Rant: Poverty is a problem

October 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Warning: Non-numeric post.

The view that social problems are caused directly by poor material conditions such as bad housing, poor diets, lack of educational opportunities and so on implies that richer developed societies would do better than others.

Ignoring the weaselly “directly”, this still isn’t true. You can have poor material conditions in the richest of countries, as anyone who’s spent a day in Oakland can tell you. Of course this is related to inequality, but the thesis of The Spirit Level is that inequality in itself leads to problems — that doubling everybody’s income would make negligible difference.

However, surveys of the 12.6 per cent of Americans living below the federal poverty line (an absolute income level rather than a relative standard such as half the average income) show that 80 per cent of them have air-conditioning, almost 75 per cent own at least one car or truck and around 33 per cent have a computer, a dishwasher or a second car.

For a lot of people, a car is necessary to do whatever job they have, and for any kind of quality of life. They are a lot of American cities in which public transport isn’t practical outside the main arteries. Saying that vehicle ownership is “usually a reflection of the strength of thir desire to live up to the prevailing standards” is vaguely insulting. Meanwhile, a third have either a computer, a dishwasher or a second car? The lucky duckies.

Although modern market democracies fall into neither of those extreme, it is reasonable to assume that there are differences in how hierarchical they are. We believe that this is what income inequality is measuring… The first pointer is that only the health and social problems which have strong social class gradients — becoming more common further down the social hierarchy — are more common in more unequal societies.

Or it could just be absolute or relative poverty. Over and above that, a bunch of things that are correlated are not the same thing.

The other pointer which suggests that income inequality reflects how hierarchical societies are, became clear when we reviewed nearly 170 academic papers reporting different pieces of research on the relationship between income inequality and health… While there was overwhelming evidence that inequality was related to health when both were measured in large areas (regions, states or whole countries), the findings were much more mixed when inequality was measured in small local areas.

Of course the larger the scale you consider, the more inequality you see. To the extent to which this is evidence for anything, it seems to be evidence against the authors’ hypothesis. If being the biggest fish in a small pond doesn’t help you, surely that means the effect of hierarchy is less than that of the material circumstances of the community you live in?


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