catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Poverty in the Affluent Society

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It started as a study of poverty but became a book about affluence. First published in 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society argued that Americans lived in a world of private affluence and public squalor.

In the early 1950s Galbraith received a small grant from the Carnegie Corporation to study the causes of poverty in the United States. At first he thought of writing a book titled ‘Why People are Poor.’ But, as he explained in 1969, thinking about the causes of poverty led him to focus on America’s "preoccupation with production and to our neglect of governments services … by which the poor (or their children) might hope for escape from their plight."

Galbraith saw poverty much the same way Adam Smith did — as the lack of resources needed to live decently:

People are poverty-stricken when their income, even if adequate for survival, falls markedly behind that of the community. Then they cannot have what the larger community regards as the minimum necessary for decency; and they cannot wholly escape, therefore, the judgment of the larger community that they are indecent (p 259).

To solve the problem he suggested a guaranteed minimum income. "The corrupting effect on the human spirit of unearned revenue" he wrote, "has unquestionably been exaggerated as, indeed, have the character-building values of hunger and privation." He had little time for conservative rhetoric about self-help and personal responsibility:

In the past we have suffered from the supposition that the only remedy for poverty lies in remedies that allow people to look after themselves — to participate in the economy. Nothing has better served the conscience of people who wished to avoid inconvenient or expensive action than an appeal, on this issue, to Calvinist precept — ‘The only sound way to solve the problem of poverty is to help people help themselves’ (p 264-65).

A minimum income was only the start. He argued that governments needed to stake steps "to keep poverty from being self-perpetuating". This meant providing good schools and enforcing attendance. It meant making sure that children were well fed, that housing standards were enforced, that the streets were clean and the laws kept. Most importantly it meant spending public money. "The restraints that confine people to the ghetto", he wrote, "are those that result from insufficient investment in the public sector."

This was the book’s major theme — private affluence and public squalor. The wealthier society became the less return citizens got from private spending. Like Australia’s Clive Hamilton Galbraith argued that consumerism had become a treadmill of manufactured desire and temporary, hollow satisfaction. Many of the things people really needed, he said, were public goods — well maintained streets, good sanitation, education, and law and order. It was a view he continued to hold in his 90s. In a 2000 interview for The Progressive he said:

There’s no question that in my lifetime, the contrast between what I called private affluence and public squalor has become very much greater. What do we worry about? We worry about our schools. We worry about our public recreational facilities. We worry about our law enforcement and our public housing. All of the things that bear upon our standard of living are in the public sector. We don’t worry about the supply of automobiles. We don’t even worry about the supply of foods. Things that come from the private sector are in abundant supply; things that depend on the public sector are widely a problem. We’re a world, as I said in The Affluent Society, of filthy streets and clean houses, poor schools and expensive television.

John Kenneth Galbraith died on Saturday at the age of 97.

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Written by Admin

May 1, 2006 at 1:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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