If your height was proportional to your income, how tall would you be? And what does that have to do with reducing a host of ills like violence, teen pregnancy and more?

The likely answer appears further below. For now, though, consider a recent study which proposes that many social ills aren’t due just to the fact of low economic power in absolute terms, but the disparity in relative terms, the level of inequality. According to a profile in the current issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, the University of Nottingham study posits that inequality – the relative distribution of wealth – is an important indicator of disparities in life outcomes across nations, not just of relative deprivation within them. As shown in one table, they find that the smaller the gap between the income of the top and bottom quintiles, the higher the average math and literacy scores of children. (Indeed, if inequality is in fact so important, it may help explain whey, for example, a nation as rich as the U.S. ranks last among 20 industrial societies in “amenable mortality” (preventable death before age 75), as shown in table from a recent study, also from England, highlighted by Paul Krugman.

Whether the ills are caused by low incomes themselves or by inequality, it should be clear that reducing poverty for people at the lower end of the scale would be more powerful than any other form of intervention. The question is how to do this. 

“You can win an increase in wages (for the working poor), but then they just lose all that and more on rising rents,” as a very experienced public interest lawyer in Los Angeles recently observed to a couple colleagues and me. This “whack a mole” quality means fighting poverty requires a comprehensive approach, one that reaches across all the different disciplines, and different institutions, from hospitals and clinics, to schools, to youth development programs, teen pregnancy, and outside the sector to include business and labor. 

Precisely because poverty has so many facets, however, calling for reducing it can sound hopelessly vague. In the same conversation, that public interest lawyer also observed, “When we came out of school in the 60s and 70s, we all thought we were poverty fighters first. Somewhere along the way we instead became experts in mental health, education, homelessness. We need to get back to having a common project. ” The same fragmentation is easy to see throughout the nonprofit, academic, and policy worlds. At a recent meeting of academics, foundation officers and nonprofit leaders in LA to think about ways to forecast and track progress in the region, the group was divided over whether to focus on actors and outcomes in a certain field, such as health or education, which seemed more practicable, or to try a more holistic approach. I and others suggested the group track poverty and outcomes related to it. Our reasoning was that the students who fail, the people who get sick and die for lack of health insurance or health care, the people who suffer homelessness or untreated mental illness, and so on, are, by and large, the poor. Indeed, it is often the very same people who get sick, drop out of school, can’t find work or adequate housing – they show multiple indicators of the sickness of poverty (there is a medical term for this that I can’t recall just now). 

Now raise your hand if at some point in reading this your mind touched on the old saw, “the poor you will always have with you.” 1 This is often invoked to argue against efforts to reduce poverty. Even assuming that poverty cannot be eradicated, certainly it makes sense to try to lift as many people out of poverty as possible, doesn’t it? You would think so. But unfortunately, many public debates about reducing poverty in the U.S. get hung up on the related issue of reducing inequality, and quickly devolve into arguments over redistribution and the ethics and possibly counterproductive effects of inhibiting the otherwise free flow of wealth to the top, in our trickle-up economy.

Here’s where we get back to how tall we would be if measured by our incomes. The Nottingham study’s emphasis on inequality made me think of this graphic, from a terrific 2006 Atlantic Monthly article on rising inequality by Clive Crook [for the graphic alone; for the full article] is a stunning illustration of the distribution of economic power.

In his article, Crook described a very powerful thought experiment by Jan Ven in which he imagined a parade of people whose heights were determined by their incomes - at the beginning of the parade, people are so small they are hard to see, but by the end, the very rich, like Bill Gates, are so tall you can barely see the tops of their shoes. This illustration, to me, shows that not only would we want to increase incomes for those at the shorter end of the spectrum, but also that concerns about reducing the height of the gargantuan people in the top few percentiles shouldn’t hold much weight – they can easily stand to grow at a slower rate than they have in the past couple of decades. Most importantly, it simply presents a more accurate picture of the disparities than any recital of statistics could.

So how do we in all our diverse subfields and sectors move toward fighting poverty as our common project? And does the push for measurable results, ironically, undercut progress on this larger quest?

1. Another important point, but perhaps beyond the scope of a journal on social innovation, in this form the aphorism is misleading, because it is taken out of context. Consult your own spiritual advisors, of whatever denomination, for an explanation.

imagePeter Manzo is the director of strategic initiatives for the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization, and a senior research fellow with the Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Previously, he was the executive director and general counsel of the Center for Nonprofit Management. 

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