Poverty is about lack of opportunity not individual characteristics

When I was a postgraduate student at Monash University in Melbourne, I had many debates with a senior academic who would become a co-author early in my academic career, about the relative importance of choice and constraint. In the standard mainstream choice-theoretic framework, people are conceived as maximising satisfaction through the choices they make subject to the opportunity set they face (the constraints). This simplistic version of human decision-making dominates mainstream economics and leads to nonsensical conclusions such that unemployment is a voluntary state where people are choosing leisure (a good) over work (bad) to maximise their well-being because the income coming from work (a good) is not sufficient on an hourly basis to offset the disutility that work engenders. That sort of thinking permeates the discipline. My former colleague kept saying that people make choices and you cannot deny that. The discussions were in relation to poverty incidence. My position was that it is trivial to say people make choices. We do, every day, but to understand complex phenomena such as poverty, it is better to focus on the constraints. That focus is likely to be more revealing. A person can be making choices but if their opportunity set is very narrow and any choice dooms that person to poverty then it doesn’t make much sense to dwell on the ‘free’ choice angle. Structuralists also agree with my emphasis here. Earlier this year (February 8, 2021), some academics associated with MIT in the US published a working paper – Why do people stay poor – and its results are revealing.

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