Pull Up your Socks vs. It’s the System

I remember a remarkable conversation I had many years ago when I had my first job in Africa. I was working with African farmers, and casual conversation turned to life in America. “Monsieur Chris,” one farmer asked me, “there are no poor people in America, are there?” I assured him that yes, even in America there are many poor people. Yet as the conversation continued, they could see I was lying, since they heard that many of these allegedly poor people lived in permanent housing, had running water, and electricity. “No, Monsieur Chris, there are no poor people in America.” Nothing I said could change their minds.

I was reminded of that conversation by friend and author Eric Meade. After my last blog went out about Randomized Controlled Trials for determining what social programs work, he responded to it. He said that I’d taken a fairly narrow view of what poverty is and where it comes from. In my blog I’d asserted that if you want to address poverty, you have to address the broader systems that keep people poor (for which Randomized Controlled Trials were not always a great tool). Eric pointed out that social structures do play an important role in poverty, but there are other explanations for the causes of poverty, and what we need to do to reduce it. Structural change does not encompass all of them, he said.

Eric recently published a book on this topic, Reframing Poverty: New Thinking and Feeling About Humanity’s Greatest Challenge. He lays out four basic framings of the sources of poverty that scholars and activists cluster around and argue endlessly about. Briefly those four understandings of poverty are:

  • Structural – broad social, economic, and political systems keep people in poverty
  • Cultural – cultural beliefs and practices of poor people inhibit their ability to escape poverty
  • Contextual – the daily realities that poor people face make it difficult to make the choices that would improve their situation
  • Behavioral – individual action determines who remains poor and who moves out.

I’m simplifying some very nuanced arguments, but if you look at that list you can probably fit every theory you’ve ever heard somewhere in there.

At the same time, Eric points out the various emotions behind our supposedly intellectual thinking that lead us to prefer one of these explanations over others. It is refreshing to bring feelings back into a policy discussion where so much of our training says we need to eliminate it.  If you doubt that our emotions are not key drivers here, just tune into a television debate and turn off the sound. Lots of excitement there.

Eric pointed out to me that yes, structural factors do play a role in creating and keeping people in poverty. Laws and practices that discriminate in key areas like education, finance, and employment make it harder for some than others. And structural economic change is behind the most remarkable reduction in poverty in recent years: the explosive growth of the Chinese middle class since the reforms of the 1980s. Few of us would explain that by saying that hundreds of millions of people suddenly discovered the Power of Positive Thinking.

But does that mean there is nothing that individuals can do? Is there no room for individual agency? If that were true, then why do siblings in the same family often have different outcomes? Eric suggests further that an exclusive focus on structural factors makes it difficult to open dialogue with others who see poor individual choices as being important. And so fruitless arguments circle on and on.

And this issue of individual agency goes far beyond preachy injunctions to “make smart choices.” My experience with social movements is that people can help themselves and have a profound influence on shifting power. So solutions can go far beyond simply staying in school and off drugs, important as those are. And people organizing themselves also gets past the tired assumption that middle class and rich people need to help the poor if anything is going to happen.

The bottom line is that there is some truth in all these explanations. To focus on one to the exclusion of the others is to oversimplify a complex issue. There is far more to this fascinating book than this small glimpse I’ve seen here, so I highly recommend it for anyone who plans to do anything about social issues, not just poverty.

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