Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wealth And Poverty In The USA

Some economic news and analysis making the social media rounds:

I. On poverty:

The majority of poor people in the US are white and suburban. With non-Latino whites making up 64% of the general population, which is highly suburbanized, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Yet putting a white face on American poverty clashes with prevailing attitudes that strongly associate poverty with non-whiteness, and whiteness with wealth. While the assumption that (most) communities of color are generally poorer than their white counterparts is an accurate reading of racial gaps in wealth, it fails to capture the sharp polarization of wealth in American society as a whole.

Thinking of poverty as simply a minority issue obscures the nature of class conflict in our society. The poor person racializied as white and the poor person racialized as a person of color have more in common than they imagine. Realizing this disrupts the expectation that the laboring classes will remain divided among themselves and in thrall to the political, economic and cultural interests of the elite - an identification that is at odds with our own possibilities of freedom. Looking at poverty holistically shows us who our natural allies are and that economic deprivation must be looked at through the lens of both race and class.

Doctoral candidate Kara McGhee discusses the rise in suburban poverty rates, whose yearly growth rate now outpaces those in urban centers (though urban poverty is still higher in general).

"Poverty in Suburbia: The Rise of the Outer City Poor" - Kara McGhee, Sociological Images
Poverty’s expansion to the suburbs is a symptom of an increasingly unequal society. The geographic isolation of the suburban poor in the inner and outer rings of suburbia troubles the validity of the claim that poverty moved to the suburbs. More accurately, people are getting poorer and more people live in the suburbs—or areas now designated as such. It’s plausible that economic inequality and leapfrog developments have changed the sociogeographic landscape. Low-income earners are displaced to the outskirts of the city (inner-ring of the suburbs) due to gentrification, and the rural poor are now more easily counted among the suburban poor due to suburban sprawl. Whatever the case, suburban poverty presents unique challenges to policy makers because federal antipoverty resources are tailored for densely populated urban areas. The stereotypical images of inner city poverty and suburban affluence are the ultimate fiction.

II. On wealth:

Science is showing that the wealthy are stingy and less compassionate, and that they steal twice as much candy from children. No surprise there. Yes, it takes money to make money but being wealthy isn't just about making money, it's about hoarding money.

PBS's fascinating segment on the psychology of the wealthy (linked to below) shows us that what the poor lack in financial assets they make up for in a heightened awareness of suffering and a deepened sense of cooperation (humanity's best asset and what's enabled our success as a species on earth).

Probing the "wealthy mind" (like we did the so-called Arab mind, right? not!) is important because these are the people holding disproportionate sway over the direction of our lives. We should get inside the minds of the folks marching through the halls of private and public power and discover how wealth influences their behavior, choices, appetites, inclinations etc. Just as the nature of "whiteness" is scrutinized when studying the mechanics of racial domination in a white supremacist society like our own, so too must the nature of wealth be examined when seeking to understand a capitalist society based on gross inequality where an exceptional minority control the vast majority of wealth. What is the cast of mind behind the policies engineering such a flawed system?

"The Psychology of Wealth" - Gwen Sharp, Sociological Images (VIDEO, PBS)
As this video clip explains, having wealth appears to affect us in a number of ways. Having more tends to make individuals feel entitled to even more; research shows they feel less generous and more entitled to take resources (such as candy they have been told is for children coming in later), more willing to cheat, and more accepting of unethical behavior. Privileged individuals — even those whose privilege is just having Monopoly rules rigged to ensure they win in an experiment — tend to believe they deserve their privilege.

What is it that wealth does to people? On Thursday's Making Sen$e segment, Paul Solman traveled to the University of California, Berkeley, to examine the connection between wealth and happiness. His report on the psychology of wealth, which appears above and is slated to air on PBS NewsHour Friday, shows that people who feel less well-off, whether in real terms or in simulated settings, tend to act more charitably.

III. On the prestige economy:

We are in trouble. Here's where the American Dream betrays the myth of equal opportunity. Whole generations, not just those on the racial and economic margins, are paying the price for our growing plutocracy.

"Study: 30-somethings worse off than their parents' generation" - Terrell Brown, CBS
WELLFLEET, Mass. - Americans in their 30s are the only age group in this country worse off than their counterparts three decades ago. A recent study by the Urban Institute shows the net worth of today's 30-somethings -- adjusted for inflation -- is down 21 percent from what 30-somethings enjoyed in 1983.

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