Poverty and Domestic and Global Welfare

 Class Conflict in Historical, Comparative and Global Perspective


By T.L. Dayen

Poverty is an unfortunate byproduct of advanced capitalist [stratified] societies like the U.S. But even while the research is clear that those born poor are more likely to become poor adults, the causes and remedies of poverty in America are still perceived differently (Kerbo: Duncan et al 1998). Our national perceptions of poverty stem from our opposed national perceptions of success; who deserves to succeed and why.

Social Darwinism (SD) applies Darwin’s biological “survival of the fittest” to socioeconomic survival of the fittest, and was first introduced at the turn of the 20th century by British and American sociologists Herbert Spencer and William Sumner (Kerbo 2012). The notion that one’s socioeconomic success or failure depends on an inherent level of “fitness” is supported by a uniquely American social value known as Individualism; “the belief that the individual is more important than the social group” (Kerbo: Luke 1973b). If this premise is to be believed, the individual is inherently and solely accountable for its destiny; fit you succeed, unfit you fail regardless of the “group” in which you find yourself at birth. Reagan conservative, Charles Murray firmly alluded to SD when he wrote that public welfare aid supported the “immorality and deviant behavior of the poor” (Kerbo: Murray 1984). Ten years later, he and fellow conservative Richard Herrnstein attempted to empirically support the SD theory with research that showed lower IQ scores among the impoverished (Kerbo: Herrnstein and Murray 1994).

The conclusion that the poor are biologically inferior was spurious at best, as it was not difficult for further research to rightfully take into account social factors uniquely affecting the poor with regard to mental fitness that includes fetal exposure to substance abuse, inadequate childhood nutrition and mental stimulation, and early exposure to the anxiety of impoverished physical home and community environments (Kerbo: Feldman, Otto and Christianson 200; Flynn 2000). This new research refuted that poverty is caused by lower IQ’s, but that a lower IQ is the causal effect of poverty. However, as Kerbo indicates, the 1994 Herrnstein and Murray research was published on the covers of leading magazines and newspapers while the 2000 Feldman et al. and Flynn rebuttal research was not.

When looking at poverty as an obstacle to social mobility, SD ascribes individual achievement to inherent character and/or biology. The Situational View (SV) however, ascribes ascription, or inherited social strata placement, as the actual determining factor in one’s ultimate social mobility. The SV does not dispute the impoverished have lowered educational, occupational and income expectations (Kerbo: Della Fave 1974a) but not based on inherent values; rather on perceived realistic opportunities for advancement based on, for lack of a better term, “their lot in life.” This pragmatic acceptance of ones limitations is in itself a type of “survival mechanism” that Hyman Rodman called a “lower-class value stretch” (Kerbo: Rodman 1963). The relative pinnacle of one’s success is learned, and personal success then becomes measured by how well one manages the parameters of one’s likely available resources in life.

The SV recognizes that likewise those born into advantaged environments have equally ascribed advantageous situational outcomes of social mobility. Yet despite the comparative phenomenal wealth of the U.S., in 2006, the U.N. found that the U.S. ranked 16 in the Human Poverty Index-2 out the top 17 industrialized nations; 1 being lowest and 17 being highest in poverty rates (Kerbo:Table 9-7). Therefore, lower class comparisons to and aspirations for, middle-class status and values are only made and exist to the extent that opportunities to realize those aspirations are present and within reach. When looking at poverty outside of the immediate context of social mobility, children and the elderly made up over one third of Americans living below the poverty line in 2009, with one third of those represented by single mother households (Kerbo:Table 9-2). In fact, of the same top 17 industrialized nations, the U.S. not only ranks 17 (highest) in child poverty, it ranks 1st (lowest) in expenditures as a percentage of GDP at only 2% on combating it’s child poverty (Kerbo:Figure 9-3). If a life of poverty can be attributed to ascription, then any sincere and genuine attempt to combat poverty must begin with child poverty.

The SV sees a central government role in assisting to place opportunities within closer reach of those children disadvantaged by ascription, such as education, nutrition and health services and parental family planning and housing assistance. Figure 9-3 indicates that child poverty is reduced as expenditures to combat it are increased. It’s not that U.S. does not have the revenue to accomplish this; it’s that the U.S. does not have the desire to do so. As to why this indifference to poverty in the U.S. may exist, research done in 1971 indicates that “welfare” functions to keep wages low; that the “able-bodied poor” provide business cheap labor markets (Kerbo: Piven and Cloward 1971). As immoral as it may sound, providing the poor, especially children, just the bare necessities to survive without providing opportunities to succeed, simply sustains systemic poverty and maintains a society stratified by ascription, and in the process, legitimating the widening income gap between the haves and the have not’s.

Bare necessities are important, but if we are truly interested in breaking, not maintaining, the poverty cycle, the SV supports addressing existing child poverty through investments in early and continuing education and nutrition, and reducing the perpetuation of child poverty by investment in family planning access and awareness; which has been found to increase social mobility overall.

Economically, the world is a system of interrelated nations categorized as either “core (1st world),” “peripheral (2nd world),” or “semi-peripheral (3rd world)” based on metrics of national wealth. These metrics include gross domestic product (GDP) and personal income per capita (PPP), but also other index metrics such as hunger and life span; indicators of access to adequate nutrition, clean water and humane living conditions. Income inequality however is not a measure of core or periphery (non-core) nation status. According to the World Bank (Kerbo:World Bank 2010:Table 1) in 2008, the U.S. ranked just second behind Norway in PPP at $46,970 (Kerbo:Table 16-2); however, in a World Bank Gini Index on global income inequality (2006a:280-282), out of 31 nations ranging from .25 (Sweden) to .58 (Guatemala), the U.S. was at .38; highest of the top five core nations but also higher than many of the non-core nations like Ethiopia (.30) and Bangladesh (.31) (Kerbo:Table 16-3).

The economic relationship that Kerbo is speaking of is foreign investment and debt dependency (Kerbo:Chase-Dunn 1975; Rubinson 1976). Kerbo indicates four primary variable influences of core nation economic world systems on non-core nation economic development: 1) “the existence and power of a small group of elites;” 2) “the degree of working powerlessness;” 3) “the type of political system[s] maintained; and 4) “the level of income inequality.” While we know that income inequality is not a requisite for core or non-core nation status, but actually to some degree, a natural consequence of industrialization (stratification), Kerbo indicates that when we take into account the other three relational variables of core nation wealth on non-core nation poverty within newly industrialized non-core nations as a result of foreign investment and debt dependency, that income inequality has tended to be more severe, systemic and permanent.

Historical data on todays industrialized core nations, indicate that income inequality has decreased as economic [industrial] development has increased (relatively) (Kerbo:Rubinson 1976; Jackman 1975). Today however, as Kerbo points out, the reverse is proving to be true for non-core nations whose economic development has occurred as a direct result of foreign core nation investment. The economic development of non-core nations resulting from foreign investment over the past forty years has preceded and even circumvented the development of the democratic, educational, bureaucratic and occupational structures within these non-core nations; unlike the historic economic and political evolution of modern industrialized core nations going back hundreds, even thousands, of years (Kerbo:Figure 16-4). In other words, the four variables Kerbo cited above are heavily influenced when non-core nation states have not been allowed the same opportunity to develop and negotiate their own collective means of production, ownership, labor and democratic structures to fairly distribute and reinvest collective benefits (Kerbo: Bornschier and Ballmer-Cao 1979).

Foreign debt dependence exists on two levels: 1) core multinational corporate capital investment; and 2) core government trade, crisis aid, and political and military protection. Non-core powerful elites (top 5% and/or corrupt governments) benefit the most from this dependence and so non-core production must go to providing cheap labor and raw materials for core corporate elites and cheap consumer goods for core non-elites, as opposed to production that provides for the needs of their own non-core non-elites. This leads to stalled non-core economic growth. Core non-elite high wage production ownership is lost to non-core non-elites and replaced by low wage service labor for core elites. Once again, as immoral as it may sound, core corporate/shareholder and non-core elite wealth and power both increase exponentially while standards of living for both core and non-core non-elites decline (Kerbo: Figure 16-5).

However, there are certain non-core Asian nations today that appear to be following the historic model of economic industrial development reducing, not increasing, income equality (relatively). East and Southeast Asian nations are reducing their income inequality in contrast to their non-core counterparts of South Asia, Africa and South America (World Bank 2010; Kerbo 2006). Two very important key factors have been found to explain this. First is education. Studies have shown that educated populations are more likely to make better use of foreign investment for long term broad economic growth, as opposed to short term limited economic reward (Kerbo:Kentor and Boswell 2003; de Soysa and Oneal 1999). Second is a deeply held sense of nationalism. Societies of ancient lineage have a historic pride and collective responsibility to its common national interests. Unfortunately, a strong national ethic is more likely to be in tact today when that society has not been victim to colonization during its history (Kerbo 2006, 2005). This would explain much when comparing these nations to those of South Asia, Africa and South America. Africa is additionally unique in that its only historical commodity has been the export of its own people; translating today into severely corrupt, exploitive and apathetic central governments.

            While we cannot re-write history, core nations can use there leverage and influence for more than profits. They can demand more democratic global partners, safer and healthier infrastructures and investments in education. The global elite can accept that a reduction in the bottom line for higher wages must be a shared sacrifice for a higher quality of life for all those who toil on their behalf, and to whom they owe so much for their personal, national and global success. Just imagine what humanity could accomplish with the human resource capital of 7 billion healthy, safe and educated minds.


 2012 (H.R. Kerbo). Social Stratification and Inequality. McGraw Hill NY. Ch 9:16



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