The idea of relative poverty, rather than absolute poverty, is gaining traction in the social sciences. In this configuration, people who have adequate sustenance, but have less than those around them, have disadvantages which increase over time. They have less network interaction which might bring them a better job prospect, their children have fewer successful role models and are handicapped in assortive mating, their neighborhoods are more vulnerable to crime. It is not merely that the poor feel bad about themselves, the argument goes, but they have real obstacles as well.
My first instinct is to reject this with a pat on the hand and say “providing food, shelter, public schools, and police protection satisfies society’s obligation to the poor.” Actually, I believe there are several other obligations, and the society at large has chosen to take on even more, but you get my point. Easily definable, basic sustenance and opportunity provisions are what the government should be involved with. Going beyond that would seem to be opening several cans of worms. The neighborhoods-of-crime argument strikes me as highly valid, however. The worst part of American poverty may not be lack, but danger.
Rather than attacking from the usual angle of theories of governance, I’d like to stick with the tribal, evolutionary psychological, decision-making interpretations I’ve been fond of lately. Receiving less than the perceived average of the tribe’s resources may set off enormous warning signals in our primitive selves. Until about 1800, few humans experienced any sustained abundance. We may not be well wired for saying to ourselves “looks like my family is going to have enough for a long time - I can relax.” Finding oases of calm in deserts of anxiety may be the default condition for humanity. In that context, receiving less than others may be interpreted as the first step toward receiving nothing.
But even if this is the default setting, to which humans revert if nothing else intervenes, it is clear that millions of people have overridden it. There are numerous strategies, of varying morality, psychological cost, and savoriness, to get off the low end of the bell curve of tribal distribution. Many of these strategies, in fact, have potential payoffs far greater than just getting up to average resources. If you forbid the use of spurs, the welfare reformer claims, you end up with an entire herd of medium-slow horses, some of which could have been racehorses, and all of which are now collectively more vulnerable.
When humans cooperate at all, they are protecting each other from some of the harshness that reality can dish out. Providing for the disadvantaged is not an either-or proposition, but a long continuum from sleeping in shifts to keep off predators to absolute socialism. Where each society chooses to draw that line may have a certain arbitrariness to it.
But what if the worst of relative poverty is not the actual disadvantage playing off our tribal instincts, but simply the perception? How responsible should we be for the fact that people are more likely to get discouraged? Do we know for certain that we would have overcome the obstacles others face if they were ours? Does that question even matter in how we set up society?
A woman who grew up wealthy but spends her adult life in the middle class might consider herself to be – not impoverished, but deprived and a failure, if she continues to use wealth as her measurement. How responsible is anyone else for alleviating this?
…if she continues to use wealth as her measurement…
I think that gets us to the heart of the relative poverty argument. We have myriad (okay, maybe only half a myriad) ways of measuring success and reward in our society. It is almost certainly true from a Christian perspective that we use monetary wealth as a measure too readily. Come to think of it, from a Christian perspective we use all the alternative measures too readily as well. Comfort, taste, education, beauty, charm, fame, health, knowledge – all of those are false gods as well, though we acknowledge it less often.
To focus on equalizing wealth is to embrace the monetary standard of evaluating ourselves and our fellow humans. When Jesus directed us to give, it was to meet needs, to use money as a tool to provide sustenance or compensatory justice. This doesn’t rule out using money as a tool of kindness, but those are not the same thing. As soon as money becomes more than a tool it becomes a god (Jacques Ellul would say it is a god anyway, its power held in check only by the power of Christ).
The idea of relative poverty might be a fit one to consider sensitively for our interactions with others. We all enter situations where we are relatively poor, and others where we are relatively rich. But for society through government to seek to alleviate relative poverty seems an unending task, for it reinforces the very impression of deprivation it tries to eliminate.