we imagine a legislature in Illinois, New York, Florida, or Michigan undertaking a serious debate to decide how best to address racial disparities in the state? And yet — doesn’t the fact that legislators are responsible for preserving and enhancing the quality of life of all citizens simply require honesty and action about these facts? 

There seem to be a couple of reasons why that kind of honest debate does not occur. One is the position of relative privilege from which elected officials are usually drawn. It is possible to lose sight of unpleasant truths about your own society when they don’t really impinge on your own daily life. And it is possible to tell a story of “progress and problem solving” that succeeds in papering over the unpleasant truths. 

Another possible interpretation is a regrettable hard-heartedness that many people have in the face of poverty. “There is nothing to be done; the poor bring their deprivation upon themselves; the poor are different from the rest of us.” These attitudes are all too common in our politics, and they often get intertwined with a long history of racialized thinking as well. 

I think there is another possibility as well that has more to do with “problem cognition”. An honest politician may accurately perceive the human cost of persistent poverty, and he/she might also have a sincerely empathetic response to these perceptions. But this politician may be wedded to a particular theory of social change that leads him or her to discount the systemic features of the poverty he sees. For example, the “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra may push out other more nuanced theories about how poverty and the inequalities of race can be addressed. If you think that the cause of poverty is simply the unemployment rate, then you may feel justified in ignoring race and paying attention to business growth. but this is a mistake. Racial disparities and inter-generational poverty are created by specific, durable institutions, and they can only be attacked on the basis of intelligent and specific strategies. Trickle-down economics doesn’t work for specific segments of America’s population.

So how can disadvantaged Americans get the sustained attention of their legislators? How can poverty, segregation, and discrimination get the place on the public agenda they deserve to have? The classic answer offered by American politics is simple: mobilize, elect some legislators if your own, and find ways of challenging those legislators who continue to ignore your issues. There’s just one problem with this: there isn’t much history of success in the US for poor people’s movements. I suppose specialists could offer some reasons for why that would be true — poor people don’t vote, poor people are distributed in small numbers over numerous districts, poor people can be misled by political rhetoric too — but it’s hard to think of parties or majorities who have paid serious attention to poor people’s issues. (How much political influence does the homeless guy selling the homeless people’s newspaper on Main Street really have?)

So getting government and elected officials to place poverty on the action agenda is hard work, and the officials themselves are unlikely to lead the way. This implies — to me anyway — that anti-poverty, anti-racism organizations will need to take the lead. There are such organizations in every city. Are there ways for them to gain more influence?

 (Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward offer a classic interpretation of the challenge of bringing poverty into politics in Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail.)

Running on empty

We’ve been focusing on the 1 percent and the 99 percent for the past year, thanks to the Occupy movement. But here’s another way of slicing American society — right down the middle. How is the 50 percent doing these days? 

The answer seems to be, not very well. And the conservative assault on the social safety net pretty much guarantees that this part of American society will do even worse in the coming years. Poverty is concentrated in this half of America, both adult and child; the percentage of uninsured people is high; and the median income has dropped significantly since 2000. The inequalities that have worsened in the US since 1980 have hurt the bottom half significantly. 

Here is a summary from USAToday in 2011 (link):

Median household income fell 2.3% to $49,445 last year and has dropped 7% since 2000 after adjusting for inflation, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. Income was the lowest since 1996.

Poverty rose, too. The share of people living in poverty hit 15.1%, the highest level since 1993, and 2.6 million more people moved into poverty, the most since Census began keeping track in 1959.

The poverty statistic is stunning: it implies that 30 percent of the bottom 50 percent are officially living in poverty — almost one-third.

So how do the bottom half of Americans do when it comes to health insurance? The Kaiser Family Foundation provides a major data source on rates of uninsured adults by income group (link). Here is a data snapshot for uninsured non-elderly Americans by income:

This shows that 58% of non-elderly Americans with income below 250% of the Federal poverty line are uninsured, while 12% of non-elderly Americans between 250% and 400% of FPL are uninsured. Only 5% of non-elderly Americans with income in excess of 400% of the Federal poverty line are uninsured. 

What does this distribution of uninsured status across income imply for the bottom half of Americans? This requires some calculation.  Here are the Federal poverty lines for 2011 (link):

A household of 4 persons has a Federal poverty line of $22,350 on this standard, so 250% of this is $55,875 — a bit above the median household income for 2011.  So lack of health insurance is heavily concentrated in the bottom 50 percent.

Home foreclosure is another reality in middle income America. Foreclosure has been a reality across full range of the income spectrum since 2008.  But it appears to be more devastating in the bottom half of the income distribution.  (This is evident in Detroit and Southeast Michigan.)

What is our society doing about these basic realities?  Not very much.  And, of course, a major candidate for President is on record: “I’m not concerned about the very poor” (link).  One would hope that the bottom 50 percent think very carefully about which political platform best serves their real interests, including maintenance of a social safety net, aggressive and effective efforts to stimulate job growth, tax reform that requires the affluent to pay their fair share, and preservation of the broadened health insurance coverage promised by the 2010 health care reform legislation.

(Here is a piece in the New York Times on median income; link.)

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