Africa, Politics

In our recession-plagued world, poverty is back on top of global agenda

In our recession-plagued world, poverty is back on top of global agenda

Throughout the history, poverty – its roots, nature and inevitability –  has been discussed to death. And despite some successes, this global problem is again at the top of millions of minds, more powerful than ever. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

For most of history, the “why” of poverty was abundantly clear. It was hard to accumulate enough to keep the wolf at bay for any predictable length of time for anyone, anywhere. The world conspired to produce an unending series of famines, pestilence, wars, rapacious rulers, invading hordes, floods, drought, earthquakes, tsunamis and climate change – and that’s just the beginning of the list. Even as productive capability has increased, the poor remain.

Religious texts point to the inevitability of poverty as in Deuteronomy 15:11 “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land”. The inevitability of poverty has even been turned into something of a virtue, as with Abraham Lincoln’s famous quip: “God must really love the poor, why else would he have made so many of them?”

Now, in the wake of the Great Recession, America has a renewed debate about the causes, prevalence and persistence of poverty – as well as what can help reduce it. And this discussion may have lessons for South Africa as well – especially as policy makers here tout the “developmental state” as the new magic key to reduce poverty.

Western political philosophers have quarrelled about the connection between human progress and poverty, and the possibility of escaping from the latter. Thomas Hobbes asserted the natural world life was nasty, brutish and short for all, unless a tough-minded someone took control and divided up scarce resources. Jean Rousseau answered, au contraire, governments were the problem – the state of nature could be an eco-friendly Gaia-style world, with people taking only enough for their respective needs, achieving a felicitous balance in the process. When governments came along, that’s when inequality and worse came to the party.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Thomas Robert Malthus had explained the continuation of poverty mathematically: While people breed logarithmically, the productive capacity of the land grew arithmetically. Malthus’ dismal predictive model has since become the foundation stone for any discussion of how to deal with global poverty.

Of course, Malthus published his analysis just as the industrial revolution was taking hold, as international trade rose in volume generating new wealth and as agricultural innovations spread around the world, producing increasing levels of food and freeing up labour for the new factories. It was possible to see industrialisation as the way out of the poverty trap. Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Karl Marx pointed to the larger economic system – a system that had stemmed from the industrial revolution – that, now, paradoxically, was now generating poverty rather than alleviating it.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Max Weber explained it was the liberating influence of cities that created the chances for economic growth and lessening poverty. Weber went further to argue that the values of the Protestant Reformation, bringing together the ideas of predetermination, wealth accumulation and virtue, to point to a culture of economic growth and success. The absence of such values obviously pointed to a culture of continued poverty. Sociologists and social workers like Jane Addams tried to tackle this culture of poverty, advocating changing the culture – better schools, settlement houses, family support, better jobs – to break the grip of poverty on slum dwellers.

Throughout the 20th century, researchers studied societies as varied as remote Sicilian villages, isolated Appalachian valley hollows, Mexican small towns, African-American inner city neighbourhoods and Indonesian farming communities, underscoring the notion that poverty wasn’t just a lack of money – although money obviously was pretty important if one didn’t have any. But the real problem was that there was an intricate collection of behaviours and ideas that produced a culture that kept people from moving out of poverty’s grip.

By the early 1960s this construct became the ideological basis for America’s “War on Poverty” – the government effort to construct a different culture among the poor so that they would enter the mainstream. However, this approach went thoroughly pear shaped when it was caught up in charges of racism in America’s civil rights struggle. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labour in the Johnson administration, had relied on the idea of a “culture of poverty” in his 1965 report on the African-American family. Moynihan had become increasingly concerned about the growing number of single parent African-American families and his report had argued that urban black families were caught in the inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and a self-perpetuating welfare dependency.

In the climate of the 1960s, this seemed as if Moynihan was assigning moral deficiencies to black people and then blaming them for their own misfortunes. As a result, from the mid-1960s onward, the “culture of poverty” became something of a ticking bomb – the idea that poor people’s own attitudes and behaviour patterns kept them poor was increasingly shunned by academics who looked for external economic factors as the drivers of poverty perpetuation. The vituperative the debate drove Moynihan right out of domestic policy debates and into foreign affairs as he became US ambassador to India and then a flamboyant US ambassador to the UN, as well as Hillary Clinton’s predecessor in the US Senate.

Now, after nearly half a century of near silence, the “culture of poverty” debate is again on the front burner. Leading US think tanks are again examining the economic challenges of unmarried parents. At a recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, attendees discussed the resurgence of scholarship on culture and poverty and a few months ago, social scientists joined a special Congressional briefing on culture and poverty and these presentations came together for a special issue of “The Annals”, the prestigious journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The introduction to this issue says that “Culture is back on the poverty research agenda,” and was something that should never have been off the agenda in the first place.

Why now? Well, one obvious reason is the Great Recession. The share of Americans living in poverty has reached one in seven people – or around 44 million Americans. And this refocusing back on culture means, as Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson says, “I study inequality, and the dominant focus is on structures of poverty.”

Sociologists reclaiming the poverty discussion back from economists to try to figure out why people do what they do, even if it seems counter-intuitive. For example, research points out that even though poor women define marriage as important, they may refuse to get married because they judge that their partners aren’t really “marriage material”. With data like that, some experts are now wondering if programmes to promote marriage and family stability without changing economic and social conditions will ever work. Or, put another way, “It’s the culture, stupid.”

Social changes have made a conversation about the cultural roots of poverty easier than they were in the supercharged ’60s. Bill Cosby’s pointed comments when he criticised poor blacks for “not parenting” may have actually been the beginning of this rethink. And Barack Obama’s own life experience of abandonment by his father and his subsequent statements about the need for “responsible fatherhood” added weight to the discussion.

Nonetheless, this new debate can still spark charges that it amounts to blaming the victim. One of the editors of The Annals, Michele Lamont, argues policy makers and the public more generally still ask if the poor are “poor because they are lazy, or are the poor poor because they are a victim of the markets?” That leads us right back to whether the poor are poor because of their internal failings or the failings of the economic machinery.

And that takes us to the developmental state. Alexander Hamilton had proposed a kind of American developmental state just after independence. His ideas, in turn, affected Austrian economic thinker Frederick List who was an influence on the makers of Japan’s developmental state after the Meiji Restoration in the mid-19th century and then again for the post-World War II reconstruction.

Scholars of Asian economic growth such as Chalmers Johnson and Ezra Vogel have argued, that, in turn, that these Japanese ideas were the basis for developmental state plans (picking industrial winners, backing them with state funds, close governmental oversight and enforcing citizen savings to finance the plans) adopted by Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore – and now, more recently, by China and other Asian nations. The developmental state is now something South African politicians are eager to emulate as well, as part of a deeper admiration for China’s economic growth. The question remains as to whether or not any state can easily make the right guesses and bring society behind it in support.

And, here’s the thing: The developmental state presupposes a cultural basis to support wealth formation that includes deferred consumption and enforced investment – and that celebrates the movement from poverty as something that builds on and reinforces social norms and mores already in place. And the ideology of the developmental state also says the state (rather than markets) can predict accurately what is a growth industry and what is an industrial sector that no longer deserves preservation and protection.

The question for South Africa, then, is whether or not the state can make the hard choices required to back winners and snuff out losers – or, indeed, if it can actually make such distinctions in the first place. Mistakes happen. Japanese officials responsible for the automobile manufacturing sector in the 1960s felt Honda was one company too many in the country’s auto sector and tried hard to dissuade Suehiro Honda from moving up the value chain from his motorcycles to cars. Bad guess, that.

At present economist Paul Krugman and political economist Fareed Zakaria are arguing the American government may be incapable of making these hard choices and promoting the kinds of national investments that will support the industries of the future. As a result, the new poor – Americans whose jobs have evaporated in the wake of the economic crisis and the shift of manufacturing to other poorer nations – may soon become a larger, more permanent part of the American scene. If that happens, will they then show the attributes of the “culture of poverty” as well? DM

For more on the new poverty debate, see The New York Times, National Public Radio (a transcript of an on-air debate on this topic), Fareed Zakaria’s new column in Time on reviving the American economy, The Annals, and two articles by Paul Krugman on why the American economy appears mired in economic doldrums, here and here.

Photo: A resident takes a bath in front of his improvised tent with the number 94 in a street known as Route des Rails in Port-au-Prince July 22, 2010. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz.


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