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What Money Buys: Inequality and the Social Meanings of Income

reviewed by C. Arnold Anderson - 1976

coverTitle: What Money Buys: Inequality and the Social Meanings of Income
Author(s): Lee Rainwater
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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Neither the title nor the subtitle of this book is dealt with directly. Just to handle the first would require a delineation of the income elasticity of various items in families' consumption. Despite a hearty acceptance of economists' contributions, Rainwater does not undertake that review. Instead he moves from the refreshingly candid acknowledgement that poverty has both relative and absolute aspects, to a calibration of judgments (from a Boston sample) as to what income levels mark off "poor," "get along," "comfortable," "substantial," and "rich." Not least important is the discovery that a rater's own income gives little explanation of the large (random?) dispersion in judgments.

I find it of interest that Alan Cartter's mid-1950s assumption for a reasonable scale of income differences matches Rainwater's conclusion that respondents would put poverty at about half the median and the rich at five times the median.

Surely we should not cavil in discovering that "by 1960 what is called subsistence provides more in the way of goods and services than what was called comfort at the beginning of the century." (p. 48) The relevance of many of the abundant quotations from respondents is not clear; the calibrated boundaries of status groups in dollars cannot be related to life patterns without considering spendable incomes (after savings) and the actual change in items consumed with rising income. There is dispersion not only in estimates of what marks off "wealth" but also in what "the rich" actually buy. The many 'quotations of views about guaranteed-income and other family-assistance plans could have been focused better if Rainwater had examined the question of whether "welfare states" actually are more redistributive than is the U.S. ramshackle package of programs. The quotations illuminate only odd corners of the problem.

Rainwater emphasizes the multidimensionality of status—occupation, education, and income—but reports only about income. Respondents judge that going from $10,000 to $100,000 yields a four-fold rise in status but that the future rise to $400,000 brings only 6 ½ times rise over the original $10,000. Perhaps one should use $10,000 and $40,000 respondents, respectively, for such calibrations. The large dispersion in these judgments (though unrelated to respondents' own characteristics) may indicate that the responses reflect floating impressions. But what level of schooling would qualify individuals as "learned" or "ignorant," what as holding a "prestige" or a "common" occupation? Rainwater really has not told us much about the aridly named "social psychology of materialism" though he has demonstrated an interesting way to obtain some unfamiliar viewpoints. (The importance of the concept of "permanent income" is pointed out, but it is mis-defined. And "logarithmic" is factitiously distinguished from "power" relationships.)

I find most of the analysis used to calibrate income strata tedious and unconvincing—and the random element too large. By contrast his conceptual analysis of poverty is more subtle, though the historical notes on changing views about poverty are as scanty as is his review of efforts to make a statistical bounding of poverty. The evaluation of recent public policies for alleviation of poverty is cogent. In the end, though, we surely will have to find out what redistribution of income other societies are bringing about and what realignment of status scales is emerging in response to new welfare policies. Although Rainwater avoids the overly simple relativistic views, this book will not lead readers into any really new orientations about how income affects life patterns.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 77 Number 4, 1976, p. 672-673
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1318, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:34:37 PM

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