Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Hypothesis on Poverty

I recently read a paper for class entitled "Destitution and the Poverty of its Politics—With Special Reference to South Asia" by Barbara Harriss-White. Harriss-White analyzes destitition, the state of the poorest of the poor, and finds that it encompasses three aspects: first, "having nothing"—that is, old-fashioned economic poverty, or lack of access and control over assets; second, "being nothing"—having no political rights, being marginalized and outcast; and lastly, "being wrong"—having the law work against you.

As an economist, I was used to thinking of extreme poverty in terms of the first aspect, material deprivation. But these latter two caught my eye. The paper made me realize that true destitution (far beyond ordinary relative poverty) is not just an economic process, but also a social and political one; that is, market processes alone aren't enough to drive people to destitution—it takes people actively excluding others for such a dire situation to exist. As Harriss-White puts it:
Destitution is a process in political economy. It is not simply that the technical requirements for labor processes require some kinds of bodies to be denied access [...] It is not simply that revenue for social sector spending is simultaneously squeezed, and thus eligibility for social protection by the state will need to be restricted (Russell and Malhotra, 2001). It is also that the exclusion of people from exploitation is culturally legitimated; society actively allows oppressive practice and, it is argued here, the state is often complicit in this process.
If she's right, if societies do truly actively allow and legitimate exclusion, then why do they do it? My hypothesis is that it is a culturally evolved way of dealing with overpopulation: societies that have exceeded their carrying capacity exclude groups of people to preserve scarce resources. If the carrying capacity can only support 70% of the population, the social norms evolve to exclude the other 30% from competition.

The people who engage in exclusion obviously do not think in those terms. They think of morality, or personal responsibility, or not having to deal with addicts, or the "unclean." But these tensions only manifest themselves and get worse when people are pressed. I suspect that as societies become wealthier, they become more willing to include formally marginalized peoples, simply because they can afford to; the pretexts formerly used to legitimize the exclusion lose support, lose importance, and slowly drop away.

[The biggest problem with the hypothesis is figuring out what "overpopulation" means. How do we distinguish between "overpopulated" societies and those that are merely very crowded? What standard of living does each person in the society "need"? By whose standards?]

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