Poverty, Responsibility Practices, and Social Welfare


In recent years, philosophers have drawn attention to and theorized about poverty in the Global South – its etiology, the responsibility the Global North bears for its persistence, and the obligations of relatively affluent states and their citizens to alleviate it. The surge of migration from the Global South to the Global North that started in 2015 and continues apace compounded the urgency of addressing issues concerning the interconnections between poverty and persecution. Without in any way questioning the importance of this global focus, I am concerned that the magnitude and normative significance of domestic poverty in some Global North states is being eclipsed. Especially in states that celebrate individualism and regard provision of a social safety net as optional – e.g., the US and Britain – poverty and such concomitant harms as homelessness and hunger inflict extensive and grievous suffering.

To illustrate the problem of domestic poverty in the Global North, I’ll focus on the US. According to the US Census Bureau, the national poverty rate in 2015 was 13.5 per cent, which translates into 43.1 million people living in poverty. According to a January 2015 survey conducted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, 565,000 people were living on the streets, in cars, in homeless shelters, or in subsidized transitional housing, and a quarter of these homeless individuals were under the age of eighteen. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 12.7 per cent of US households (15.8 million) were food insecure – that is, “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members” – at some point during 2015. Considering the wealth of the US together with the norms codified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, these statistics expose a colossal injustice.

Developing a convincing position regarding this type of poverty is complicated by the presumption that healthy, capable adults are responsible for meeting their own needs and those of their dependents by earning a living. I don’t doubt the legitimacy of this presumption. However, it is an open question how best to conceptualize responsible agency for purposes of social welfare policy – that is, policy concerning payments to persons with severe disabilities and indigent parents with dependent children, public housing subsidies, drug abuse rehabilitation, unemployment benefits, “retooling” programs for displaced workers, home-care for the elderly poor, and so forth. Under what circumstances, we must ask, is it appropriate to acknowledge that needy persons are not responsible for their plight and therefore that they should be granted benefits sufficient to their needs?

To develop an answer to this question, I begin by outlining a skills-based theory of autonomy that illuminates the distinctive identities of autonomous agents and their ability to express their identities in action (section 1). In light of my concern with the problem of poverty within affluent societies, I emphasize that my account of autonomy explicates the impact of oppressive social forces on identity and agency as well as our capacities to resist these forces. Moreover, I maintain that all healthy adults develop sufficient proficiency in autonomy competency to command others’ respect and to justify deference to their personal choices.

Poverty, Responsibility Practices, and Social Welfare

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Numero 20 POVERTY dicembre, 2017 - Autore:  Condividi


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