Stupid things we still believe about poverty

By Alan Bean

Emily Badger clearly doesn’t live in Texas.  Her take on “stupid things we used to believe about poverty” are still going strong in the Lone Star State and in the great American heartland generally.  While the charts below indicate that progress has been made in the last couple of centuries, the last three decades have seen the creation of a dramatic wealth gap that is commonly presented as a necessary condition of economic health.  Get too concerned about the guy at McDonald’s toiling for minimum wage and the big boys would be out of business.  Then where would we be?

Meanwhile, poor people are still demonized as a matter of course.  Any suggestion that poverty is “constructed” or that a link exists between unemployment and crime is rejected out of hand (in places like Texas, at least).  We commonly face the myth of false alternatives: either criminals bear the full responsibility for their choices or society is to blame.  The idea that social pressures and bad decisions might be mutually reinforcing never comes up for discussion.

As Ms. Badger points out, we couldn’t move beyond the “only starving workers are motivated” mythology of the 18th century until poor people were viewed as possessing the same rights and freedoms as rich folk.  That should be a no-brainer for those who follow Jesus, but the Church has rarely championed the cause of the poor.  That said, an exciting shift is discernible in recent biblical scholarship that takes biblical teaching about poverty at face value.  Do that, and you have a revolution on your hands.

Hunger Makes People Work Harder, and Other Stupid Things We Used to Believe About Poverty

Hunger Makes People Work Harder, and Other Stupid Things We Used to Believe About Poverty
Wikimedia Commons/Mark Byrnes

There is no better way to channel the mind-bending logic of 18th century thinkers on poverty (men who we can assume were not poor themselves, by virtue of the fact that history remembers them) than to simply quote their words. Meet Philippe Hecquet, a well-known French doctor speaking in 1740:

The poor … are like the shadows in a painting: they provide the necessary contrast.

With a little less lyricism, here is Englishman Arthur Young, in 1771:

Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.

Philosopher and economist Bernard de Mandeville explained in 1732 that if countries can’t have slaves, the rich people who live there at least require a vast and permanent underclass to prop up the economy and their personal good times:

… it is manifest, that in a free Nation where Slaves are not allow’d of, the surest Wealth consists in a Multitude of laborious Poor; for besides that they are the never-failing Nursery of Fleets and Armies, without them there could be no Enjoyment, and no Product of any Country could be valuable.

In the span of 200 years, these commonly held sentiments have of course come to be seen as deeply wrong-headed, in total opposition with today’s notion that poverty is something we’d rather eradicate than exploit. The history of how we so dramatically changed our minds on the topic (and the related responsibilities of government) is chronicled in a fascinating new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Georgetown University economistMartin Ravallion.

Most fundamentally, as Ravallion writes, we’ve gone from thinking that poverty is a necessary ingredient for economic development to thinking that poverty constrains it. Numerous related assumptions have (mostly) fallen along the way: The poor were at fault for their own poverty (through moral weakness, alcoholism, laziness, a penchant for making too many babies). The poor were born that way, and nothing could be done about it. Besides, poverty had its own utility: If people weren’t hungry, they wouldn’t work. Thus, poverty was a social good.

Wikimedia Commons/Mark Byrnes

Today, we mostly agree on three ideas that Ravallion illustrates form a startlingly recent consensus: Poverty is bad, it’s possible to do something about it, and government policy can play a role. That last part doesn’t just mean propping up the floor beneath poor people so they don’t become totally destitute. It means helping people out of poverty all together.

So how did we get here? As recently as 1820, researchers have calculated that 84 percent of the world’s population lived in “extreme poverty” (on less than the 1985 equivalent of a U.S. dollar a day). Around this time in Europe, the prevailing economic thought was that if you paid people more, you’d actually motivate them less, and their output would fall. You may recognize this logic as the exact opposite of what we generally think today (big earners are hard workers).

“The basis for this idea appears to have been little more than casual anecdotes,” Ravallion writes. You know: stories of men rushing to the saloon with their paychecks. “It was not the last time in the history of thought about poverty that casual incentive arguments resting on little or no good evidence would buttress strong policy positions.”

Since then, as the nature of work and technology have changed, a number of ideas have also evolved in how we think about the poor and poverty itself. During what Ravaillion calls the First Poverty Enlightenment, around the turn of the 19th century, he traces a newfound respect for poor people as actual people – not as shadows on a painting, or as laborers working to someone else’s end. If all people were equal, poor people were no less worthy of rights than the rich. And poverty began to seem less like an inevitability.

Wikimedia Commons/Mark Byrnes

Prior to this time, school was thought to be a waste of time for poor children, who should have been working instead. But the rise of new kinds of jobs with the Industrial Revolution demanded more education. And the rise of social science research began to document for the first time the breadth of poverty, revealing to the non-poor how the poor really lived. Later events like the Great Depression would ultimately make clear that structural economic and social problems contributed to poverty more than moral weakness and bar tabs.

Ravillion identifies a Second Poverty Enlightenment in the second half of the 20th century, when we came to think of poverty as morally unacceptable, particularly in countries that were supposed to be “rich.” Concern over poverty rose, as global poverty rates fell. Ravillion documents this first trend with a timeline of references to poverty in Google Books (with each year normalized by the total quantity of content):

“The Idea of Antipoverty Policy,” by M. Ravillion, NBER working paper No. 19210

Likewise, here is an analysis of the birth and rise of several key concepts tied to how we think about poverty now:

Poverty line (blue), poverty rate (red), poverty gap (green), Gini (yellow), Lorenz curve (light blue), household survey (purple)

And a chart of our intentions to do something about it:

Antipoverty (blue), poverty alleviation (red), redistribution of wealth (green), redistribution of income (yellow), income redistribution (gray)

This whole story suggests that we’ve come a very long way in two centuries from a time when we didn’t even conceive of poverty as a problem. But it’s also possible to see in this summer’s Congressional debates over food stamps echoes some of these same outdated ideas – that aiding the poor will only discourage them from working, or that doing so is simply not the government’s job. “The difference today,” Ravillion writes, “is that most people in the world clearly do not agree.”

Top illustration: Wikimedia Commons/Mark Byrnes

Emily Badger is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area. A

2 thoughts on “Stupid things we still believe about poverty

  1. I frequently joke that Patricia and I have lifetime paid up membership in the Golden Arches Supper Club. We quite frequently avail ourselves of the dollar menu at the Golden Arches. Someone has calculated that if McD’s paid the help a living wage they would have to raise prices for items on the dollar menu to a dollar seventeen. I would gladly pay the extra seventeen cents, and McDonalds could change the name of the dollar menu to the living wage menu. I think that would be could promo for McD’s.

  2. Most discussion of poverty ignores the elephant in the room. Federal government programs to eliminate poverty, started in 1965, enabled females to conceive and raise babies without the benefit of responsible fathers. Two parent families have almost been destroyed. Over 70% of black babies are born without support of fathers. Whites have slipped, too, with over 30% born without responsible fathers. Children, especially males, need fatherly guidance to navigate turbulent youth and become functional adults. School drop out rates are horrendous among these children, exceeding 50%.

    If you are curious about the real world, consult the writings and lectures of these African American men:

    Ben Carson, M.D., Surgeon
    Bill Cosby, Actor
    Thomas Sowell, Economist, Stanford University
    Walter Williams, Economist, George Mason University

    Teachers unions are part of the problem. They attain tenure and are not held responsible for their efforts, good or bad. No business could survive that way.

    We need leaders with courage to tackle these conditions head on.

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