Poverty & Inequality
The goal of IN FOCUS is for Moravian College, Moravian Theological Seminary, and the Comenius Center to realize the promise of becoming known as an institution that engages its students in the study of important issues that challenge humanity today and as we look to the future. Through grappling with complex problems, and examining them from several different perspectives Moravian’s graduates will be better prepared to contribute to a just society and a vibrant democracy.
Directors of the Poverty & Inequality Center of Investigation:
Few problems facing humankind are as compelling as those defined by poverty and inequality.
Poverty is often measured in terms of income, where the level of income is insufficient to meet minimum consumption needs1. Contemporary understandings of poverty argue that it should be viewed in broader multi-dimensional terms. Poverty is a lack or deprivation of resources and capabilities as well as choices, security, power and rights (e.g. civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights)2. In this multi-dimensional definition of poverty, one can be poor through a lack or deprivation of one or more of the above aspects. Closely related to dimensions of poverty, and often crucial to understanding how to reduce it, is inequality. Inequality is a measure of the relative distribution of the various aspects of poverty in and across populations, societies and nations. This definition is adopted from the UN definition of poverty which combines Amartya Sen’s understanding of poverty as a deprivation of basic human capabilities, and the human rights sense of poverty as a violation of economic, political, social and civil rights3. Basic capabilities suggested by Sen range from literacy to the ability to secure mental and physical health, dignity and integrity.
Both within the United States and globally, wealth and poverty is widespread with large disparities in income levels. In the United States in 2007, the wealthiest 1% of households collects approximately 24% of all income and owns over 42% of all financial wealth while almost 40 million Americans are officially defined as poor.4 Globally, the richest 50 individuals in the world have a combined income greater than that of the poorest 416 million. The 2.5 billion people living on less than $2 a day – 40% of the world’s population – receive only 5% of global income, while 54% of global income goes to the richest 10% of the world’s population.5 Insufficient income is also highly correlated with access to health, safe environments, education, employment, the status of women and the underrepresented, and opportunities for social participation and political power.
While the data clearly point to inequality in the quality of lives of people living at different levels of material well-being, the reasons and causes of these conditions are matters of contention and dispute. As such, so are the proposed means by which these situations can or should be remedied or ameliorated. Indeed, the physical, social and moral issues surrounding poverty and inequality entail significant complexity that has not yielded agreement about what to do, and offer us a profound set of challenges and questions that need to be understood through the application of multidisciplinary perspectives. Also, perhaps more important than academic notions of poverty is the experience of those in poverty. If we recognize that poverty is mental and physical pain, one of our biggest challenges is to acknowledge and focus on alleviation of this source of pain6.
This year’s In Focus program offers members of the Moravian college community an opportunity to confront these questions and challenges both intellectually and in practice. As a principal and ongoing theme in the College’s curricular and co-curricular programming, members of the College community can explore the meaning of inequality and poverty as these matters pertain to life in the local region, the nation and the world. The In Focus program will also seek to identify the connections between the issues of poverty and inequality and matters of sustainability, health care, war and peace. As we proceed, we seek to help the College realize its promise to engage our students in ways that better prepare them to build a strong foundation for personal and professional futures as well as make contributions towards a just society and a vibrant democracy.
2 UN. 2001. Poverty and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, E/C.12/2001/10, New York: United Nations
3 Barber, Catherine. Notes on Poverty and Inequality. From Poverty to Power Background Paper. Oxfam International 2008.
4 Emmanuel Saez. Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States. 2009. Edward Wolff. Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze—an Update to 2007. 2010 Available: http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs ; http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2011/tables/11s0710.pdf
5 Rajesh Makwana. Global Inequality. 2006.
6 Barber, Catherine. Notes on Poverty and Inequality. From Poverty to Power Background Paper. Oxfam International 2008.