Exploitation & Poverty

“Exploitation thrives when it comes to the essentials, like housing and food,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. People cannot go without housing, cannot go without food, and cannot go without other basic necessities that can be used against them to extract extra profit by those who control capital, markets, and essential goods. This exploitation is an extra rent (using the Dictionary.com definition of profit or return derived from any differential advantage) that doesn’t mean as much to the person profiting as it does to the individuals and communities burdened by exploitation. But we generally don’t focus on this exploitation.
Desmond also writes, “In fixating almost exclusively on what poor people and their communities lack – good jobs, a strong safety net, role models – we have neglected the critical ways that exploitation contributes to the persistence of poverty.” We are caught up on what ghettos, slums, and worn down neighborhoods lack. We blame individuals for ending up in such poor situations and blame them for being unable to escape, even if we somewhat acknowledge how difficult it could be for anyone to rise up given everything impoverished communities lack. Focusing on what poor people lack brings the scale down to an individual level, highlighting a single case in isolation without consideration of larger structural and systemic forces.
The reality is that poverty doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do any of us. As much as we want to think that poverty is an issue for individuals and defined by what they lack, we all play a part in establishing a society and an economy that can exploit the poor. By neglecting systems of exploitation, we tacitly approve of it, and approve of poverty and everything people in poverty lack. Addressing poverty will mean addressing systems of exploitation, and finding new mechanisms to help people in poverty obtain what they need without being exploited.

7 thoughts on “Exploitation & Poverty

  1. What is the solution…? Are you alluding to the idea that the government builds houses for everyone (whose exploited)? (obviously a very expensive solution) Are you okay with the government confiscating people’s rental properties to give to the poor? Once you start doing stuff like that… you go down a very slippery slope of destroying people lives who are successful. Where’s the incentive to work hard and be successful if the government is just going to take it all away from you to give to someone else. You know what happens… the whole system comes crashing down. There’s no longer an incentive to work hard.

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    1. I think potential solutions may look like increases in housing voucher programs. Housing vouchers are not the most efficient way to solve housing woes, and they can be abused by landlords who increase rent for people with vouchers, but they are effective, receive decent political support, and work well with our market mechanisms for housing.

      Another alternative that I think should be considered is converting big box stores and malls that have closed into low-income housing. It wouldn’t be great, but it is an existing option that uses currently unused infrastructure. On point I would make regarding any government provided housing is that integration is key. Raj Chetty from Harvard has shown how devastating economic segregation can be in terms of people’s upward mobility and future. I think a lot of the failures of low-income housing projects reflects this reality, so finding some way to ensure adequate housing supply while still mixing low-income with better off housing is important.

      We should also acknowledge that we do pay for the cost of homelessness and inadequate housing now. Medical costs for the homeless are very large, and in some cases it is much cheaper to provide housing for individuals than to continually cover their medical bills in hospitals or to continuously arrest them and pay to keep them incarcerated. Housing people first might cut down on more expensive costs later, even if the upfront costs seem huge. (This particular argument also considers the idea of not providing free healthcare in emergency rooms to indigent individuals off the table).

      Robin Hanson and Kevin Simlar make an argument in their book The Elephant in the Brain that most of what humans do is in one way or another signaling. We are usually trying to say something about who we are, the kind of person we are, and what qualities and characteristics we have with most of our behaviors. This seems to be built into us at an evolutionary level. The idea is that someone who demonstrates more desirable qualities through hard work, insightful thinking, and other traits is more likely to have support in a dangerous conflict and more likely to be able to mate and pass their genes along. This suggests that to a great extent we are not actually all working strictly for money. The money we earn allows us our comforts and allows us our signaling, so that we can show others how good of a person we are and how successful we are, but the money is not the main thing we are working for. I think people would still have an incentive to work hard, even under a system where taxes were increased and more financial redistribution took place. I don’t think it is fair to say that people would suddenly find themselves without an incentive to be hardworking and to maintain a productive job or strive for better jobs because either property or money was taken for redistributive purposes. I would not recommend simply taking rental properties away from landlords and giving them to poor people, but more of a financial redistribution program, though I recognize that many consider current taxes too high already.

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  2. I’m not going to attempt to prove that I am super knowledgeable about this because this really is a complex subject that I should investigate further. I appreciate you taking the time to give me a pretty good response to my message. The current American economic/political system obviously needs to be improved… just like every country in the world. You do bring up some good ideas that I’ve never heard before. Like turning buildings like a mall that’s gone out of business into a shelter. Housing vouchers sounds like a good idea too. You have any books you’d recommend or website so I can look into further?

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    1. The four books I read on poverty and homelessness in America were:
      1: Tell Them Who I Am by Elliot Liebow
      2: The Homeless by Christopher Jencks
      3: Evicted by Matthew Desmond
      4: $2.00 A Day by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

      In returning to the books to write about what initially stood out to me when reading them I have had two main take-aways. The first is that we cannot simply blame the individual for finding themselves homeless or in poverty. While industriousness and making good decisions is important for success, there are also larger structural forces that can drive people into grinding poverty and subsequently into homelessness from which escape is nearly impossible.

      The second take-away I still have not fully formed in my mind, but the general idea is that we cannot think of the homeless and those in the deepest poverty as simply being lazy middle class white people. I think we too often design programs as if we were trying to incentivize the stereotypical lazy white 30 year-old to get off his butt and out of his parents basement. Programs that are designed to try to push the lazy lower-middle class people to be more productive and to prevent them from cheating the system actively harm those who are actually in the worst poverty, who face discrimination and exploitation, and who have been excluded from society and opportunity. We have to completely re-think the ways we try to reach and assist people who are the worst off and have to stop thinking they are like the stereotypical lazy/deadbeat brother or uncle.

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      1. I do appreciate your intelligent comments and for engaging with me. I’ll check out those books. Why do you have an interest on this subject? Just curious. If that’s too personal ignore my question.

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      2. Prior to the Pandemic my wife and I were volunteering pretty frequently with homeless meal programs in the Reno, NV area. I realized that I didn’t understand the homeless population well, and I saw a great diversity among homeless people that didn’t match stereotypes that I previously held.

        As the cost of living and the cost of housing in the San Francisco Bay Area has gotten out of control, many people have moved to Reno. Since about 2015, housing prices in Reno have risen dramatically, and this has created additional challenges in terms of housing insecurity and homelessness in Reno. Our area is very tourism dependent, and many people work seasonal jobs at ski-resorts, around the Lake Tahoe area, or in other hospitality sectors, so many of those individuals face transient homelessness between seasonal jobs – especially as the cost of living in Reno has risen. These are the kinds of invisible homeless people I have been interested in writing about in some of my posts.

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