Based on the long list of posts in this blog series about the causes of poverty, let me now offer a summary of commonly cited causes. I’ll structure them and add a few dimensions such as:
- Are we talking about a cause that plays out on a local/national level (such as self-destructive individual behavior or a dysfunctional welfare state), or one that has an international effect (such as trade policy)?
- Are we talking about a real cause or merely about a presumed one (the latter have an asterisk in the table below)?
- Is a particular cause most widely accepted among right or left wing thinkers?
(By the way, if some of the terms used in this table are not clear enough, or if you fail to see the link with poverty, then click here and you’ll find a detailed post about almost every single one of these causes of poverty. I wasn’t able to include links directly in the table as I couldn’t find a way to insert the table in this post in a non-image format. Sorry about that).
Straightaway, you’ll notice a couple of things from this list:
- There are hardly any points of agreement across the political spectrum, unsurprisingly because that is why we have a political spectrum. Even some of the points that look like points of agreement between the left and the right – e.g. a dysfunctional welfare state – turn out to be none of the sort if we dig a bit deeper.
- The left has a more diverse story about the causes of poverty, which may explain the view that the left is relatively more preoccupied with the problem. (I’m not taking a position on this view; a more complex explanation of a phenomenon doesn’t by itself imply anything about levels of preoccupation).
- Simplifying a bit we can say that the left views the poor as victims while the right does not. The right sees people who victimize themselves – and who therefore can hardly be called victims. At most, people are victims of genetics for the right. Non-natural causes such as structural or institutional ones are dismissed, whereas they are emphasized by the left. This coheres with the popular understanding of the difference between left and right: structures and institutions being important for the left, and individual responsibility for the right. And also with the leftist focus on activism and the conservative focus on and acceptance of determinism. (If people’s genes cause low IQ and bad habits then there’s not much one can do).
- This is of course a simplification: there is right-wing activism – mostly aimed at habits – and there is left-wing determinism – for example the focus on poverty traps; also, if poverty is caused by social structures, then no amount of policy will help and the only option is a revolution.
- Whereas the right can be accused of “blaming-the-victim” – or even of failing to see that there are victims – the left often neglects people’s agency and responsibility.
My personal view is that political affiliation, of either kind, tends to block out part of the story and generally doesn’t make us smarter.
More posts in this series here.