Exploitation & Poverty

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.
Economic Segregation and Poverty

Segregation & Poverty

Raj Chetty, a prominent economics professor at Harvard University, has done fantastic research that shows how varied the level of upward mobility is across the United States. According to Chetty, you can see differences in the level of upward mobility and map those differences onto specific factors about areas at the level of zip codes and neighborhoods. This is an important aspect of poverty to consider, because it means that opportunities and success in life are influenced by social factors that are specific to the places where we grow up. It reveals the danger of economic segregation and the importance of finding ways to work together to address problems of poverty.
Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer address this point in their book $2.00 A Day by writing about the work of sociologist William Julius Wilson. They write, “Wilson argued that the reason poverty had persisted in America even in the face of the War on Poverty declared by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was that in the 1970s and 1980s, poor African Americans had become increasingly isolated, relegated to sections of the city where their neighbors were more and more likely to be poor, and less and less likely to find gainful employment.”
Opportunity is somewhat dependent on the people around you. That is the lesson from Chetty and from Wilson as presented in $2.00 A Day. If opportunity, success, and upward mobility were entirely within the control of the individual, then we would expect to see uniform mobility across the country. Instead, we see areas where people are more able to advance economically, and areas where almost no one advances.
When you are in a ghetto you are segregated from opportunity. Everyone you know is also likely in the same economic position that you are in. You don’t know anyone who can inspire you to go to school, work hard, and seek out a meaningful career that is a good fit for you. The failure to advance is not a failure of you personally, or even of your family and the people around you. The failure lies with the larger society which allows pockets of deep inequality and economic segregation to persist.
I am not currently part of the solution. My wife and I have chosen to live in a suburban neighborhood where most people presumably are in pretty similar economic states as we are. We are as economically segregated as anyone else in the nation. It is hard to tell people to not chose to economically segregate themselves, and efforts that bring more low-income (or even just affordable) housing to high price neighborhoods are often voted down and rejected. I don’t have a solution to the economic segregation problem, but the research from Chetty and the lessons from Wilson show that it is clear that economic segregation decreases economic mobility, placing the belief that anyone can succeed as long as they work hard enough on shaky ground.

Why We Don’t Talk Honestly About Mobility

A hidden conversation is constantly taking place in the United States. It is a conversation about who is deserving, who is successful, and who has done better for themselves than other people. The measuring stick for these conversations is financial wealth, and we don’t have this conversation out in the open. Instead, we have this conversation covertly, by expressing who we are with the things we have and the places we go. Having the most stuff, the most expensive car, the biggest house, and taking the best trips is a sign of success, and all these factors allow us to compare ourselves to those who have and do not have as much as we do. Our country tells us that material wealth is what we should desire, and we tell ourselves that anyone can achieve great wealth as long as they try hard. Those who don’t achieve great wealth, in this conversation, obviously are not hard working, and didn’t get the memo that bettering themselves and working hard is the way to be successful in our country.

Michelle Alexander would like to change the way this conversation takes place. Specifically, Alexander wants to address caste systems in America and highlight the lack of mobility in our country. In The New Jim Crow she writes,

“Conversations about class are resisted in part because there is a tendency to imagine that one’s class reflects upon one’s character. What is key to America’s understanding of class is the persistent belief—despite all evidence to the contrary—that anyone, with the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one’s character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole.”

By anchoring success around financial wealth, we create a zero sum system where more wealth for one person means less wealth for another. This is a broad overstatement to be sure, but it is the way that many people feel, and it is accurate when comparing success defined by material wealth with success defined by many religious ideals, or success defined by service and impact within the community. We avoid talking honestly about mobility challenges, because to remedy the problem means to give up some level of material success so that others may join in. This reduces our measuring stick of success and gives others an unfair leap up the ladder of financial success, at least as we understand it.

Our nation will never see racial equity if we continue to think of success purely in financial terms and if we ignore the ways that our society has embraced racial and economic castes. We must be honest about the lack of mobility within our society and recognize that a drive toward material wealth is a drive toward a goal that we cannot control on our own. Individuals and groups may be hard workers, but not all hard work is rewarded with wealth. The impact of our effort is not always reflected by our salaries, and the total of our bank account is often impacted by factors beyond our control. In a nation that in its history has implemented policies to minimize the wealth accumulation of black people while enhancing the wealth accumulation of white people, we should be honest about our caste system and about the ways in which economic mobility has been denied to certain people. Our current system ignores the reality of financial wealth, encourages sometimes dangerous competition in a zero-sum world, and pretends that everyone can be upwardly mobile as long as they have the right character traits.