It has become part of the liberal common sense in the United States (buttressed by the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century) that rising inequality is a top priority, with little discussion of poverty. Conservatives, of course, are pushing back—with the argument (currently being peddled by Deirdre McCloskey, basically a more libertarian version of the argument that more conventionally conservative Martin Feldstein was making in the late-1990s) that we really should be worried about poverty, and forget about inequality.
They’re both wrong. Poverty and inequality are, in fact, connected—both in the long term and in the short term. They’re connected in the long term in the sense that the period of rising inequality, beginning in the late 1970s (measured, as above, by the income share going to the top 1 percent) is also the period during which the poverty rate stopped declining and the number of Americans living below the poverty began a dramatic increase (reaching 46.5 million in 2012).
And, in the short term, we can see that the “recovery” that has been engineered to the benefit of those at the very top (again, measured in terms of the share of income going to the top 1 percent) has been accompanied by a dramatic growth in poverty (as measured in both monthly and annual rates).
Clearly, we can’t afford to choose between poverty and inequality. Current economic policies and arrangements, as they have been implemented since the mid-1970s and kept intact in the midst of the Second Great Depression, have led to growing inequality and consigned a growing segment of the population to living in conditions of poverty. Long live the rich, and to hell with the poor! Is it really so difficult to understand the following proposition: a society that lets a tiny elite capture an obscene portion of its income and wealth is also prone to force a large portion of its citizenry to try to survive in conditions of abject poverty?
Fundamentally changing the economic policies and arrangements of such a society—for example, by changing the way the surplus is appropriated and distributed—can serve to eliminate grotesque levels of inequality and, at the same time, the enduring legacy of massive poverty.