The [Mistaken] Nature of Poverty

bread line

I have been arguing for more systems thinking for quite a while. It is next to impossible to deal with the persistent problems that are plaguing the US and other nations using only the ubiquitous reductionist frameworks that dominate our thinking. My thoughts about this subject were triggered, as they often are, by a column by David Brooks, titled, “The nature of poverty.” Writing in the NYTimes today, Brook is arguing that our efforts to alleviate poverty for the past 4 or 5 decades have failed. He attributes this to a belief that pouring money into poor areas is the solution. Even with some improvement as a result, the recent urban unrest shows that the underlying problems are still with us. Brooks gets part of the way to understanding what really is happening.

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty. Renewal efforts in Sandtown-Winchester prioritized bricks and mortar. But the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

But if he really thinks that the answers lie in “social psychology,” he is just as mistaken as those he blames for believing that money is the answer. He is merely shifting focus from one reductionist regime, economics, to another, social psychology. Both of these academic and practical disciplines are grounded on singular beliefs about human nature and human behavior. Those who practice in these and other professions see the world through these beliefs. Abraham Maslow pointed out the limits of academically grounded professions in a now famous line, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

The failure to make significant progress in our efforts to reduce poverty fits a classic pattern well known to systems thinkers, fixes-that-fail. This label describes programs where solutions are aimed primarily or exclusively at alleviating the symptoms of some persistent problems. If lack of money is the problem, provide more money. Further, since we have defined poverty in monetary terms as the minimum amount of dollars required for an adequate life, providing more money to those in need appears completely reasonable. Following this path offers another benefit, it avoids thinking deeply about the real causes of poverty. Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean economist, has written that we are looking at poverty through the wrong lens. It is not about the quantity of money but the capability to carry out essential human activities. He argues we should be talking about poverties, not poverty. Another economist, Nobelist Amartya Sen, has made much the same arguments, but both are different kinds of economists than those running our economic policies.

Continuing to throw money at the problem has another serious consequence; we stop looking for the real causes until much too late. This pattern is also familiar to systems thinkers, and is called, shifting-the-burden. These patterns are found at every scale from individuals to businesses to whole societies. Thomas Piketty recently offered us a chance to dig deeper with his book, Capital in the 21st Century, in which he suggests that inequality (and thus poverty) are inherent outcomes of capitalism. His sweeping conclusions are being questioned, but my point is only that it is critical to get under the surface, especially when what is being done over and over again fails to produce the desired results. Franklin Roosevelt know all about this when he said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something else.” In the decades since his Presidency, such attitudes at the top of our government are all but impossible, given the now deeply entrenched ideologies everywhere. Systems thinking cannot win elections.

In any case, the answer to mitigating or eliminating problems like poverty requires systems framing and systems-oriented solutions. Moving from one discipline to another as Brooks suggests won’t work.

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

Social psychology cannot do much better than economics unless the problems fit the mental models that practitioners of this discipline will apply. I doubt they will. We need a hefty dose of the kind of pragmatism that the statement of Roosevelt’s smacks of. It’s not enough, however, simply to do “something else.” It’s important to spend time and resources to determine what might be at the core before acting. If Brooks had suggests calling for sociologists instead, I would still make my same argument, but with a qualifier. Many sociologists tell us that persistent problems have the same roots as persistent positive outcomes. Both arise from the underlying structure of a society. I won’t go into detail about these theories and models, but many place basic beliefs at the base of cultural structure.

By basic beliefs, I mean those beliefs on top of which cultural institutions have evolved and control the everyday patterns in a society. For example, our capitalist political economy is grounded on a model of human nature that pictures each of us as as isolated self, rationally acting to maximize our material goods, given the resources we have at hand to do that. It should be clear that as long as we plan and execute our major policies based on this model, problems like poverty are not going to go away. The best we can do is to try to alleviate the normal outcomes. Psychologists have similar models. They will argue for different “solutions,’ but unless their mental models better represent human beings, we will have no better results. I have little more faith in social psychologists than economists, but both disciplines (all such disciplines do) spring from the reductionist science that is embedded in our academies and other places of learning.

If we are truly selfish, isolated beings, I see little hope for us. This belief has brought us far from the medieval world, a world where human demands were small relative to the available resources. Life was miserable for many. It still is for many, perhaps more numerous today simply because there are so many more living on the Planet now. The Planet is now crowded, and our technology is doing irreparable damage to our life-support system and to us. We do not have to be stuck with this model. It is just a model, that is, a particular story. This self has never been found by probing our brains in the same way we discover how atoms are constituted. There are many alternates that have been posited over time. Some have failed the test of time, giving way to whatever advances in knowledge we generated. Some have never gotten much attention because the dominance of the one I mentioned above keeps us from trying them out.

There is a dialectic between the institutions that runs our lives and the beliefs on which they are based that tend to embed these beliefs ever tighter as the people go about normal life. Systems thinking demands that we do think about them, especially when our problems aren’t going away, like poverty as Brooks writes. Add climate change, wars, and a few others and it should be clear that we are stuck. I have written similarly in all my work: books, articles, and this blog.

The model of human being I believe is more likely to prove itself in practice is one based on caring. This is not just a hopeful shot in the dark. It is a model found in poetry, philosphy, and even in psychology, and seems to be consistent with current neuroscience research. I always find it ironic that Adam Smith, to whom the selfish model is often attributed, wrote in his major treatise on moral sentiments that humans are fundamentally empathetic beings. He thought that mutual caring, not mutual self-interest, would maximize the common good. Too bad he changed his mind. Think about how the world might be if we cared for others as a rule instead of seeing them merely as instruments to maximize our own self-interest. The notion of compassionate capitalism has been pushed in recent years. It is still just an idea; no one has figured out how to marry the mechanistic, impersonal theory of capitalism with the humane process of caring. It’s worth stopping to figure this out before continuing to use money as the universal solution.

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