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Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition

reviewed by Laura Smith - February 14, 2011

coverTitle: Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition
Author(s): James P. Bailey
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN
ISBN: 0268022232, Pages: 216, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

What explains the failure of well-intentioned legislators, policy-makers, and charitable organizations to create more effective poverty-fighting strategies? As James Bailey explains in his new book Rethinking Poverty, public policy initiatives such as welfare, food stamps, and similar entitlements are typically premised in little-questioned short-term thinking about what constitutes help for people living in poverty. Bailey argues for a different perspective: support for asset building among the poor. In so doing, Bailey grounds his case in Catholic social teachings of the past century and contemporary philosophical theorizing regarding the moral society. Thus, Bailey shows that not only does asset development promise to be a more effective solution to poverty than income support strategies, it is also deeply consonant with both religious and non-religious ethical frameworks that address the relationship of societies to their most vulnerable members.

In Chapter 1, Bailey opens his argument by complicating typical definitions of poverty that emphasize consumption along with the corresponding anti-poverty policies that are aimed at supplementing the purchasing power of the poor through income transfers. These income transfers certainly do address some of the hardships of poverty; yet, as Bailey points out, “people cannot spend their way out of poverty” (p. 13). Without assets in the form of savings or property, poor families can never surmount their paycheck-to-paycheck existence, so our policies might be more effectively directed toward helping the poor to build those kinds of assets. As unfamiliar as such a policy might sound, Bailey clarifies that our government already engages in such initiatives – they just aren’t for poor people. Instead, government initiatives to promote ownership, such as tax deductions for asset-building endeavors like home ownership, are only made available to middle- and owning class people.

In Chapter 2, Bailey explains that according to Catholic social teachings, ownership not only helps lift families out of poverty, but also the equitable distribution of assets is a characteristic of morally-grounded societies. Bailey cites papal social encyclicals that demonstrate the church’s association of poverty reduction with expanded ownership among the poor since the publication of the first encyclical by Leo XIII in 1891. In fact, in Leo’s view, if workers’ wages are not sufficient to allow them to progress toward some kind of ownership, their circumstances amount to slavery. Forty years later, Pius XI cautioned against the emergence of “an irresponsible wealthy class who, in their good fortune, deem it a just state of things that they should receive everything and the laborer nothing.” The true state of affairs, he explained, is that

the labor of one person and the property of another must be associated, for neither can produce anything without the other… it is false to ascribe the result of their combined efforts to either party alone; and it is flagrantly unjust that either should deny the efficacy of the other and seize all the profits. (p. 32)

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s work, which is the centerpiece of Chapter 3, is presented as a complementary moral framework that is not, however, derived from a religious tradition. Her capabilities approach posits that the role of society is to develop the capabilities of its members, in that the exercise of these basic capabilities is definitive of human flourishing. These capabilities include bodily health and integrity, and choices and control in one’s environment. When one is not able to carry these capabilities out, according to this framework, one is not living a fully human life (as contrasted with animal or plant life). Individuals who must contend with obstacles to these basic capabilities have a claim on society such that society should remove impediments to capability and/or support institutions that promote it. The question, therefore, by which the success of a political system may be evaluated is, what is it enabling humans to do and be? Bailey outlines the connections between asset development and Nussbaum’s conceptualization of the good society, acknowledging that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between the two.

In Chapter 4, Bailey expands upon an idea that he introduced earlier: those of us who have benefited from societal structures that privilege our social groups may be unaware of such operations and their advantageous impact on our lives. This lack of awareness can lead us to assume that our relatively good fortunes are entirely due to our own efforts; conversely, we may also assume that those who have not fared so well have no one to blame but themselves. To make this point, Bailey supplies background that will be familiar to readers of critical historical theory such as Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: it is the story of the seizing of Native lands and the appropriation of profits from African labor; the 40 acres and a mule that never appeared; and the Homestead Act, through which Southern farmland that had been worked by unpaid African-American laborers for two centuries was redistributed primarily to wealthy Northerners after the Civil War. Along the way, Bailey supplies jaw-dropping details: at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, Blacks owned .5 percent of the nation’s wealth, and by 1990, that figure had only risen to 1%. As disturbing as his historical review is, Bailey points out that it contains a seed of hope: the current wealth gap is the result of public policy, and it can therefore be remedied through public policy.

In Chapter 5, Bailey presents policies and strategies that emerge from an asset-based approach to poverty reduction. Primary among these are savings vehicles called IDAs (individual development accounts). In such accounts, individuals’ deposits are matched by the government as long as withdrawals are for asset building opportunities. These societal supports for savings among the poor are analogous to the 401K plans in which many middle-class people participate, that allow employee contributions to such plans to be matched by the employer. IDAs, explains Bailey, have proven to be politically viable; thirty-four states have already passed some form of IDA legislation, and the preliminary results are encouraging both with regard to their economic and psychological benefits to people living in poverty.

Valuable in the new perspective that it provides, Bailey’s work is a practical and moral elaboration of a simple central premise: policies that effectively perpetuate poor people’s precarious existence will never change the parameters of American poverty. For readers who need convincing that asset development specifically – and the eradication of poverty generally – is the right thing to do, Bailey’s argument brings compelling religious and secular ethical reasoning to bear on the issue. Importantly, Bailey simultaneously directs readers’ attention to the social exclusion of the poor, a relational corollary of poverty that is seldom addressed specifically. Our collective willingness to relegate the poor to the margins of society, where they are outsiders to many of the experiences of mainstream social participation (and largely outside our nation’s democratic process altogether) constitutes a unique manifestation of oppression; as Bailey explains, human thriving requires full participation in society as well as the opportunity to contribute (not just be an object of charity). Finally, Rethinking Poverty re-orients us, whether or not we adhere to Christian religious traditions, to the radical, revolutionary alliance with the poor that characterized the teachings of Jesus Christ. "Your Jesus is wonderful,” Bara Dada is to have said to a missionary before adding “but you Christians – you are not like him" (Jones, 1925, p. 114). In a society where politicians and policy-makers often take pride in discussing church attendance and their Christian beliefs, Bailey offers a vision of what anti-poverty initiatives – and society itself – might look like if more Christians were like their Christ.


Jones, J.E. (1925). The Christ of the Indian road. New York: The Abingdon Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 14, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16337, Date Accessed: 1/29/2022 12:29:18 AM

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About the Author
  • Laura Smith
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    LAURA SMITH is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education in the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her scholarship focuses on the exploration of poverty and social class within psychological theory, research, and practice, and to the preparation of applied psychologists to effectively serve poor clients and communities. She is the author of the 2010 book Psychology, Poverty, and the End of Social Exclusion: Putting our Practice to Work.
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