How Exactly Does One Measure Economic Justice?

This is Part 5 in a series about the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. —- In […]

This is Part 5 in a series about the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.


In my first two 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty posts, I was pretty insistent on the link between poverty and jobs (or the lack thereof).

In the first post, I said that that one of the fundamental causes of poverty is that “there simply aren’t enough high quality jobs for everyone to have one.” In the second post, I said “poverty is about jobs and who is lucky enough to have a good one.” The scarcity of good jobs and the structural economic causes of poverty is a dead horse that I’m trying to make sure is thoroughly beaten.  

In this context, it shouldn’t surprise you that I believe that we need more and better jobs if we want to do something about reducing poverty. This is not a new or original observation. At the onset of the War on Poverty, despite his fetishization of “cultural” causes of poverty, Senator (then assistant secretary of abor) Daniel Patrick Moynihan was pretty dogged about jobs programs being key (maybe even the key) to antipoverty efforts. But, because of a tangle of different reasons, government, philanthropic and nonprofit antipoverty activities and initiatives have not focused on job creation.  So much so, that the simple, logical re-orientation of a single foundation—the Heron Foundation—to focus explicitly on work and income as antipoverty drivers seems radical and different.  But, if we want to move the needle on poverty, Heron’s focus on jobs is the right one.

However, in the spirit of my fourth post in this series, I want to ask some bigger picture, and possibly counter-intuitive, questions. Is poverty the right needle for us to be moving?  Is it the right metric for us to measure progress towards economic justice?

There’s structural/macro-economic limits to what can be done with job creation alone.  But, even more than economic theory related issues, this is something definitional about economic justice, about what constitutes a just and better world. And, if I can skip forward a couple links in my logic chain, my inclination is to define economic justice metrics in terms of low-income people’s quality of life and level of empowerment.
Quality of Life and Empowerment

As long as we are living in a society that is mostly capitalist, we will always have people who are unemployed, under-employed and low-income. To paraphrase Jesus (saying this as someone who is mostly non-religious and is a Buddhist, if anything), the poor will always be with us. 

I’ve said in other places that, given that we know that a sizable segment of our population will be low-income, we have a moral duty to make sure that people who will inevitably be low-income have a basic quality of life.  But what is “quality of life?”

For me, when I think about quality of life and meaning of life type questions, I can’t help but think about my own life choices and what I value in my own life.

Non-profit professionals, despite our class backgrounds or any of our individual struggles to get where we are, have a certain amount of privilege.  We choose to do the work that we do.  The levels of work experience/skills/education that let us have and hold our jobs could translate to higher paying work in other fields/sectors.   But most of us have made a conscious decision to have less income in order to do work that we find meaningful. 

For me, in addition to feeling that I’m doing something of social worth, I also value working with nice people who have similar values/goals to me. I also value spending time with my family and those closest to me. I value all of these things more that I value a higher income. So, part of the point of this is that money is not the be all and end all for quality of life—in my case, there’s something really important about believing in a greater good, about relationships, about family.  

Generalizing from this, I believe we should not measure the success or failure (whether of individuals, social programs, society at large) only by dollars and cents. Also, there is something important about making the ability to make choices and about having agency, the ability to impact our own lives, even knowing that there will always be boundaries and constraints. And here, I expand this concept of agency not just to include me as an individual but also to the various communities that I care about – the ability of these communities to make choices about their own destinies, to have meaning and impact in the world. 

Expanding this outward to a larger statement about quality of life and economic justice, I believe economic justice is about all people having a baseline of support such that their lives can have meaning and impact. That all people, regardless of income or wealth, should have a basic level of resources and tools such that they are able to make life choices that are not driven by pure survival. I think this emphasis around quality of life and agency translates into individual metrics (big and small) around health, educational attainment, job safety, hours, benefits, physical mobility, time spent stuck in traffic, ability to have time spent with friends and family (family defined broadly), ability to respond to and weather the inevitable personal/family/financial/health crises , ability to live without discrimination on basis of race, gender, sexuality, etc.   And I think this also means community-scale metrics that are set to measure:

  • Presence and health of community-based, cultural, social and faith-based organizations/institutions in low-income communities—social and cultural infrastructure;
  • Sustainability, livability, walkability, health, economic vitality and safety of low-income neighborhoods including access to quality healthy food, quality affordable housing, recreational opportunities, mass transit—community infrastructure;
  • Participation in civic society, power/ability to influence outcomes, activities and resource distribution in places where we live, work, worship (if choose to) and where our children play, grow, are educated—civic engagement (broadly defined);
  • Ability to form community  and common goals around interests and identity and for these communities of interest/identity to have impact and meaning in broader society; ability and opportunity to organize; opportunity and power to work towards a greater good—community organizing/empowerment.

Jobs and income are an important part of many of the individual and community-level categories listed above but are only part of the picture. Taken together, I guess my suggested set of metrics makes something like a human capacity/human development approach to social/economic justice (https://www.iep.utm.edu/sen-cap/). But, I would argue that this is fundamentally a community development approach. More on this in the next post.

(Photo from the National Institute's of Health Library CC BY-NC-SA)

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