This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at: john.weeks@sdsu.edu

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Age of Extremes: Concentrated affluence and poverty in the twenty-first century

As Historian of the Population Association of America, I chair the PAA History Committee and I and my committee members, who include Karen Hardee of the Population Council, Dennis Hodgson of Fairfield University, and Deborah McFarlane of the University of New Mexico (the latter unable to join us here in San Diego) are in the process of interviewing all living Past Presidents of the PAA (for more on this you can visit our website). Tomorrow we will be interviewing Douglas Massey of Princeton University, who was PAA President in 1996 (and was subsequently President of the American Sociological Association, among many other honors). He is a big man physically, but a true giant among American social scientists. This is nowhere more obvious than in the published version of his Presidential Address to the PAA 19 years ago. The title of that talk was "The Age of Extremes: Concentrated affluence and poverty in the twenty-first century."
Poverty is old news. For thousands of years the great majority of human beings have lived and labored at a low material standard of living.. .The one place where rich and poor families came into direct contact was in cities, but preindustrial urban centers were few in number and never contained more than a tiny fraction of the human population... The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century upset the apple cart by creating and distributing wealth on a grand scale, enabling affluence and poverty to become geographically concentrated for the first time. Through urbanization, the rich and the poor both came to inhabit large urban areas. Within cities new transportation and communication technologies allowed the affluent to distance themselves spatially as well as socially from the poor, causing a rise in the levels of class segregation and a new concentration of affluence and poverty.
For a short time after World War II, mass social mobility temporarily halted the relentless geographic concentration of affluence and poverty in developed countries. The postwar economic boom that swept Europe, Japan, and the United States created a numerically dominant middle class that mixed residentially with both the upper and the lower classes. After 1970, however, the promise of mass social mobility evaporated and inequality returned with a vengeance, ushering in a new era in which the privileges of the rich and the disadvantages of the poor were compounded increasingly through geographic means. 
In the coming century, the fundamental condition that enabled social order to be maintained in the past--the occurrence of affluence and poverty at low geographic densities--will no longer hold. In the future, most of the world's impoverished people will live in urban areas, and within these places they will inhabit neighborhoods characterized by extreme poverty. A small stratum of rich families meanwhile will cluster in enclaves of affluence, creating an  unprecedented spatial intensification of both privilege and poverty. As a result of this fundamental change in the geographic structure of inequality...We have entered a new age of inequality in which class lines will grow more rigid as they are amplified and reinforced by a powerful process of geographic concentration.
This summary of the argument cannot do justice to the breadth and scope of his analysis, but it gives you a flavor. The point, though, is that two decades ago--before Thomas Piketty and before even Republican Members of Congress were talking about "fixing" inequality and before the Baltimore riots--Douglas Massey had figured out where the world was headed and why. He himself admits at the end of the paper that he doesn't have an immediate solution (and we'll ask him tomorrow if he has an update for us), but the point was for all us to recognize what was going on so that we could start figuring out what to do. He hints at the same solution that Piketty proposes, though--for the affluent to come to the realization that a redistribution of income, even if painful in the short-term--is healthy in the long run.

5 comments:

  1. The critical question that you are asking .. can humanity survive on Planet Earth if there is a very wide income inequality? Indeed, it is a CRITICAL question. I think you should pose the question in exactly this way. I hope that you will publish the answer!

    Pete, Redondo Beach, CA

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    1. Well, we didn't pose that exact question to him. And I was right that his solution to the problem of extreme inequality is for the affluent to redistribute some of the wealth to the non-affluent. In my view, the goal is not to eliminate inequality, which is almost certainly impossible unless we all wind up dirt poor, but to reduce it sufficiently so that everyone feels they have a chance to escape poverty.

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  2. Religion in China! How exciting...

    http://theweeklynumber.com/1/post/2015/04/is-christianitys-future-chinese-new-study-considers-scenarios.html?ct=t(10/30/14)

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  3. Prof. Weeks - the global problem of income distribution, and the lack of equality, is an issue that has haunted mankind since the beginning of the human race. It will become a critical issue in less than 50 years - YET there is no easy answer. A wide variety of political systems, economic systems, and religious movements have all attacked this problem - without overall success. You are correct that if we simply distribute global wealth to everyone, we might disempower investment programs that could be productive. But at the same time, the amount of investments that are being channeled into truly productive areas is dwindling faster than ever - because the worlds' largest stock markets have become gambling casinos run by computer algorithms. There is a constant drive for short-term profits - which translates to - "I want MY MONEY and I want it now!". Human greed is comsuming many of our global investment activities at the current time.

    The computer models of the Earth are consistent with the resolution to this behavior. War, famine, disease and pestilence are coming to the planet ... on a scale that has not been seen before.

    I believe that you are on the RIGHT TRACK with the suggestion that we need to allow "upwards mobility" for people on this planet. There has to be a fundamental economic freedom that exists, or else a large part of humanity will disappear into hopelessness. I cannot foresee a solution where 2 billion people are abandoned on this planet, while the rest of the globe tries to quarantine the effects. I don't think this will work.

    Pete, Redondo Beach, CA

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    1. Your comment about the problem that "the worlds' largest stock markets have become gambling casinos run by computer algorithms" is almost verbatim from Doug Massey's comments about what needs to be done to change things.

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