Posts Tagged ‘racism’

There has been some discussion recently about the drivers of poverty, and I thought it would be useful to reproduce some important things I’ve said in comments on this blog.

mickysavage said this over at The Standard:

I use the phrase [equity of outcome] as a counter to the Nats’ “equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome” line.  That is a phrase that Nikki Kaye for instance uses all the time.

Their line essentially says that there can be winners and losers.  The concept of “equity of outcome” suggests to me there should be some minimum standards required so everyone has enough.  It does not require complete equality but a reasonable distribution of income and resources.

And he’s right, it’s really not permissible to just leave our economy at the harsh and intolerable level of “well, some people are winners, and others are losers,” because often, “winners” didn’t do anything to merit winning, and “losers” didn’t make the decisions responsible for their poverty. Here’s my reply:

Besides, to some degree inequality of outcome is an indicator of inequality of opportunity- for instance, if people of different demographics really do have functionally equal opportunity, you’d expect the differences in poverty rates between those demographics to be statistically negligible. As that’s not the case, we have a very strong indicator that people who fall into privileged groups in our society really do have more and better opportunities, which isn’t very democratic.

Now, if said inequality actually made everyone better off, I don’t think we’d have a problem with it. But it doesn’t- it just seems to enrich the already wealthy, as seen by our ballooning wealth disparities all around the world.

There is a systemic problem here, and it’s happening in all capitalist economies. Likely it’s our attempts to mix familial policies with capitalist ones (inheritance, treating kids as individual charges not community ones, etc…) that are driving a lot of this problem- that doesn’t mean these are bad things to do, just that they do not mix well with capitalism if you want everyone to get a fair go.

The other post, which was also guest-posted in a shorter form at The Standard, claims that because negative indicators track with poverty, this is a problem of poverty, not of race. That misses the point that poverty is an intersectional issue- that is, it tangles itself up in other social problems, and is better seen not as a cause or symptom but as part of a reinforcing cycle- way back in the day, colonial New Zealanders did some racist things, that set off a self-reinforcing cycle of racism and disproportionate poverty. Even for Maori people who climb out of poverty, there’s the perception that they are exceptional, rather than just very skilled and fortunate, and likely to have been in a much better situation had they been born into a family that suffered less from discrimination. Breaking out of poverty while so many still remain in it only suppresses the poverty part of the cycle, which is still reinforced for other Maori, and still associated mentally with all Maori in so many people’s heads.

Even if we eliminate poverty altogether, there will still be racial discrimination, and it will still carry some of the same symptoms. Just like when we largely ended open discrimination, however, the discrimination would still exist, underground, in our subconscious decisions- both of the victims of discrimination to sometimes see themselves as less than, and in the actions of people who want to reinforce that idea. Here’s the comment I made in reply to this point:

Poverty is a huge part of the problem- racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination are much easier to deal with when they don’t intersect with poverty.

But it’s actually scientifically confirmed (using tests that measure stress) that lifting people out of poverty doesn’t always relieve the stress they feel from discrimination. For example, if you take a white woman and a black woman in the USA, and they both climb out of poverty, the white woman will feel a relief of the stress that she felt from being poor, but the black woman won’t- which is likely to be due to people engaging in what’s called “high-stakes coping”, where they try and power through the problem by just being that much better than everyone else.

I’m not very elegant at explaining why poverty doesn’t explain away racism yet, but you can hear excellent talks on that subject at http://www.timwise.org/ – he’s a great anti-racism advocate.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely support fighting poverty, (and prioritising that fight) but what we’re likely to find even if we largely eliminate poverty is that discrimination still happens, but it might be a bit easier to deal with, and many of the related statistical problems will likely shrink significantly.

Finally, there’s also some discussion as to the drivers of poverty and whether it’s relatively simple or difficult to eliminate. I come down on the difficult side, as evidenced by this comment:

Well if we’re going to reduce things to absurd simplicity, throwing money at poor people solves poverty if you throw enough of it. By definition it cures their poverty (or if you throw too many sacks of coins it kills them – but they won’t die poor).

But then if you don’t want to be simplistic, it still needs money – social workers, benefits, law enforcement, education, infrastructure, civic development, business development units, investors. It all needs money.

and my reply elaborating on that point:

Well, perhaps it cures their poverty. This is going to sound similar to some beneficiary-bashing stuff, but I don’t mean it to demonise the poor, I mean it to say that the problem isn’t quite that simple to solve. In some ways poverty is actually quite similar to coping with mental illness.

You have to remember that part of what causes poverty is that it creates perverse incentives that perpetuate it. (hence the comparison) For instance you can’t afford healthy food, so you buy whatever’s cheapest, which is often junk food from large corporations that leaves you not much better off than before you ate or drank it, which can make it hard to concentrate because your body isn’t getting what it needs, which makes it hard to stay calm or make good decisions, which might mean you miss opportunities to improve your life in all sorts of subtle ways.

Even if we directly redistribute wealth with an aim to reduce poverty, these reinforcing behaviors don’t instantly go away- much like when someone wins the lotto, it depends on their outlook whether they’ll blow the money in a couple of years, or use it carefully and wisely. We’d certainly bump a lot of people directly out of poverty, but some would need a different kind of help, because, to use my earlier example, they’d still think that Coke is what you drink, and junk food is what you eat.

Many of the things you listed couch that investment in a secondary force that helps break poverty-reinforcing behavior- education and infrastructure being the key examples, but sometimes social workers, benefits, and law enforcement can be very helpful, too. I don’t really have much faith in business or investors to do anything about poverty unless they’re getting tax incentives to do it, and even then they’ll try to cut corners.

Fighting poverty is such a crucial piece of improving our society, that it’s a shame that people have so much difficulty understanding the nature of the problem. Having suffered from a different, but nonetheless equally self-reinforcing problem, I very much understand that it’s an incredibly difficult thing to defeat, it requires a lot of support, and even afterwards, these types of problems never fully leave you, you just shrink them to the point that they’re easy enough to cope with.

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