I went to hear Jonathan Wolff (UCL Philosophy) give a lecture on relative poverty and social inquality tonight. It’s part of a piece of work he’s doing for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). The JRF is bringing together academic ideas on poverty from across disciplines – economics, political science, and also philosophy. Wolff said that poverty is much ignored by modern political philosophers, in favour of equality and justice: Rawls himself doesn’t mention it once. He then emphasised his point by quoting extensively from economists and social statisticians, referencing in particular the works of Adam Smith and Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree.
Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations addressed the relative, cultural aspects of poverty, writing: “A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life… But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt…” There are some activities and goods which are so central to life in our society that we are prepared to forgo even food to buy into them. These activities and goods are strongly status-linked. For a school-child, it might be a set of clothes which are not school uniform. For a worker, it might be a drink in the bar on a Friday night. For a teenager, it might be a smartphone.
Poverty is essentially relative – and this relativity is local. Some groups are so far from the societal goodies that they turn inward. There is no point reaching for the next rung on the social ladder – it’s at ceiling height – so status is measured against a more local norm. Wolff talked about gangs in South Africa which prioritise an unusual dental arrangement: removing the front four incisors. People with this modification are marked to the extent that they will be unable to compete for status in South African society’s mainstream, but they have high status in Cape Town’s gang culture.
In this, as in so much political science and philosophy, The West Wing has got there first. In the episode Isaac and Ishmael, we hear the following words spoken by Charlie, the President’s bag-carrier:
Gangs give you a sense of belonging, and usually, an income. But mostly, they give you a sense of dignity. Men are men, and men’ll seek pride… You think bangers are walking around with their heads down, saying, “Oh man, I didn’t make anything out of my life. I’m in a gang.” No, man! They’re walking around saying, “Man, I’m in a gang. I’m with them.”
My colleague Rich Penny (@Rich_Penny) has written his PhD on the subject of Rawls, justice and self-respect: “the process of securing the social basis of self-respect for citizens is much less a matter of ‘traditional’ distribution, and much more a case of cultivating a particular set of social relations and a public political culture that serves to secure for all citizens the space, recognition and encouragement needed for them to develop a sense of self-respect on their own terms.”
Poverty is about so much more than money.