Mindsets must change to help the poor...but whose?

20140129_poverty_reuters.jpg

Mindsets must change to help the poor...but whose?
Poverty in Japan, like in Singapore, is not overtly visible the way it is in some developing countries or even rich Western ones. The homeless here don't beg on the streets - many have jobs, just no roof over their heads - and they seldom sleep out in the open. But that doesn't mean they don't need help.

What causes poverty? This is a perennial debate. Is poverty caused mostly by individual deficits such as laziness and lack of motivation? Or is it caused mostly by structural factors in society such as discrimination and lack of opportunity? Or perhaps mostly situational factors such as a disaster or illness?

In polls around the world, people seem to agree that situational factors are important. The main debate is between those who focus on individual reasons and those who focus on societal reasons.

More interesting than what causes poverty are (a) the types of people who subscribe to the different causes - individual or societal, and (b) the way government policies try to help the poor. In the United States and Britain, the rich are more likely than the poor to choose individualistic reasons for poverty. So are conservative political party affiliates compared to liberals. This has obvious implications in terms of the power dynamics between who makes the decisions on how to fix poverty, and who those decisions affect.

In reality, poverty is caused by a complex mix of factors. For example, it is currently recognised that contemporary poverty in developed countries has much to do with globalisation and skills-biased development that has increased the gap between skilled and unskilled wages. These are societal causes of poverty.

Resilient individuals can overcome harsh challenges to move out of poverty. Such individual resilience, however, requires tremendous hard work and determination if societal barriers are high. This is because the barriers are more likely to discourage than inspire individual responsibility.

Unfortunately, policy debates sometimes ignore this complexity, focusing instead on either societal factors or individual motivation, and thereby limiting the potential for transformative policies.

For example, noting that female single parenthood is highly correlated with poverty, conservatives in the US promote marriage as a way out of poverty. This recommendation ignores the fact that there are structural conditions that put single parents at high risk of poverty. These conditions include gender discrimination and inequality in the labour market, poor and inflexible conditions in low-paying jobs, and lack of childcare options.

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