Who is responsible when people don't have enough?
Shamus Khan is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University.
Poverty and inequality are inextricably linked. That's because poverty is not a personal attribute such as hair color or height, but a relationship between poor people and the society in which they live. The experiences and behaviors of the affluent — the wages they take home, the bonuses they receive, the price they pay for basic goods, the amount of taxes they pay, and the political policies they support — all help constitute what it means to be poor.
And yet many rich people insist that their fast-increasing wealth has nothing to do with the fact that others are poor, and everything to do with merit and just desserts. A number of politicians and pundits have recently given credence to this position, seeking to divorce the fight against poverty from the push for greater equality. In arguing that poverty and inequality are unrelated, they suggest that to help the poor, we must focus on addressing the attributes of people that make them poor in the first place. This is called an “attributionalist” stance.
One of the best representatives of this point of view is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who recently suggested that the uneducated poor “can’t control their impulses, can’t form attachments, don’t possess resilience and lack social and emotional skills.” He’s not alone: other so-called experts point to divorce and teen pregnancy rates among the poor to illustrate the moral failings of irresponsible behavior and sexual promiscuity — failings that lead to cycles of poverty wherein parents transfer their immorality to their children, creating generation after generation of poverty.
This attributionalist stance is false and misleading. It is seductive because it offers a convenient excuse for elites who benefit from today's extreme levels of inequality in America.