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Poverty and Economic Justice
Jon Lebkowsky, 15 Dec 06
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In my first career, working with poverty programs, I saw how the very poor were invisible, "hiding in plain sight," with minimal support systems and very limited opportunities to "make a living." Among my colleagues, blaming the victims was the common response – they "didn't want to work." However for those who could work but didn't, the problem seemed to be a lack of structure that the middle classes take for granted, a structure that includes routines required by the nine to five world of work. Hence the development of basic job skills programs that became part of "workfare" in the later iteration of the USA's federally-funded poverty programs for families with dependent children. These programs claim success based on reduced payments to single moms more or less successfully integrated into the workforce. This also changes the environment within which pre-school children are raised, to one where days are spent in day care.

This idea that the poor should work, and that work for pay is the remedy for poverty, is an unquestioned fundamental of poverty programs in the U.S. However there are working poor who find it tougher and tougher to survive, and there are privileged rich who don't work at all, but live on inherited money or the proceeds from one or another windfall. And there are those who are paid large salaries for little work.

The relationship of poverty to work is tenuous, and work as no "cure" for the condition of poverty in developing nations.

I once wrote a paper about the "culture of poverty," a concept that originated with anthropologist Oscar Lewis. The idea was that the poor sustain their poverty by adopting and transmitting behaviors and patterns that ensure sustained poverty. Said Lewis,

The people in the culture of poverty have a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, of dependency, of not belonging. They are like aliens in their own country, convinced that the existing institutions do not serve their interests and needs. Along with this feeling of powerlessness is a widespread feeling of inferiority, of personal unworthiness. This is true of the slum dwellers of Mexico City, who do not constitute a distinct ethnic or racial group and do not suffer from racial discrimination. In the United States the culture of poverty of the Negroes has the additional disadvantage of racial discrimination.

People with a culture of poverty have very little sense of history. They are a marginal people who know only their own troubles, their own local conditions, their own neighborhood, their own way of life. Usually, they have neither the knowledge, the vision nor the ideology to see the similarities between their problems and those of others like themselves elsewhere in the world. In other words, they are not class conscious, although they are very sensitive indeed to status distinctions. When the poor become class conscious or members of trade union organizations, or when they adopt an internationalist outlook on the world they are, in my view, no longer part of the culture of poverty although they may still be desperately poor.

Culture of poverty was a controversial concept, and it's never safe to generalize. However in order to end poverty, we have to define it and make some assumptions about it, and that's what Lewis attempted to do, as have many others.

Recent email included a broadly-distributed message from Tom Atlee, which says "it is hard to comprehend that even what we call 'low income' people in industrial nations are more wealthy than the majority of the world's population." He quotes a UN report that says "the richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of all household wealth... [and] the poorer half of the world's population own barely 1% of global wealth." You can see how your own income compares to the rest of the world via the Global Rich List. Says Tom, "an individual at the US federal poverty level of $9800, for example, will discover that they are among the TOP 13.35% richest people in the world!"

Tom then points to a World Game Institute chart that shows the costs of various items the world most wants (eliminate starvation, provide shelter for all, etc.) compared to annual world military expenditures... we could confront all the major systemic problems confronting humanity with around a quarter of the combined military budgets.

I admit that I'm suspicious of these kinds of statistics; they tend to conceal difficult and complex issues in the distribution of wealth and goods; the solutions are never as easy as moving money around. However the numbers do help us think about poverty, especially how poverty is relative and depends on context.

What these numbers suggest most clearly to me is the need for a consideration of economic justice. In the Kelso-Adler Theory of Economic Justice, there are three principles, the third of which is generally referred to as the principle of harmony, but is also sometimes called the principle of limitation because it limits or restrains the human tendencies toward, greed, monopoly, and exploitation of others.

In this era of increasing global interdependence, perhaps we can't solve the problem of poverty by perceiving it and approaching it nation by nation. Economic justice must be global; we have think, not just outside the box, but outside our borders.


"Defining Economic Justice and Social Justice," Center for Economic and Social Justice.

50 Years is Enough: US Network for Global Economic Justice.

"The ABCs of the Global Economy," Dollars and Cents: The Magazine of Economic Justice


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It's a bit of an age old question, isn't it?

Instead of trying to define poverty, wouldn't it be equally interesting just to apply Lenin's observation that "we don't need to describe the proletariat. Those who feel like proletarians will follow the revolution when she presents herself". It worked perfectly. The entire world was transformed because of this simple strategy of the avant-garde that will be followed by those who perceive themselves to belong to the poor classes.

I think of all the hundreds of theories on how to tackle global economic injustice and inequality, the Leninist idea of the avant-garde is the most modern and the most apt to transform the 21st century.

The democratorships that allied with neoliberalism after the fall of the Soviet Union have proved that their recipes don't work. They simply spread out poverty and inequality over larger populations, hoping that this way, we won't notice.

The tragedy is that oktober was ruined because of the second world war, which destroyed Russia and Europe, and which boosted America's power. The US came out of the war undamaged and 25% wealthier. The Soviet Union came out 30 to 40% poorer and with lost a quarter of its population.

Out of this disaster evolved the problematic "realexistierende" regimes, who had, in fact, no chance of surviving.

But this historic tragedy in no way devalues Lenin's avant-garde strategy. It worked in oktober, it may work again.

This idea may well explain why Lenin is so popular again amongst the Eurasian and Latin American intelligensia. Marx is for Wall Street bankers, they have accaparated him totally. Bill Gates loves Karl Marx. Reason enough to choose Lenin instead.

Also, look at what's happening in Latin America. The populists there (the real representatives of the poor) are doing interesting things, redistributing wealth, restructuring the social sphere, tackling the systemic factors that perpetuate poverty and inequality.

On another note, the USA has a cultural defect of major proportions, in that its entire culture is based on excluding anything that may lead to systemic and structural thinking. Don't count on America looking at itself or beyond its own borders. It's illegal to do so in America. It's the biggest taboo imaginable.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 16 Dec 06

You are tackling a collosal age-old question. Similiar to you when I hear conversations blaming someone's poverty it always causes me to ponder, "why". Especially in developing regions in the world. For instance, the take a newborn baby born in a small rural village far from the capital city in Mali. If this child was born into a family with very few material possesions and little formal education-this child would most likely be considered below poverty-right?

But in this instance how could the child be blamed for his or her own economic circumstances? What about the child's family-some may be working age, but living in such a setting where there is little demand for skilled labor it seems that it would be very difficult to break the cycle of poverty.

Thinking "outside of the borders" school of thought may not immediately be able to answer our questions. However, it could definitly lead to a platform that allows for more balanced and open dialogue on such issues. Thank you for challenging our minds.

Posted by: benin mwangi on 22 Dec 06

Yes, indeed, it is a collosal age old question. But today for the first time in human history we have the internet and a few of us in the planet have the freedom to organize to become a collective force. A large collective with a focused agenda can accomplish positive change. That has been my hope and that is what makes me excited about this worldchanging website.

Today, however, I stand deeply dissappointed that, as of now, only about 130 worldchangers responded to a call for a donation of $10 that would would add a significant amount to the coffers of this amazing institution. And why only 130 responses? The answer to that question might hold the reason for pervasive and needless poverty. It will help us understand the "potential" of WC if people will be kind enough to write why they think it is not important to make the $10 donation. It might explain the persistance of poverty in wealthy societies and across the artificial national borders.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 23 Dec 06



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