This statement may seem to be pessimistic, but it actually can refer to two sociological predictions. The first is that the absolute condition of individuals will never improve such that there is virtually no one who, by no choice of their own, lives a lifestyle that is not acceptable. While the definition of “poverty” might change based on one’s perspective and on relative conditions, a reasonable definition would be lacking sufficient shelter, food, potable water, medical care to maintain one’s health, capability to take care of one’s child, better transportation to one’s place of work and to one’s residence, and education. If all but a tiny minority, so small as to sociologically and statistically insignificant, could afford all of these things, then poverty would be over.
The second is that inequality will always occur. Unless a society absolutely affixed wages or resources so each person was absolutely equal in how they were paid, material inequality will always be a factor. Indeed, there are good reasons to have inequality of condition, as it allows for choice. But it is absolutely not the case that all societies would have to be so unequal that there is a class of individuals with markedly and consistently more or less power, wealth and influence. Thus, it is clear that “The poor will always be with us” is actually a complex sociological puzzle, and that the statement is not exactly correct.
Today, it is possible for $40 billion a year in 1997 dollars ($58.31 billion today) would be sufficient for “achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and clean water and safe sewers for all… less than 4% of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world” (Annan, 1997). In fact, poverty in a meaningful sense could be obliterated with the wealth currently available to the planet. Poverty at the moment is not the result of insufficient global resources (Annan, 1997; Albert, 2007). It is the result of distribution and of material inequality, enforced by global elites.
One can make the argument that limited natural resources such as the non-renewable resources of petrochemicals, metals and minerals will serve to make it so that this amount of wealth cannot be produced indefinitely. But this argument is uncompelling for several reasons. First: Technology is available (Young, xii-xx; van Suntum, 2005, 129-135). Technological solutions on their own may end up only being a stop-gap, to be fair, as the basic problem seems to be entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (van Suntum, 2005, 129-135). Nonetheless, unprecedented technological change, especially after a potential technological singularity, could change the game entirely, including faster than light technology, potentials for free or near-free energy, and so forth (Kurtzweil, 2005, 38-111). Second: The total global production now is not in the billions, but in the trillions. A collective global agreement to produce not tens of trillions but hundreds of billions would still leave a global population with an order of magnitude more wealth than necessary for strict survival (van Suntum, 2005, 120-150; Albert, 2007).
By this perspective, humanity has already achieved the goal of survival and avoiding basic poverty a thousand times over. Finally, overpopulation is nowhere near as big of an issue as imagined (Albert, 2007). Industrialized countries do not reproduce their own population. And even poor regions, like the Indian state of Kerala, can achieve negative population growth even with poverty as long as there is progressive social policy, low inequality and good opportunities for women (Albert, 2007). Moreover, if basic survival were unsustainable, then “even with inadequately attentive market prices”,
When considering poverty, one must consider class. It is vital to realize that the concept of class developed by Marx and other sociologists in the Marxist and class-oriented tradition is based not merely on the existence of material inequality (Gosepath, 2007; Gingrich, 1999). “For Marx, classes cannot be defined by beginning observation and analysis from individuals, and building a definition of a social class as an aggregate of individuals with particular characteristics. For example, to say that the upper class is all families with incomes of $500,000 or more is not an adequate manner of understanding social class… Groups mean interaction among members, common consciousness, and similar types of behavior that are connected in some way with group behavior” (Gingrich, 1999).
For class to be meaningful, it can’t just be an incremental continuum, but marked by a qualitative distinction. Classically, the distinction has been ownership, specifically of the means of production (Gingrich, 1999; Albert, 2000). Theorists such as Michael Albert, Tom Wetzel and Barbara Ehrenreich have suggested an additional class based on managerial power and technical expertise (Albert, 2004; Speer, 2007; Wetzel, 2003; Albert, 2000). Nonetheless, these class relations can at least in theory be abolished. Marx pointed out that slavery was once a class relation that existed: There were slaves and there were owners. Similarly, feudalism also once existed, with serfs and lords. Those class relations do not exist because of revolutionary social change (Gosepath, 2007).
It is entirely possible, then, that class relations could change qualitatively such that ownership would no longer divide people, nor control over managerial and technical authority (Albert, 2004; Gosepath, 2007; Albert, 2000; Speer, 2007). Alternative economic models could be pursued. In any instance, the present massive inequality need not exist and could easily be reversed.
However, while it is tempting to say that all should make the same amount, this is actually a bad idea. In fact, it is unfair and denies the freedom of individuals. Marx argued, “From each according to his [or her] ability, to each according to his [or her] need”. This means that people who need more get more, and those with more ability to provide should provide more. Michael Albert has suggested, “From each according to his or her balanced job complex and preference, to each according to his or her need” (Albert, 2004). If everyone’s wages and income were affixed at the same amount, then everyone would have to work as hard for it to be fair. Otherwise, some would get more for the same work.
Instead, parecon suggests a maxim where an individual be paid according to their effort and sacrifice. An individual can choose to work more or less hard and have more or less material wealth. This will lead to inequality, in the sense that different people will have different rates of consumption. Some people will choose to prefer relatively more leisure time, others relatively more material items. But that is their choice, and that inequality does not lead to additional inequalities in civil society, the power to determine their fate in their workplace or government, or to class difference. Everyone is taken care of adequately such that no one starves or is without shelter or medical care unless they choose not to partake.
Thus, the poor may not always be with us. The distinction between absolute and relative poverty is a vital sociological concept to understand (Byrns, 2011). In absolute terms, poverty could be eliminated now with the resources available to humans, and could probably even without technological advance be produced year-in year-out. Meanwhile, in relative terms, material inequality not only will always exist but should exist, because absolute material equality would deny human diversity and would prevent people from choosing their relative share of leisure versus material goods, as well as creating perverse incentives for people to work less hard and try less instead of socially incentives. But class inequality, qualitative inequality that denies equal rights, can be abolished.
Albert, M, 2000. “Class, Race, Sex?!”, Z Magazine.
Albert, M, 2004. Parecon, Verso Press: New York,
Albert, M, 2007. “Population?!”, ZNet.
Annan, K, 1997. “Kofi Annan’s astonishing facts”, New York Times. Byrns, R, 2011. “Poverty: Absolute and Relative”.
Gingrich, P, 1999. “Marx’s Theory of Social Class and Class Structure”. Gosepath, S, 2007. “Equality”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Kurzweil, R, 2005. The Singularity is Near, Penguin:
Speers, B, 2007. Organizing Anarchy: The Politics and Praxis of the Vancouver Parecon Collective, University of Victoria Press. Van Suntum, U, 2005. The Invisible Hand, Springer.
Wetzel, T, 2003. “Participatory Economics and the Self-emancipation of the Working Class”, Young, CC, 2005. The environment and science, ABC-CLIO.