Inequality bothers me. I am troubled by the persistence and prevalence of wealth and income inequality in the United States. I join earnest social scientists and conscientious global citizens in condemning inequality. But that is not all that bothers me about inequality. The widespread use of the term inequality also bothers me. The language of inequality is everywhere—dominating newspaper headlines, gaining prominence in the agenda of philanthropic foundations, and anchoring a host of new university programs and centers. Readers might have noticed that I serve as director of the brand-new Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA. I worry that inequality has become a mere trope for social justice. I worry that the expansive use of inequality distracts attention from specific forms of impoverishment, exploitation, discrimination, and segregation. I worry that the institutionalization of inequality as a banner theme keeps the concept safely contained within the discourses and practices of liberal democracy, often twinned with other liberal themes such as inclusion and diversity.

“The expansive use of inequality distracts attention from specific forms of impoverishment, exploitation, discrimination, and segregation.”

For those of us involved and implicated in academic work organized under the sign of inequality, we must be constantly alert to such containments. Repoliticizing inequality is an ongoing project, one that increasingly demands vigilance and creativity on the part of social scientists. In this brief essay, I offer one approach to the task of repoliticizing inequality: the resignification of poverty as a critical concept. My defense of poverty is meant to be a provocation rather than a blueprint, although I outline some ideas about what such a conceptual commitment might mean for an agenda of social science research.

Poverty is a well-worn term. It is also, especially in the United States, seen to be a personal failing, a disgrace, a matter of shame. Poverty knowledge has thus often been tinged with the shadow of stigma, be it the efforts to wrestle with a so-called “culture of poverty” or in vocabulary such as “the underclass” or “ghetto.” Indeed, the intellectual history of poverty studies does not bode well for a defense of poverty as a critical concept to be mobilized in the efforts to repoliticize inequality. Yet, this is my intention. With this in mind, I pinpoint three elements of what can be tentatively called “critical poverty studies,” a field of inquiry that I believe is in the making in various corners of the social sciences.

The active relations of impoverishment

“There is nothing natural or inevitable about current patterns of inequality.”

A welcome aspect of the widespread discussion of inequality in the United States is the simple and yet powerful mantra that there is nothing natural or inevitable about current patterns of inequality. Be it Joseph Stiglitz or Robert Reich, Emmanuel Saez or Paul Krugman, the consensus is unwavering: policy, for example systems of taxation, has produced inequality, often by allowing the hyper-rich to hoard and guard their wealth. Such stockpiling of prosperity contrasts with a generalized condition of precarity; one in which the American middle class lies in ruins, burdened by debt and stripped of key assets such as homeownership. This is the power of the trope of inequality. It identifies a common condition to which most of us belong; it names an indefensible hierarchy within which we all chafe. This, of course, is the rallying cry of Occupy Wall Street: we are the 99%.

My argument in defense of poverty is straightforward: we are not all equal in the experience of inequality. We are not all equally impoverished. We are not all equally indebted. We are not all equally precarious. The poor are uniquely so.

“We are not all equal in the experience of inequality.”

I recently participated in a simulation of the social services system organized by various nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles. This was not, as the organizers noted, a simulation of poverty, for that is simply not possible. It was a glimpse of the public assistance bureaucracy that the poor must navigate in order to survive. Despite being fluent in sophisticated understandings of poverty and inequality, the participants, mainly middle-class social justice professionals, were thoroughly disoriented by the sheer dehumanization wrought by the experience. Shunted from office to office, in search of basic paperwork, trying to meet convoluted criteria of eligibility, we the privileged experienced, for a brief moment, what it is like to be undeserving. We were reminded that we are not poor and that we barely understand the lived condition of poverty.

“I worry that a general narrative of inequality elides both the specificity of poverty and the distinctive history of impoverishment.”

That lived condition, in the United States, is necessarily and persistently racialized. It is embedded in, and reproduces, systems of racial capitalism. To pinpoint poverty—to acknowledge how poor others are imagined, named, managed, and incarcerated—is to come into contact with this long-standing history. This history did not start with the Great Recession or even with the era of neoliberalization. It is the long history of racialized expropriation and quarantine. I worry that a general narrative of inequality elides both the specificity of poverty and the distinctive history of impoverishment.

Some of my current research is concerned with the relationship between bureaucracies of poverty and poor people’s movements. Following the seminal work of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward,1 I see poor people’s movements as “both formed by and directed against institutional arrangements.” Most importantly, poor people’s movements are not organized around the cause of ending poverty. After all, these movements are acutely aware that racialized poverty is not an anomaly, but rather a necessary supplement to prosperity. Instead, be it the National Welfare Rights Organization or the National Union of the Homeless, poor people’s movements transform poorness from stigma to rights, from lived experience to political agency. I am also arguing that social science research must document and analyze the histories and futures of such organizing.

The problem of poverty

Describing the Industrial Revolution and its social transformations, Karl Polanyi, 2 wrote that “it was in relation to the problem of poverty that people began to explore the meaning of life in a complex society.” So is it the case today. The start of the new millennium is marked by the emergence of poverty as a visible, global problem. The constitution of poverty as a problem to be solved, in our lifetime, through cool gadgets and smart apps, through volunteerism and humanitarianism, through aid advocacy and micro-economic field experiments, requires critical scrutiny by social science research.

“What kind of a problem is poverty?”

It demands the question that Michael Katz poses in Territories of Poverty,3 a book that Emma Shaw Crane and I recently coedited: “What kind of a problem is poverty?” It demands studying the forms of power and privilege that are exercised and extended by acting upon poverty and in relation to poor others, as does the Relational Poverty Network led by Sarah Elwood and Victoria Lawson. It demands an honest examination of how the global university fosters formats of service-learning such that well-heeled college students can build resumes filled with examples of poverty action and community service. Indeed, the “end of poverty”—Jeffrey Sachs’ influential phrase 4—has become a lucrative and alluring endeavor. As I have argued in ongoing work, new scripts for global citizenship and personhood, as well as new markets for global capital, are being negotiated and opened up through the staging of such encounters with poverty. Indeed, in Encountering Poverty,5 my colleagues and I argue that such scripts often enact an old coloniality of power in a new global order.

“Encounters with poverty—whether in individual acts of goodwill or in the making of our disciplines—can be a space of doubt, critique, and even transformation.”

Social science research must thus pay attention to how, at specific historical conjunctures, poverty is constituted as a problem, and how acting on poverty makes possible the reconstitution of social class, professional expertise, and even our academic disciplines. Indeed, in studying the constitution of poverty as a problem, we study the making of authoritative knowledge, the marking of poor others, the assembling of humanitarian reason, the crafting of good will, and the constant rejuvenation of whiteness as the center of human experience. In other words, we come to study ourselves, both our liberal selves and our embeddedness in the institutions of liberal faith. The task of “critical poverty studies” is to not only make visible such processes but also to consider how encounters with poverty—whether in individual acts of goodwill or in the making of our disciplines—can be a space of doubt, critique, and even transformation.

Rethinking North and South

In 2012, as the discussion of inequality was heating up in the United States, the Pew Research Center released a report titled The Lost Decade of the Middle Class: Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier.6 Highlighting severe income and wealth losses, the report notes that middle-class Americans looked to the future with “muted hope.” I am struck by the particular language in use here, that of a “lost decade.” Without intention or citation, it echoes descriptions of the bruising effects of structural adjustment policies, implemented in the 1980s, in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, of a lost decade of development. Indeed, it is possible to think about the contemporary moment in the North Atlantic as structural adjustment returned home, a vicious austerity politics that has already played out elsewhere in the world. More interesting, such austerity politics is not necessarily the order of the day in the global South. While quite a bit of the inequality discourse (much of it concerned with the global North) has relied on broad generalizations about neoliberalism and its inexorable reach, the present worldwide history of welfare and development is marked by difference, divergence, and discrepancy. Of particular significance is the proliferation of social assistance and human development programs that are being envisioned and launched in the global South, whether by governments, development banks, or nongovernmental organizations. As Maxine Molyneux has argued,7 central to such formations of social policy is a concern with poverty or what she calls the “New Poverty Agenda.” None of this can be easily read in the register of North Atlantic neoliberalism. Instead, what is at stake is what James Ferguson has foregrounded as the revalorization of distribution, notably distributive state policy and distributional claims.8

The resignification of poverty as a critical concept requires a transnational research agenda, one that is attentive to the “reinvention of development for the poor”—Richard Ballard’s phrase 9—that is afoot outside the territorial boundaries of the West. My own interest in such a transnational research agenda is not multinational comparison. Instead, I am interested in how the study of poverty, be it that of poor people’s movements or poverty expertise, can also resignify the familiar geographies and histories of North and South. As the “New Poverty Agenda” unfolds in discrepant locations, through processes that are necessarily differentiated and divergent, the South becomes, as the Comaroffs put it, “an ex-centric location, an elsewhere to mainstream EuroAmerica,” an “angle of vision” in “the history of the ongoing global present.” In their much discussed text, Theory from the South,10 the Comaroffs read the global South as a prefiguration of the future of the global North. Following Obarrio’s response to the Comaroffs’ work, I am interested in this “anthropology of anticipations.” But as Ferguson notes in his own response to the work, the point of such an impulse is not to suggest that the global South is ahead of the North but rather to disrupt conventional ways of thinking about North and South and thus about “emergent new empirical configurations of the social” which may provide us with “clues for thinking about how we might re-imagine ‘the social’ as object both of theory and of politics.” Poverty, I have suggested, is one such configuration of the social. To study it with critical force may require us to rethink the geographies of research and theory through which we have configured the social sciences.

Posted on July 19, 2016