Why Are There Poor People?

Beck’s comment on my last post inspires this query. “[T]he existence of our poor,” says Beck, “emerges from a massively systemic problem with the way our political and economic systems are structured.” It also triggers my recall of an old album of comedian Bill Cosby about the joys of a college education, titled “Why Is There Air?” Cosby chats about the various kinds of people he met in college, from the philosophy majors who went around asking “why is there air?” to the athletes who knew perfectly well why there is air—it’s for blowing up basketballs.

Cosby, however, not having been a philosophy major himself, didn’t stop off and look at Aristotle’s multiple analysis of causality. There’s:

• The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
• The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
• The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
• The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.

So okay, the material cause of poverty is lack of resources. That’s easy. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway between them made it plain. The poor are different from us because they have less money, or none at all.

The efficient cause requires an economodicy (it’s a monstrous word, but I can’t think of a better one for justifying the ways of The Invisible Hand to man.) Maybe the Invisible Hand is the efficient cause.

The final cause: the perceived self-interest of everybody, I suppose.

The formal cause is the really difficult one, here. We tend to regard poor people as useless. In fact, they are anything but useless.

Let’s stipulate to two classes of poor people: the working poor and the begging poor. The begging poor are necessary as a spectre to frighten the working poor into continuing to work. If there were no homeless people or panhandlers, Wall Street would have to hire out-of-work actors to impersonate them. (In my conspiracy theorist moments, I suspect they did, at least in the early ‘80s.) Poverty gives people an incentive to work harder to make money for other people as well as for themselves. Without poverty, we would all be lounging in some Polynesian Eden, picking breadfruit off the trees and getting semi-dressed for the next luau.

And the working poor are necessary to do the things for which machines are still too expensive. In Saudi Arabia, where oil reserves have pretty much abolished poverty among native Saudis, they actually have to import an entire population of poor people to do their manual labor, mostly from Asia.

This explanation of the formal cause of poverty, of course, requires some entity to do the formulating. In economics, that’s a whole field of study in itself. The Invisible Hand? The Ruling Classes? I tend to the latter explanation, if only because I can’t get my mind around the notion of what an Invisible Hand can be planning. Yes, there are people in positions of power in our economy who consciously and deliberately see the existence of poverty as one among many implements creating The Workable Economy. That was, essentially, the thinking behind the developments that brought one generation after another of new workers into newly-created poor people’s jobs. First it was married women, to do the clerical work. Then it was teenagers, to flip burgers. Then it was former welfare recipients, now “reformed” into the private sector, to become temporary or part-time workers with no job security, even from week to week, and no benefits. Somewhere along the line, undocumented immigrants got into the act, to do anything American poor people wouldn’t or couldn’t do for the wages available.

Of course, most employers who pay poverty wages don’t actually like employing poor people. Poor people are fat, and ugly. They have lousy teeth and sometimes questionable personal hygiene. And they keep missing work, or being late, usually because they’re sick or their cars have broken down or somebody in the family has some dumb problem and can’t take care of it without help. Whenever possible, employers prefer hiring people who are middle-class by virtue of the earnings and assets of other family members, and who therefore won’t start living and looking like poor people simply by virtue of not having enough money. That is, the employer is looking for a subsidy from the worker’s family, in return for the inestimable gift of a job. If I show up at a Mercedes dealership with a bus token and assume that the dealer will stake me to the rest of the cost of the car, I’m pretty nervy. But an employer who pays poverty wages and expects the families of his workers to stake him to workers with the look and behavior and work habits of middle-class people is just being rationally self-interested.

Anyway, that’s why there are poor people. Beck calls this a problem with our economic structure. That depends, obviously, on what the economic structure is for. A case can be made that poverty is a solution, from some points of view.

Red Emma


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