On Understanding the Violence of Poverty

Poverty is a socio-economic issue. Socio-economic issues, factors that can have negative influence on an individuals’ economic activity, includes: lack of education, cultural and religious discrimination, unemployment and corruption. Violence does not cause poverty. Violence is a symptom of poverty. There is increased violence in cities as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses. Community level risk factors for violence include increased levels of unemployment, poverty and transiency; decreased levels of economic opportunity and community participation; poor housing conditions; gang activity, emotional distress and a lack of access to services. Many people who were already on the margins before the pandemic have now been pushed over the edge. Managing on a very low income is like a 7-day-a-week job from which there is no vacation or relief. Poverty grinds you down, body and soul. Decades of racism left many minority Americans with crowded housing, bad health and little savings, making it more difficult to survive the pandemic.

Why does this occur in society? At the turn of the 20th century Georg Simmel (1858-1908) wrote that with the increasing use of money people do not need to have emotional relationships in order to acquire consumer goods in the modern city due to the free market economy. As social actions have now become transactional, they now lack social significance to the individual. In fact, Simmel points out, it would take too much emotional energy to engage in all human encounters but, as a result, people become conditioned to keep to themselves and carry about their own business. He believed reality is essentially movement, continuous processes – with only the human intellect fashioned to serve as an instrument of action and not for gaining knowledge for its own sake. Then one tends to perceive reality in terms of structures and substances. With reality essentially a process, a function, an interdependency, Simmel argues, there is no such thing as society as such.

For Simmel, society is made up of the interactions between and among individuals, thus the sociologist should study the patterns and forms of these associations, rather than quest after social laws. He was troubled by this relationship, viewing modern society as freeing the individual from historical and traditional bonds and creating much greater individual freedom, but leaving individuals experiencing a great sense of alienation within the culture of urban life. In modern society, money becomes an impersonal or objectified measure of value. This implies impersonal, rational ties among people that are institutionalized in the money form. For example, relations of domination and subordination become quantitative relationships of more and less money – impersonal and measurable in a rational manner. Society is nothing but the sum total of the interactions and interdependencies between individuals – whose unity, in turn, is constituted only by the interaction between parts.

In the 21st century, coronavirus exacerbates poverty of the less affluent – as renting is more expense than purchasing a home – because more renters have lost their jobs at a higher rate. Structural violence in America is about all the previous administrations and congressional sessions which have largely ignored the issue in favor of corporate concerns, or private interests of the economic elite. Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) postulates individuals are shaped by one’s gender, class, ethnicity, education while the historical time period which shapes an individual’s habitus. This, in turn, influences what one does in everyday life, which is dynamic and fluid. He identified symbolic power to account for the tacit, almost unconscious modes of cultural/social domination occurring with everyday social habits maintained over conscious subjects. He developed these ideas around the concepts of (1) cultural capital, (2) habitus and (3) symbolic violence.

Cultural capital is the accumulation of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that a person can tap into to demonstrate one’s cultural competence and social status (from Bourdieu’s 1973 paper). For our discussion cultural capital comprises the social assets of a person (education, intellect, style of speech, style of dress, etc.) that promote social mobility in a stratified society. The greatest social role of institutionalized cultural-capital is in the labor market (a job), wherein it allows the expression of the person’s array of cultural capital as qualitative and quantitative measurements (which are compared against the measures of cultural capital of other people). Our cultural capital gives us power. It helps us achieve goals, become successful, and rise up the social ladder without necessarily having wealth or financial capital. Cultural capital is having assets that give us social mobility. The more cultural capital you have, the more powerful you are.

Unlike property, cultural capital is not transmissible, but is acquired over time, as it is impressed upon the person’s habitus (norms, values, attitudes, and behaviors of a particular social group or social class), which, in turn, becomes more receptive to similar cultural influences. Upper-class individuals, for example, have a taste for fine art because they have been exposed to and trained to appreciate it since a very early age, while working-class individuals have generally not had access to “high art” and thus haven’t cultivated the habitus appropriate to the fine art “game.” The thing about the habitus, Bourdieu often noted, was that it was so ingrained that people often mistook the feel for the game as natural instead of culturally developed. This way of thinking often leads to justifying social inequality, because it is (mistakenly) believed that some people are naturally disposed to the finer things in life while others are not.

Symbolic violence describes a type of non-physical violence manifested in the power differential between social groups. It is often unconsciously agreed upon by both parties and is manifested in an imposition of the norms of the group possessing greater social power on those of the subordinate group. Symbolic violence can be manifested across different social domains such as nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic identity. Bourdieu made efforts to stress that symbolic violence is generally not a deliberate action by a hegemonic power, rather an unconscious reinforcement of the status quo that is seen as the “norm” by those who exist within that social stratification. In the current dominant framework of neoliberalism, individualism, and self-responsibility, symbolic violence often leads people to (unjustly) blame themselves for their own suffering while the role of society remains hidden. Social forms of domination, such as poverty, are symbolic violence.

The economy of the 1950s and 1960s was about an unprecedented rise in middle class jobs: there was more room at the top. In 1958, Michael Young wrote a futuristic novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, a satire on a society stratified by merit. Young coined the term, formed by combining the Latin root “mereō” and the ancient Greek suffix “cracy”, in his essay to describe and ridicule such a society. The story was intended as a warning: if society was viewed as perfectly meritocratic, then disproportionate awards are showered on the elite, and contempt is increasingly shown to those on the bottom. Young mocked the existing education system in Britain, arguing it was simply a centuries-old class system in sheep’s clothing. Typically lacking the best schools, underprivileged children routinely did badly on exams – the standardized intelligence tests that consequently determined their social position.

In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson announces a War on Poverty with the main goals of ending poverty, reducing crime, abolishing inequality and improving the environment. Johnson’s policy initiatives introduced programs that included the Food Stamp Act and the initiation of Medicare and Medicaid – poverty decreased and people’s lives improved from this legislation. Between 1959 and 1973, a strong economy, investments in family economic security, and new civil rights protections helped cut the U.S. poverty rate in half. Investments in nutrition assistance have improved educational attainment, earnings, and income among the young girls who were some of the food stamp program’s first recipients. Expansions of public health insurance have lowered infant mortality rates and reduced the incidence of low birth rates. In more recent history, states that raised the minimum wage have illustrated the important role that policy plays in combating wage stagnation. It is possible for America to dramatically cut poverty.

Poverty, specifically, is not a single factor but rather is characterized by multiple physical and psychosocial stressors. Research at the University of Manchester shows that children who remained in the top 20 per cent of wealthiest families over their first 15 years of life were the least likely to harm themselves or commit violent crime between the ages of 15 and 33. While those from families who remained in the least affluent fifth of society were seven times more likely to harm themselves and 13 times more likely to commit violent crime as young adults. The concept of symbolic violence helps us understand people’s acceptance of their own domination. By addressing structural violence along with increased awareness of symbolic violence, we could reduce self-doubt and suffering by legitimizing the difficulties of welfare recipients and those who support them, as well as providing a platform for dissent.1

1 Katie Smith. (22 Dec 2007) Pierre Bourdieu – Challenging Symbolic Violence and the Naturalisation of Power Relations                                                                                                                                    https://www.e-ir.info/2007/12/22/pierre-bourdieu-%E2%80%93-challenging-symbolic-violence-and-the-naturalisation-of-power-relations/

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