Saturday, October 21, 2006

Attitudes towards poverty

The following is a long comment I made at the Freedom Democrats website in response to a previous comment bemoaning the patronizing attitude of many Democrats towards the poor:

Interpretations of poverty seem to fall between two extremes--individualized and socialized. At one extreme, poverty is viewed as a trait of individuals, and the solution to poverty is for those individuals to get out of poverty. At the other extreme, poverty is viewed as a by-product of social factors, and the solution is to eliminate those social factors that impoverish individuals.

In America, the strict individualized interpretation is associated with Republicans. They believe that people are poor because they are lazy and/or stupid, and the solution to poverty is for impoverished people to adopt the values of prosperous individuals.

Democrats generally seem to hold a hybrid view (exemplified in the "micromanagement" approach above), wherein a person is poor because he lacks some sort of development, be it education, savings, or social networks. They may view this poverty as the consequence of historical wrongs (such as slavery), or arising from a disconnect between modern society and man's natural development (requiring formal education). In the end, the responsibility to end poverty rests with the society in general, but it ultimately depends on the development of the individuals.

Both of these individualized views take poverty as the "original state" of mankind, and so implicitly, a poor person is a backwards savage who needs to become civilized.

The socialized view is that poverty is an inevitable byproduct of social conditions. Society is structured in a hierarchy, and for every person who moves up the hierarchy, someone else must move down, and poverty cannot be eliminated without eliminating that hierarchy. I think that this is the view that we emphasize here -- we emphasize how poverty is created by "rankism"--the tendency of the powerful to exploit the less powerful.

There's value in both the individual and social approaches to poverty reduction, however, I believe that the individual approach will be ineffective as long as the major social causes of poverty remain--the underclass will tend to grow and its members will resist appeals to reform their own lives.

We could also make an argument that individual approaches complement the social approaches: for example, literate individuals are more effective at resisting exploitation.

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