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Ought poverty necessarily lead to exploitation?

Posted By Esmee Wilcox, Friday, August 16, 2019

Esmee Wilcox takes a new look at poverty and exploitation in her new blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


Talk of exploitation and poverty reminds us of the worst of sexual crimes, human trafficking and gang violence.  However, the absence of access to commonly held resources, and the consequential lack of agency are perhaps more ubiquitous experiences with interest right across the political spectrum. OECD reports on declining social mobility. Mainstream economists describing opaque but intentional market interventions that obscure the drivers of structural inequalities.  Populist movements berating the unequal ‘burdens’ of social support put upon the middle classes.  These all raise questions about purpose. Taking this discussion out to 2050, we might be asking very different questions about what poverty means, the choices we have to make, and ultimately, who gets to choose?


By 2050 more of us may be living in more precarious circumstances, with fewer assets such as insurance or meaningful currency to smooth the impact of economic and environmental shocks.  In these circumstances there may be more interest in universal socio-economic support mechanisms instead of activated or conditional ones.  Our atomised view of resilience shifting as our taken for granted capital disappears.  Our interest increasing in access to richer education that enables agency in public life. Socio-techno movements that question market interventions becoming more influential.   The absence of effective governments organising at the national level may lead to place-based communities holding and developing their social capital and assets that necessitate an economically inclusive approach to function.  Low or absent incomes might be more ubiquitous as more of us experience shocks that push us into this bracket.  Where there is a reciprocal relationship between the social capital, with agency in-built, and the human capital required in the self-organising of these systems, this might redress traditional capital inequalities that lead to exploitation.


The solidarity required in this future goes counter to political philosophy that individualises people’s capacity to leave precarious circumstances. That sees self-reliant communities as motivated, organised ones, decoupled from any precondition of ownership or influence over assets.  That courts low-income hard-working families by distinguishing them from elites and poor.  Who, through disproportionate political influence and access to resources, bear responsibility for under-investment, wage stagnation and lower their quality of life.  The extension of this political dynamic out to 2050 might be an acceptance of the consequences of enviro-economic shocks as self-determined.  Less acceptance of divergent circumstances, reducing the pool of who gets support.  The data about the myriad of perceived choices – consumption patterns, pro-social and risky behaviour, responses to genome profiles – reflecting a deterministic, causal view of complex circumstances.  The dominant political system codified and entrenched in the gate-keeping AI’s values.


In spite of this narrative about individualism, there is some evidence that citizens’ views about welfare policies are more mixed and influenced by a rich history of social attitudes, experience of distributive policies and expectations of governments. This might give us more hope of a space where inclusive social movements could expand.  Who gets to hold, organise, and make use of local community assets – as resources that are key determinants of health, education and wealth – might be a less controversial space to move to shared agency.  However, if we are to imagine a system where poverty need not lead to exploitation, it must also disrupt the personal realm: individual agency equated with current capital assets exchanged for the collective ability to produce.  In the transition to this type of future, what might influence access to other life-course determining assets such as education?


© Esmee Wilcox 2019

Tags:  agency  exploitation  poverty 

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