Sunday, March 7, 2010

Precis: The Position of Poverty

Eamon O'Connor
SID: 18467768

In Chapter 22 of *The Affluent Society,* Galbraith addresses the question of poverty and its place in the a society that produces more than it can use. This question is an especially sensitive one insofar as it informs not only the foundations of our economic assumptions, but those of our moral understanding as well. Galbraith recognizes poverty as both the necessary statistical under-girding of a capitalistic society, and negatively as the criteria for membership in such a society (that is, he sees the ways in which the poor are ispo facto excluded from from such a society.) Although it does not seem that he is comfortable with either aspect of poverty as it is taken up in 20th-century American culture, his discomfort fails to resolve into any compelling suggestions for fixing the problems of poverty (although the failure of his observations to persuade may itself be taken as evidence for their correctness.)

Galbraith begins by characterizing the poor; unlike those for whom "wants must be synthesized" (i.e. the New Class of the Affluent Society) "... [the poor] are much closer to physical need." (234) "Poverty", he says, "survives in economic discourse partly as buttress to conventional economic wisdom" (235) yet it survives materially as "limited and insufficient food," "poor living standards," crowded, cold, and dirty shelter" (235), and at least in part as a result of the conventional economic wisdom for which it serves as a buttress. In this moment in the text, we see Galbraith struggling to propose a vision of poverty that can provide an alternative account to the CW, without merely reproducing it. On the one hand, he is aware of the role that the poverty has played in justifying the discourses that perpetuate it as a physical reality. On the other hand, he recognizes that his own treatment of poverty is discursive as well. So while he wants to liberate the poor from their role as the bondsmen of their oppressors' rhetoric, I think we can read some uneasiness in his treatment of their plight, which is couched in terms taken from a Romantic tradition in which poverty, misery, and injustice are taken as self-evidently synonymous.

Perhaps it is this discomfort with the moral valences of his own diction which causes Galbraith to make a distinction between what he calls "case poverty," in which individuals or individual households are unable to reap the benefits of the affluent society as a result of what are basically personal handicaps, and "insular poverty," in which entire communities are excluded from affluence by what is presumably a more systemic (and thus less blameworthy) obstacles. At first it appears that Galbraith introduces this distinction as a way of salvaging one subclass of the poor from the moral condemnation that is their fate under the CW, while at the same justifying the way of thinking that regards the poverty as the manifestation of moral inferiority. In short, insular poverty is society's fault, while case poverty is the indivdual's. Galbraith is not so quick to complicate this distinction as I want him to be, and focuses most of the rest of the chapter making the case for alleviating insular poverty through what amounts to an increase in public services aimed at incorporating the poor into "participation in the economic life of the larger community."* (242)

Still, Galbraith does eventually concede that case poverty is is not "entirely resistant to such remedies. Much can be done" (by some publicly funded agency, presumably) "to treat those characteristics which cause people to reject or be rejected by the modern industrial society." Thus in terms of proposal that Galbraith's argument makes, the case poverty and insular poverty fall under the same category and can both be alleviated by the same sorts of actions. This concession is not as weak as it at first seems; the conflation of these two subclasses of poverty follows necessarily from the warrant that supports and legitimizes all of Galbraith's claims concerning poverty. The mobilizing assumption behind much of this book seems to be something like: a society must provide all of its members with the means to participate as full moral members in it, and a society defined by its affluence must therefore extend the privileges of affluence to all of its members, at least to some minimal degree.

Galbraith understands equality to be an end in itself for societies, but notes that because the very poor no longer constitute a majority of the population, the political advantage of campaigning in their interest is marginal at best.(238-239) Still, he argues that we have a moral obligation to eradicate the poverty that keeps those in its influence from enjoying full membership in our society. Thus the distinction between insular and case poverty, which initially looked to be a real moral distinction, breaks down because the imperative to incorporate the poor into society is not moral in the same way. Even though there probably is some percentage of society that is "worthless" and incapable of contributing to society, the state of insular poverty makes this group practically impossible to distinguish from those who are denied this opportunity by forces beyond their control. And even if one could make this distinction, the former group's uselessness would not be taken as evidence of their worthlessness, but as evidence of their even greater need for society's intervention. In other words, Galbraith makes the distinction between case poverty and insular poverty to appease that part of his audience that is still responsive to the conventional moral wisdom (which is most of us, to some degree), yet his proposal for the problem's solution arises from a rationality that is consciously opposed to the CW. This discrepancy is endemic to the work as a whole and is a large part of what makes *The Affluent Society* an interesting read.

*Admittedly, Galbraith concedes that this is "not the main point." (242) Deeply aware of the way in which this argument is dependent upon the terms of the CW, he quickly re-formulates the argument for eliminating poverty in terms of social justice.

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