The heated public debate about poverty, inequality, and discrimination that filled the news and social networks after the protests in Baltimore paints a full picture of just how many possible explanations we have for these problems, yet how little we know about how to change them. This month’s Web Roundup provides a very brief look at the discourses and narratives of poverty and upward mobility in America.
In a much contested column, D. Brooks claimed that it is the values and social interactions -of the poor- that explain why they are poor by arguing that “the actual barriers to upward mobility are the quality of relationships at a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking and practical ambition”. The responses were not long in coming, you can find a few examples here and here. These claim that arguments such as the one put forward by Brooks not only moralize the discussion by using values as the core explanation for the lack of upward mobility, but focus on blaming the victims and blatantly omit the structural factors at play in keeping people in poverty.
In the meantime, another column stated that the discussion on whether material conditions can explain values or if it is the other way around only demonstrates disengagement and laziness in thinking through the problem. The article makes an argument for the importance of taking the specific context and history into account. Baltimore is not Ferguson, or any other place for that matter. Yet, thinkers on both sides of the old discussion on poverty – those arguing for the role of values and agency and those focusing on structure- seem to forget these particularities.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.