Social Equality, Relative Poverty and Marginalised Groups
Jonathan Wolff 1. Social Equality and Distributive Equality; Ideal and Real-World Political Philosophy
Within the contemporary egalitarian literature there has been a divide between those who wish to conceive of equality primarily in distributive terms and those who see equality in terms of the relations between individuals in society. The former, most prominently the ‘luck egalitarians’, following Dworkin (1981a, 1981b), Cohen (1989) and Arneson (1989, 1990), engage in a project most crisply formulated by Cohen, who remarks ‘I take for granted that there is something which justice requires people to have equal amounts of’ (Cohen 1989, 907). The search for the ‘currency of egalitarian justice’ is the attempt to identify that thing of which people should have equal shares, be it resources, welfare, standard of living, utility, need satisfaction, capabilities, or some complex hybrid of these or other currencies. Those, however, who in contrast see equality in relational terms reject the idea that there is such a currency and argue that a society of equals is constituted, at least in part, by the attitudes and relations to be found between individuals. Instead of a search for a currency, the egalitarian project becomes that of trying to characterize what is to count as appropriate relations between equals. What does it mean to be a member of a society of equals?
The distinction between distributive and social equality is, in principle, cross-cut with another distinction, between what has become known as ‘ideal theory’ and ‘non-ideal theory’. Ideal theory attempts to set out principles of justice that abstract from particular conditions, but apply to societies in that the principles form a model to which all societies, or at least the society in question, should aspire. Much work in political philosophy, from Plato to Rawls, has taken this form, and the philosopher is a kind of legislator for an ideal society, with the hope that actual societies can be brought to resemble the ideal. However, many political theorists have often been engaged in a different task, which as Sen puts it, is to identify manifest injustices – to women, to minorities, to the poor – in actual societies and to propose remedies for those injustices, without always appealing to what Sen calls a ‘transcendent’ theory of justice (Sen 2009). This approach has become known as ‘non-ideal’ theory (Hamlin and Stemplowska 2012).
Perhaps the terminology of ‘ideal’ and ‘non-ideal’ is unfortunate for it gives an implicit priority to ideal theory. Non-ideal theory appears subsidiary to, and ultimately dependent upon, ideal theory. But there is a growing body of work that attempts to see injustice not only as our immediate concern, but also in some sense conceptually independent of ideal theory. Some, like Sen, see engagement in ideal theory as a type of mistake. Others take less of a hostile stand, but pursue non-ideal theory by identifying and proposing remedies for injustice without appealing to any ideal theory (Fricker, Mills, this volume). It seems strange to describe such activity as ‘non-ideal theory’, given the connotations of dependence that the term has. I prefer the name ‘real world political philosophy’ (philosophy rather than theory, as it should be an open question whether our conceptualization should ultimately contain anything deserving of the title ‘theory’). Mischievously, we might contrast ‘real-world political philosophy’ with ‘unreal political philosophy’ although, the contrast between ‘real world’ and ‘ideal’ is perhaps more neutral.
I said that in principle the distinction between distributive and social equality cross-cuts with the distinction between real world and ideal political philosophy. Although no doubt there are exceptions, many distributive egalitarians have tended to adopt an ideal perspective while many social egalitarians have at least expressed sympathy with real-world approaches. My view, however, is that an ideal theory of social equality is hard to sustain, because it is very difficult to give precise and unique content to an ideal of social equality. In the case of the distributive approach to equality, at least in terms of how the recent debate has developed, theorists of distributive equality are able to provide a crisp formulation of their position, such as such as Dworkin’s theory, which he calls ‘equality of resources’ (1981b) or Cohen’s theory of ‘equal access to advantage’ (Cohen 1989). There are many such theories, and it is possible to state them clearly, identify the differences between them, and present considerations that may favour one version over another in an analytically rigorous fashion. And there is an implicit assumption held by all those who engage in the debate that although many theories are available they are competitors in the sense that one will, or should, eventually win out as the premier statement of a distributive approach to equality.
For those who write in the tradition of social equality, however, the debate has a different shape. Here I would include the work of R.H. Tawney (1931), David Miller (1997), Richard Norman (1997), Elizabeth Anderson (1999), Samuel Scheffler (2003), Tim Scanlon (2003), perhaps Michael Walzer (1983) and some of my own work (Wolff 1998, 2010). Defenders of social equality have had much more difficulty in providing a neat formulation of our position. Inspired by the work of Iris Marion Young (1990) as well as Tawney and perhaps Marx, it is clear what we are against – hierarchy, oppression, discrimination, servility, snobbery, and so forth – but much more difficult for social egalitarians to put forward a plausible positive idea of what we seek. This is not to say that there have not been attempts to do so. Broadly there are at least three ways in which a positive idea has, or could be, constructed. One approach appeals to a very concrete idea. For example Tawney’s roots in Christian Socialism suggest some sort of notion of ‘universal brother (and sister) hood’. The difficulty is that such a thick, quasi-religious notion, first, depends on a particular conception of the good, and second, may be impossible to reproduce on a mass scale. A second approach takes the other extreme and appeals to a thin political liberal notion such as ‘civic friendship’. However without further explication (which runs the risk of collapsing into the first approach) it is indeterminate and uninspiring, and does not do enough to capture in specific position in egalitarian thought. A third approach is to try to construct a substantive liberal position. This would be one way of reading Samuel Scheffler’s recent paper ‘The Practice of Equality’ which relates social equality to a practice of joint decision-making (Scheffler 2015) or Chistian Schemmel’s idea that social equality concerns the attitudes expressed by institutions for their citizens (Schemmel 2011). Attractive as these ideas are, it is hard to argue that either of these accounts sets out a principle that is necessary and sufficient for the achievement of social equality. In fact, they seem neither necessary nor sufficient, but perhaps, in both cases, ‘facilitating’ in that they make the achievement of a society of equals more likely, though it could still perhaps be achieved in their absence. The central point remains that social egalitarians are largely driven by the injustices and inequalities they perceive in the world rather than an easy-to-characterise ideal theory of what would create a society of equals.
In recent work I have tried to turn this weakness into a strength. I have argued that believers in social equality should not attempt to put forward a single model of a society of social equality (Wolff, 2015). Although it may well be possible to come to an understanding of a set of relations between individuals that could constitute social equality, any particular specification is likely to seem narrow, dogmatic or unconvincing. There are probably many different ways in which a society could count as a ‘society of equals’, and they may well be very different from each other. Quaker Society, a Kibbutz, and a 1960’s Californian Hippy community may all, if things go well, count as small scale societies of equals. Yet they differ greatly from each other, and a decision between them would be made on grounds other than that of equality. What they have in common is that they avoid various objectionable social relations. These objectionable social relations will fall into at least two groups. One picks out a range of asymmetrical relations, as set out above (oppression, exploitation etc), and hence identifies various forms of inequality. The other concerns relations of alienation or estrangement. This latter group picks out the idea that a society of equals is, after all, a society, and therefore should have a certain fabric of mutual connectedness. On the view I favour the concept of social equality is variably realized. Social equality is achieved by any society that avoids a number of specified ills. Such a conception of social equality thereby automatically becomes a version of real world political philosophy, starting from problems with the actual world rather than a depiction of an ideal world.
2. Using Poverty to Identify Social Inequality
The argument to this point suggests that my task as an advocate of social equality is to identify existing social inequalities, in the form of asymmetric and alienating social relations, and to propose remedies for those inequalities. Similar work has been carried out by other contemporary political philosophers, including, most notably Iris Marion Young (Young, 1990). Here I wish to add to these accounts by introducing the discussion of poverty and especially relative poverty,1 into the account of social inequality, and then exploring some questions about how marginalized subgroups may fail to fit into mainstream society. It may be surprising to draw on notions of poverty in an account of social equality, for, it will be said, poverty is a distributional, rather than relational notion. However, even putting aside relative poverty (a relational notion, of course), to which I will return, it is clear that poverty should engage the concern of social egalitarians. Although social inequality is, in part at least, constituted by the attitudes people have to others and to themselves, those attitudes cannot be changed merely by wishing it were so. Often social inequalities are the natural consequence of deeper social structural features of society, leading to behaviours and attitudes that then give rise to and reinforce social fragmentation. Those interested in social equality must take distribution and structure very seriously.
To make a start I should begin by clarifying the notions of poverty that I will use in this paper. ‘Absolute poverty’ (derived from the definition of poverty given in Rowntree 1901) is defined in terms of lacking the resources that would provide an individual (and family) with the sources of nutrition, clothing and shelter necessary to achieve what Rowntree called ‘physical efficiency’. By this he means, essentially, freedom from illness. There is something slightly awkward in clarifying this definition as no level of nutrition or shelter can guarantee health. The idea, rather, is that access to less than a certain level of resources is likely to make one vulnerable to a number of threats to health to a greater degree than one would be with a higher level of nutrition or shelter. Rowntree in effect assumes something like a threshold level of resources whereby extra resources will not significantly reduce risk of ill-health through the goods one can purchase.
It seems reasonable to suggest that a society that (avoidably) allows a significant proportion of its citizens to live in absolute poverty in this sense cannot be regarded as a society of equals, for could there really be economic inequality of such significance without it having detrimental effects on social equality? A society which is so short of resources that a substantial number of citizens are compelled to live in absolute poverty is in a tragic situation. But when such poverty is avoidable, and some live in comfort while others lack basic nutrition, the situation is surely quite different. The poor are excluded, presumably disrespected, and treated as a second-rate underclass. Otherwise it is hard to see why the elite would not wish to share at least some of their surplus. It seems clear that exceptional cases aside (for example those involving esoteric religious or mystical beliefs) extreme inequality, or neglected poverty, will be one or more of a cause, an effect, or a sign of social inequality. In other words there are material correlates for social equality.
However this argument does not necessarily call for strict material equality in the name of social equality. How much material inequality can be tolerated is an experimental question, and may vary over time and place. For example, the poet and social critic Matthew Arnold argued that in the nineteenth century the French had managed to achieve something approaching social equality, where aristocrat and peasant could converse together, and had common interests, despite their obvious material inequality (Arnold 1879, 71-2). Whether Arnold was right in this case is another matter, but it seems reasonable that the relation between material and social equality can vary, depending on other cultural factors.
Nevertheless, merely over-coming absolute poverty, as defined to this point, is a low standard. It is compatible with a joyless life without money for leisure and social pursuits, spending everything on the means to ‘physical efficiency’. Hence there is also another well-known notion of poverty which is even more interesting from the point of view of social equality: relative poverty. Peter Townsend defines it as follows:
Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies in which they belong. Their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities. (Townsend 1979, 31)
Here, then, poverty is defined not in terms of what is necessary for basic health, but in terms of what is ‘customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved’ in one’s society. The effect of lack of access to resources at this level is not necessarily ill health but being ‘excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities’.
In presenting his definition Townsend explicitly acknowledges Adam Smith’s observation that in his time one could not ‘appear in public without shame’ if one was not wearing a linen shirt, or, in a similar example, leather shoes. Relative poverty is a matter of not having the resources that will allow you to fit in. In working out what is customary, widely encouraged or approved, it will be helpful to divide expenditure into three categories. First, there is individual consumption, which focuses on what counts as a normal home life. Second, there is consumption that allows for a social life that helps to add texture, enjoyment and relations to others as a member of a family or community. Such activities might include being able to celebrate birthdays and holy days, participating in evening or weekend social occasions, and visiting friends or families, especially when ill or in hospital. I shall call these ‘community’ goods. And third, there are what could be called ‘status’ goods, such as Smith’s linen shirt or leather shoes, which allow one to appear in public without shame. All of these categories will have an element of social contingency, changing from place to place and time to time, although the third is likely to be the most volatile, as fashions and culture change.
In the policy literature the idea of relative poverty is instrumentalised by considering the ‘bundle of commodities’ needed to overcome the exclusion of relative poverty, and thus is then tied to an income measure, typically 60% of median income (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2009). This has some surprising consequences, as a society could generally gain in wealth, but relative poverty increase if incomes below the median rise more slowly than the median. Hence critics of the idea of relative poverty claim that it confuses poverty and inequality (Shaw 1988). Whether or not this is fair, here I will remain with the ‘pre-instrumentalised’ account by which one is in relative poverty if one lacks the consumption and household goods customary in one’s society, or lacks resources sufficient to allow a social life, or is unable to purchase with what is needed to avoid shame (this third category will overlap substantially with the first).
I will return to the discussion of community and status goods below. First, I want to address the question of how we should define the appropriate level of consumption goods? Typically this is done by survey, asking members of society what is customary. But this will vary from society to society, and for the purposes of the present discussion it would be helpful to propose something more abstract and general. Although I have to concede that I have no argument that this is the right position, or indeed, any criteria for picking out this standard rather than any other, I am very attracted to a description provided by the development economist Arthur Lewis (from the Caribbean island of St Lucia), of what he regarded as the demands of the socialist movement:
a society in which every child shall grow up in pleasant homes and attractive surroundings and with good educational opportunities; in which every adult shall be provided for in sickness and adversity; and in which the pensioner can take untroubled ease (Lewis 1949, 32-3).
Contrary to Lewis, this, of course, is not the entirety of the socialist ideal, as it makes no mention of social relations, and although contribution to production or other work is implied it is not explicitly mentioned. Nevertheless there is something hugely attractive about this idea. It is not describing a life of luxury, and it does not seem to be too much to ask. It is the life of those who can be described as being ‘comfortable’. The strength of the picture is that it considers the entire life cycle: all children should be given a decent start; adults of working age should be given strong social protections; and pensioners ‘can take untroubled ease’. The last is especially striking. In our world inequalities of those beyond working age may be more significant than those of any other stage. People who have worked in low paid, physically demanding jobs, having left school in their teenage years, and have never earned enough to buy a home, or to fund a pension plan, may find their retirement years a huge financial struggle, lived out in broken health. Those with a university education will have spent a shorter period working, normally in less physically demanding and higher paid jobs, and are likely to have built up considerable assets in their home, pension plan and savings. For them retirement may well be the high point of their lives. Oddly, though, few political philosophers have considered these issues.2
I shall call Lewis’s description of the socialist demand the ‘Lewis Line’. I think most social egalitarians will agree that if a society contains families that fall bellow the Lewis Line then there is still work to be done. This, of course, is an echo of ideal theory in that it is proposing a standard to which society should aspire, but even here we can see, I think that the negative has priority. It is not so much that the theory provides an inspiring ideal, but rather that the failure to achieve it, at least to when it should be economically possible to do so, is problematic: one might say shameful or disgraceful. We can, therefore, see the issue in a social egalitarian frame. To leave people below the Lewis line, when it is possible to do better for them, shows disrespectful neglect. What, though, if it is not currently possible to bring everyone above the line? Again we would expect a government to enact policies that aim at bringing everyone to that level, even if they cannot achieve it immediately. If a government was to argue that it is too difficult even to try, then it can be accused of showing contempt for a portion of its citizens. Here, though, the aim is to cross a line of comfortable sufficiency, in the name of respect for all, rather than eliminate inequalities.3 But in sum, social egalitarians can argue that a government that is content to leave some citizens below the Lewis Line shows a lack of respect for those citizens. Yet to concede a point to those who believe in the priority of material factors, achieving the Lewis Line is desirable in itself. This is why leaving people below it shows contempt.
We saw above that relative poverty is defined in a way that is very similar to one aspect of social equality. Lack of resources can lead to exclusion, which is one of the asymmetrical or alienating (possibly both in this case) social relations to which social egalitarians object. This, therefore, makes a fairly direct connection between social equality and distributional equality: on the social egalitarian view no one should live in relative poverty, as to do so is to be socially excluded. Nevertheless, overcoming relative poverty is not sufficient for achieving social equality, for it identifies only those forms of social exclusion that have their roots in levels of possession of resources. There can be other reasons – race, gender or disability for example – that can lead to social exclusion and hence social inequalities (cf Hull, 2007). However, overcoming relative poverty will be an important step in the elimination of social inequalities, and we will also see later that it may be impossible entirely to disentangle questions of disadvantage caused by lack of material resources and disadvantages caused by other factors.
To return to Rowntree’s analysis of poverty, Rowntree for political reasons, adopted a particularly austere definition of poverty, well below the Lewis Line, in order to convince others that serious poverty still existed in the York of his time. As Rowntree himself notes poverty as he understands it would have been overcome in a world in which individuals spend their lives only on the bare necessities of life, joylessly living just above the poverty line of physical efficiency. Yet it seems that the occasional luxury is a necessity for any type of human life. This is particularly poignant when one realizes that holding a birthday party for a child, or buying a stamp to put on a letter to a relative, do not count basic necessities on Rowntree’s analysis.
Rowntree observed that some people who have barely enough to purchase what he regards as the necessities of life may, therefore, decide not to do so, but to spend at least some of their money in other ways. Hence Rowntree, at least in his early works, was keen to distinguish ‘primary’ poverty, in the sense of not having sufficient command of resources to achieve physical efficiency from what he called ‘secondary’ poverty. People in secondary poverty do, as a matter of fact, have sufficient resources to achieve physical efficiency, but choose to spend at least some of their resources in other ways, ‘useful’ as Rowntree puts it, or not. Rowntree, a quaker, was especially interested in those who spent part of their budget on alcohol or gambling, thereby leaving insufficient money for an adequate diet or living conditions, even though, had they so chosen, they could have done so.
Rowntree notes that many people live in secondary poverty. In fact he suggests that in the York of his day almost twice as many people lived in secondary poverty as primary poverty (Rowntree 1901, 117) This would be perplexing if one adopted a ‘hierarchical’ theory of needs in which basic needs for food, shelter and basic clothing must be satisfied before turning to other needs. However, what counts as satisfying basic needs is ambiguous. Of course one must be able to live from day to day to be able to do anything else; one needs enough food and clothing to keep alive and sufficient shelter to be able to survive overnight. Yet it is possible to survive while greatly risking one’s health. For simplicity let us distinguish ‘absolute necessities’ which you need merely to stay alive, and ‘basic necessities’ which you need to avoid medium term threats to health, primarily of malnutrition, or diseases caused by very poor housing (damp, cold, infection, wood smoke inhalation etc).
As we noted Rowntree was concerned about those who spent money on alcohol rather than achieving physical efficiency. Yet he was so captivated by the social pleasures of the pub that he proposed that the temperance movement needed to be able to offer a similar experience, albeit without alcohol:
The form of entertainment furnished in those public-houses where music (either professional or otherwise) is provided is one well suited to the tastes of those for whom the publicans cater. The rooms are, as a rule, brilliantly lit, and often gaudily, if cheaply, decorated. In winter they are always kept temptingly warm. The company is almost entirely composed of young persons, youths and girls, sitting round the room and at small tables. Often there is a considerable number of soldiers present. Every one is drinking, but not heavily, and most of the men are smoking. At intervals one of the company is called on for a song, and if there is a chorus, every one who can will join in it. Many of the songs are characterized by maudlin sentimentality; others again are unreservedly vulgar. Throughout the whole assembly there is an air of jollity and an absence of irksome restraint which must prove very attractive after a day’s confinement in factory or shop.
In a round of the public-houses which the writer made one Saturday evening in May 1901, the fact of their social attractiveness struck him very forcibly. It points to the need for the establishment on temperance lines of something equally attractive in this respect. (311-2)
Karl Marx, more than fifty years earlier, in the 1844 Manuscripts, gave an even more ringing endorsement of the value of smoking and drinking in company:
When communist workmen associate with one another, theory,
propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means becomes an end. You can observe this practical process in its most splendid results whenever you see French socialist workers together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring together. Company, association, and conversation, which again has society as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies. (Marx 1844, 99-100)
Believers in a hierarchical theory of needs will suppose that human beings will first seek ‘absolute necessities’ to keep them alive, and then ‘basic necessities’ to keep them as healthy as they can be, and finally perhaps make their own choice between a higher standard of living, community goods and status goods. Rowntree’s observation that many people live in secondary poverty shows that a higher preference for basic necessities is not universal. Everyone must have command of absolute necessities for they will die without them. But basic necessities, or at least some of them, are sometimes put behind community and status goods. Consider again, Adam Smith’s example of someone who purchases a linen shirt and leather shoes to appear in public without shame. What sacrifices to diet and living condition may that person have made to be able to meet the conditions of inclusion?
Further support for the position that social and status needs can come before basic material needs is provided by a visit I took in 2009 to Katutura, a township built 5 miles outside Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. The name translates as ‘the place we don’t want to go’. It was built during the apartheid era, and was the site of forced removals of the black population from the city, beyond normal walking distance. Some of the housing is of a decent standard, but as one ascends the hill on which it is built the housing becomes poorer, first of all sturdy shacks and then eventually, as in many slums, dwellings made of a few sheets of zinc, too small to allow people to stand, rather like a metal tent. At the top of the hill there was no electricity and few sanitary facilities, and water was supplied by shared standpipes servicing a large number of dwellings.
What struck me, however, was that even close to the poorest areas three types of retail outlet appeared again and again. Not, as one might expect, food shops (there was a large supermarket where people bought their food) but bars, mobile phone shops and various sorts of grooming salons: nail bars, hair salons and barber shops. Even in desperate poverty social needs take on huge importance. All of these outlets catered, in different ways, to social needs. The bars were much as Rowntree described. They are places to socialize and feel comfortable; all the more important if you cannot even stand up straight in your zinc shack. Mobile phones served two functions. One, most obviously, of keeping connected with those who matter to you, but second, they are becoming the equivalent of Adam Smith’s linen shirt. To go out without a phone is a sign either of poverty or eccentricity. And finally, the beauty salons speak for themselves, although again they perform two functions. One is that they are lively and enjoyable places to visit, while the other is that they help one appear in public without shame, or, beyond that, with pride. The community need of being with others and the status need being seen looking right seemed to have taken on a huge importance of the lives of the people living in Katutura, and it is hard to believe it is an isolated example.
Another source for the importance of inclusion or social needs, if it is required, comes from Karl Marx again in the Alienated Labour portion of the 1844 Manuscripts. Marx, points out that those who are alienated, over-worked and unfulfilled in their labour, cannot live according to their human essence. ‘As a result, therefore, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal function - eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up.’ (Marx 74)
In sum, an important cause of what Rowntree called secondary poverty (what might better be called secondary absolute poverty) is the desire to overcome relative poverty. Many people, drinking in bars, making sure that they have credit on their mobile phones, or having their hair and nails done, are not achieving a standard of basic nutrition for themselves or their family, but instead prefer to maintain social connections or to fit in. Is this irrational? It is a type of moral failure? The words of the authors of the major study Voices of the Poor are particularly telling in this context: ‘The maintenance of cultural identity and social norms of solidarity helps poor people to continue to believe in their own humanity, despite inhuman conditions.’ (Narayan et al 2000, 4-5)4 I would, therefore, rather turn this question on its head. What should we make of a society in which people can only afford to socialize or obtain what they need to fit in by making sacrifices that puts their health and that of their families at risk?
3. What is My Society?
The analysis to this point suggests a very straightforward connection between social inequality and relative poverty. We cannot say that we live in a society of equals if a significant number of people (avoidably) suffer from relative poverty, or avoid aspects of relative poverty by putting themselves in secondary absolute poverty. Such people lack the resources to achieve simultaneously a certain level of material well-being, their community needs and their status needs of appearing in public without shame. And we have observed that the need for community and status can be felt so deeply that it can lead people to make such material sacrifices that their health is threatened. Equally there can be tensions in the other direction. Young and Willmott’s classic study of East London in the 1950s showed that municipal attempts to bring people up to something like the Lewis Line by removing them from inner city ‘slums’ to well-appointed council estates twenty miles outside the city, while providing pleasant surroundings and comfortable accommodation, removed people from the dense communities of kinship that had provided them with social meaning and material support. Accordingly, Young and Willmott recommended upgrading of local housing stock and environment, rather than ‘slum clearance’ and rehousing; advice that sadly went largely unheeded (Young and Willmott 1962, 186-198).
Addressing relative poverty is not, then, entirely straightforward. But there are further severe complications. Relative poverty, we saw is defined in terms of not being able to participate in socially acceptable behaviour. But note that any individual is likely to be a member of several sub-societies. If relative poverty is defined in terms of what is expected or encouraged in one’s society, the obvious question is ‘what is my society?’ As Alasdair McIntrye says in another context, ‘I am someone's son or daughter, someone else's cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation.’ (Macintyre, 1981). Each of these is a different role and can generate different role norms and expectations. And, critically, the different norms may conflict with each other even in the most basic way. For a relatively trivial, though common, example, a teenager in two friendship groups may find herself encouraged to smoke in one and discouraged from smoking in the other. Each person belongs to a ‘mainstream’ society which is all encompassing, and sets broad social norms and expectations, but at the same belongs to some number of sub-groups.
Once we appreciate this distinction then we see that the concept of relative poverty also needs clarification. One is relatively poor if one does not have the goods that are expected in, and allow one to fit into, one’s society. But which society? The local society or the mainstream? Possibly we could make a distinction between ‘local relative poverty’ and ‘mainstream relative poverty’. Rather, though, than worry about the terminology, the important point is the possibility that what is required to fit in with a sub-group could conceivably make it harder to fit in with mainstream expectations and thereby fitting in locally could reinforce one form of more general social exclusion. This can work in several ways. First, and at the most superficial level, adopting the appropriate look and habits to fit in with his or her sub-group, may on its own alienate or exclude an individual from mainstream society. Most obviously dressing a particular way, or adopting a particular manner of speech, may make it difficult to get a decent job. Having facial tattoos, or, in an example from Cape Flats in Cape Town, having one’s front teeth removing to cultivate a ‘gangster look’ will make mainstream assimilation much more difficult, and possibly permanently so. Or, more pervasively, adoption of particular behaviour, appropriate for local circumstances, can also have significant wider effects. Tommie Shelby, for example, argues that what he calls ‘deviance’ (crime, refusal to take a low paid job, and contempt for authority) is very likely to reinforce social exclusion for those who live in ‘the dark ghetto’ even if it can be a reasonable response to their particular circumstances (Shelby 2007).
The examples given so far are of chosen behaviour, albeit chosen against a background of material and social inequality and restricted options. However there may be more insidious effects from effectively unchosen behaviour. For example, more subtlety, Annette Laureau has argued that the patterns of play adopted by working class and poor children in the US, compared to middle class children, leaves them less well-prepared for the workplace than middle class children. She argues that working class and poor children, brought up under conditions of what she calls ‘natural growth’ will play in mixed aged groups, often informally organized around kinship groups, under their own initiative and discipline and will negotiate problems with other children without involving adults. By contrast, middle class children who experience ‘concerned cultivation’ typically will mix primarily in a restricted age group, going to ballet lessons, playing on sports teams, or participating in similar formally organized activity under close adult supervision. While one might think that the poor child’s play better equips her with the emotional development for future life, Laureau argues that, depressingly, the middle class children are receiving a training that suits them for later life. They learn the importance of turning up on time (something also noted by Young and Willmott, 1962, 157), not letting other members of the team down, and the discipline of taking instructions as well as interacting with adults on equal terms. As a result they are much more likely to succeed. In the case of more privileged children the local norms are a training for the mainstream norms of society, whereas for working class children local norms cut against mainstream norms (Lareau 2011). Again fitting in locally, not in the pursuit of status, but in being socialized into one’s community, leaves one less suited for, and challenged by, mainstream society.
Lareau, and to a degree Shelby, give examples of the ways in which fitting in with local patterns of life can lead to exclusion from the mainstream: in Lareau’s example the normal patterns of childhood development, while Shelby discusses what is needed to achieve a reasonable standard of living in the dark ghetto.5 It may also the case that spending money on status goods – the right clothes, the right hair and nails – in order to fit in locally may mean not preserving resources, in the form of saving or spending time and money on training, that will help facilitate entry into mainstream society. Local social inclusion can have an opportunity cost. People could sometimes improve their situation by investing in extra education through night school or internet courses, or by saving for better accommodation, or, in the longer term, investing in their children’s future. But if their time and money is spent on satisfying the completely understandable desire to meet locally acceptable norms, then the chances of succeeding in the mainstream will recede. One way in which this may happen is by taking a more highly paid ‘dead-end’ job in order to have the money for consumption and to socialize, rather than staying in school and then taking a low paid apprenticeship that could lead to a better wage in the long term, and a better life. Another way is that particular patterns of social life (staying out very late) could lead to poor performance and poor timing keeping at work, and hence dismissal or demotion. Many small effects conspire and compound.
4. Fitting In
The discussion of patterns of childhood socialization moves us away from traditional definitions of poverty. The difficulty these children may have in later life is not a direct consequence of a lack of resources (although it may be an indirect effect) but rather results from patterns of socialization. This could be put in terms of a lack of ‘social capital’, but one way of understanding the issues is to deploy a conceptual framework I have set out elsewhere (Wolff 2002, Wolff and de-Shalit 2007).
I have argued that, broadly, there are three types of factors that determine one’s opportunities in life. First, there are one’s skills, talents, aptitudes, strengths and so on, which we can call ‘personal resources’; second, one’s external resources, which includes income and monetary wealth, but also other forms of social assets, such as an extensive social network; and finally the social, cultural, legal and material structure in which you live. These factors come together to create a menu of opportunities for you. Under some social conditions an individual can be deprived of opportunities simply in virtue of the colour of his or her skin, or because of gender, or religion, whatever talents or wealth they have. In distinguishing these three categories, though, I should make clear that I do not suppose that they are static and unchanging. Most obviously talents can be developed, or allowed to languish, owing to the possession, or lack, of external resources in the form of money for training or access to free education, or external structures that lead to encouragement or discouragement.6
Indeed, Lareau’s examples make very clear that one’s personal resources are not natural facts about an individual, but in many ways are partially determined by other factors. What we see is that an individual’s place in a social structure (family and neighbourhood) can lead to certain patterns of acculturation, which develops some talents but not others, and in turn affects one’s chances of succeeding within other parts of the social structure (employment). Thereby one’s chances are reduced of gaining access to a level of resources which could give the next generation a wider rage of opportunities.
As things stand in many societies, members of marginalized subgroups have little opportunity to better their conditions. The contemporary US society, described by Annette Lareau and Tommie Shelby, South Africa, as described by Sampie Terreblanche (2002), Adam Habib (2013) and Moeletsi Mbeke (2009) and the UK as described by Danny Dorling (2010), offer restricted opportunities for social mobility, to varying degrees. By way of illustrative metaphor, think of opportunity in a society as represented by a ladder, with opportunities defined by the spacing of the rungs. Many contemporary societies are like a ladder with several rungs clustered at the top, and several at the bottom, but a huge gap between the highest of the low rungs and the lowest of high rungs. And, in the worst cases, even the highest of the low lines falls below the ‘Lewis Line’ of material comfort, while all the high rungs are above it. A small number of people manage to cross this divide such as those with special entrepreneurial talent, or high intelligence and determination that sees them through school and, via a scholarship, into elite university. A few others might be sports stars, entertainers or models. And of course the children of those already there have a good chance of remaining. But the numbers who cross are relatively small.
Contrast this with the societies with a much more graduated structure, in which the rungs on the ladder are more evenly spaced. This represents a society in which it is possible gradually to improve one’s working and living conditions, with a reasonable aspiration of crossing the Lewis Line, but without thereby becoming part of a privileged, protected elite. This does not mean that it will always be easy to ascend the ladder. Some will try and fail. Working hard will not always lead to promotion or increased pay. Despite one’s best efforts bad luck, illness, unexpected expenses, or redundancy can thwart any plan. But in a society of graduated opportunity at least one can make plans. Those who wish to ascend the ladder have something to aim at.
At this point it may be objected that if the object is to create a society of equals then it is wrong to be talking about a ‘ladder’ at all. The ideal, surely, is to have everyone on the same rung, which is to say that we should throw away the ladder and transcend the idea of society in stratified form. But recall that in ‘real world’ political philosophy we start from where we are and try to overcome the most manifest injustices first. If society takes the form of the ‘gappy ladder’ described above, then we have to start by taking that into account. We do this by, first, considering the difficulties it presents for achieving social equality (overcoming social inequality) and secondly considering how to address those problems, through remedy or at least mitigation. Wishing we were in some other state of affairs will not, on its own, be helpful.
The key point at this stage is that in deeply divided societies, where it may be impossible for more than handful to make the leap from living anxiously in cramped, unsanitary, crime-ridden surroundings, with poor schools, to the life of privilege, then those living at the bottom have a very limited range of options. If, in effect, you are rejected by mainstream society, then the prospects of ever fitting in are very bleak, however hard you try. In such circumstances it seems entirely reasonable to spend effort and resources on fitting in, or even standing out, locally. Social mobility is very hard to achieve where society is divided into the privileged elite and the mass, without many intervening middle positions, and resources spent trying to ascend the ladder over the divide may simply be wasted. There may not be any steps available that may generate a reasonable chance of genuinely better prospects for one’s families. In such circumstances the choice to fit in with one friends and neighbours is entirely understandable. Most obviously it is part of day to day life. Fitting in with mainstream society is likely to require significant sacrifice. And furthermore it is a sacrifice that may not yield very much, depending on how the structure of society is arranged.
Here I face the possible objection that it is may be quite wrong to think that members of marginalized sub-groups wish to fit in with mainstream society. Rather, it will be said, they find great value in the communities in which they live, and although they see the need for significant change they do not wish to be assimilated into mainstream, middle class society, and adopt values that are alien to them. This is an empirical question, of course, and it seems unlikely that generalisations will be helpful. However some evidence can be gleaned by asking what members of marginalised groups want for their children. This was a methodology used by Young and Willmott in East London in the 1950s, with mixed results (Young and Willmott 1962, 88-103), some parents wanting their children to follow in the traditional family occupation while others wanting their children to climb the occupational ladder. More recently it has been used by Bannerjee and Duflo in populations where poverty is much more extreme and far fewer people are in secure salaried employment. Bannerjee and Duflo were particularly interested in testing the theory that poor people around the world are somehow ‘natural entrepreneurs’ and that sufficient access to micro-loans would unleash a wave of entrepreneurial activity and lead to rapid development. What they found is that those who were engaging in micro-business were likely to be doing it out of necessity, rather than choice. For this is what they report:
We have started including the question ‘what are your ambitions for your children?' in surveys given to poor people around the world. The results are striking. Everywhere we have asked, the most common dream of the poor is that their children become government workers. Among very poor households in Udaipar, for example, 34 percent of the parents would like to see their son become a government teacher and another 41 percent want him to have a non teaching government job; 18 percent more want him to be a salaried employee in a private firm. For girls, 31 percent would like her to be a teacher, 31 percent would want her to have another kind of government job, and 19 percent want her to be a nurse. The poor don't see becoming an entrepreneur as something to aspire to. (Banerjee and Duflo 2011, 226-7)7 Now, it will fairly be objected that it is no wonder that poor people have these ambitions for their children when their alternatives are so unappealing. Mainstream employment, especially in the government, carries with it a mark of social validation that day labouring, or road-side trading, lacks. The answer, it will be said, from the point of view of social equality and respect for difference, is not to assimilate everyone to the mainstream, but to help validate sub-cultures. This can include support for indigenous and minority languages, religion and culture, and the politics of respect and recognition.
To return to the metaphor of the ‘gappy ladder’ it seems there are at least three way of attempting to address the rigid economic and social inequalities it stands for. One, most obviously, is to make inclusion, for those who want it, a realistic goal. Somehow rungs have to placed in the middle of the ladder, to create the real possibility of social mobility for those who want it.
The next option is to revalue the options towards the bottom of the ladder so that they move up, closer towards the privileged positions, rather than creating new ‘rungs’. In addition to the politics of recognition already mentioned, it may mean, taking Lareau’s discussion on board, rethinking roles, reward and discipline in the workplace so that those with the upbringing of ‘natural growth’ can find a place just as easily as those with the upbringing of ‘concerned cultivation’. This, of course, is just one example where many are required.
Finally, it may be suggested that what is needed is to lay the ladder on the ground, so that different options are simply that: different ways of living rather than a hierarchy. From the point of view of social equality this would be an ideal solution and, in various forms, has been widely advocated (for discussion see Wolff 2013). Whether it is possible, even in theory, is a good question but it is clear that it is not a reasonable short-term aspiration. For real world social egalitarianism it may be tempting to propose some combination of adding rungs to the middle, revalidating the lower steps through concerted programmes, and lowering the incline of the ladder through economic reform. This may well be the best we can currently aim for and what we need to think through. However it is critical to keep two points in mind. First, if such changes take place without including the voices of the excluded then not only do we risk creating ineffective policies, but we also replicate the exclusion we are trying to overcome.8 Second, we need to heed Young and Willmott’s warning that beneficial change in one area may cause harm in another. Increasing social mobility may, for example, de-validate the life-styles of those who remain where they are. or undermine social cohesion. (Young and Willmott, 1962 170) Not all good things go together.9.
In any case, what is needed in practice will vary from society to society but will surely call for a range of measures, many of which are already being undertaken, such as supporting indigenous and minority business, art and culture, and improving schools, transport and housing, and increasing access for poor people to university. Framing these efforts in terms of attempting to come closer to a society of equals, by overcoming social exclusion, and understanding the overt and subtle ways in which existing social structures reinforce social exclusion, may help policy makers gain focus and frame more effective future interventions.10
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1. Oddly, domestic (as distinct from global) poverty has rarely been the subject of systematic discussion in contemporary English language philosophy. For notable exceptions see Shaw, 1988, Jones, 1990, Hull 2007 and Lotter 2011, and further discussion Wolff, Lamb and Zur-Szpiro 2015.
2. For some discussion, see Wester and Wolff 2010.
3. There are obvious affinities here with Frankfurt’s account of ‘sufficiency’. Frankfurt 1987.
4. It is interesting that H.P. Lotter observes that poverty seems to be an essential human condition, in that a wild animal might be described as living in conditions of great scarcity and hunger, but never as living in poverty (Lotter, 2011).
5. I have made similar arguments concerning the need for people on benefits to break the law if they are to be able to have a normal social and family life (Wolff and de-Shalit 2007, Wolff 2015).
6. I thank Helen Lauer for reminding me of the importance of this point.
7 It is interesting to compare these figures with W.E.D. Du Bois’s records of the career destinations of the first significant generation of African-American university graduates. In 1903 he reported a survey of 1312 graduates of whom more than a half had become teachers, a sixth preachers, but only 6% had gone into business activities, even including farming and artisan trades (Du Bois 2007, p. 196).
8. I thank Ivo Walliman-Helmer for insisting on this point.
9. I thank Martin O’Neill for this observation.
10. I’m especially grateful to George Hull, for the invitation that gave rise to this paper, and for exceptionally helpful comments on an earlier draft. I’d also particularly like to thank Tom Angier, Khatija Haneef, Helen Lauer, Ann Cudd, Doug Reeve, Richard Hull, Shepley Orr and , Mark Hannam. Earlier version of this paper were delivered at Cape Town, Johannesburg, UCL, Southampton, Leeds, and Belfast. I’d like to thank the audiences on those occasions for their many helpful comments.