Inequality of What? Socioeconomic Status and Amartya Sen’s Entitlements Approach

Responding to the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Socioeconomic Status, Peter Levine discusses some of the difficulties in measuring socioeconomic status:

To take another example: you need wealth and family connections to be admitted to certain snobby clubs. But having wealth and family connections might hurt your chances of hanging out with the cool kids behind the gym or going ice-fishing with the guys. In short, SES (as we typically measure it) confers advantages on those who want to get into high-SES social circles and makes them more likely to want such entree. But that doesn’t mean that SES increases the odds of any person, A, to get whatever A wants.

Now it is starting to seem as if SES is not a continuous variable at all. “High SES” is just the name we give to certain subcultures, although other subcultures are equally exclusive and desirable. But that can’t be right, because it’s obvious that getting into the US Senate or the World Economic Forum at Davos is more valuable than being included with the cool kids behind the gym (even if most people would rather be with the cool kids).

He ends by offering us a choice: either SES must be reduced to mere economic advantage, measured as lifetime expected earnings, or it must include race and gender considerations.

Of course, it would be pretty harmful to include race and gender within the metric of SES, since this would undermine the claim that there is an unjust correlation between whiteness, maleness, and high socioeconomic status. I think most of the problems emerge when you try to measure the combined elements of social status and economic advantage. I think it is best to separate them, while at the same time preserving a more expansive definition of economic advantage than simply income. This separation is especially important since we often want to examine how different elements of social status fail to track economic status over time. The high status occupations of the 17th Century don’t have much connection to those of today. My ancestors were Irish Catholics and Lithuanian Jews: a century ago, we had no social status to speak of, and today we’re firmly ensconced in the racial elite. (How the Irish Became White, How Jews Became White Folks) What good does a metric do if it is wholly blind to the ways in which correlations among social factors change over time?

But, Levine wonders, how can we ignore the ways that non-material benefits accrue to some and not others? How can we ignore the value of a grandfather in the US Senate, or a college degree? How can we discount privilege, if we’re trying to measure privilege?

I don’t see this as a problem for SES metrics themselves, but rather for society: we can only look at how other elements determine the clusters of privilege and disadvantage once we separate the means from the ends, the advantages bought from the advantages that cannot be bought. In other words, we shouldn’t care specifically or narrowly about income denominated in some nation’s currency: we should care about capabilities and functionings, beings and doings, and how those capabilities are distributed. That’s what Amartya Sen was interested in, and there’s a good book on this by Jonathan Wolff and Avner de-Shalit. In addition, we should use Sen’s “exchange entitlement mapping” theory rather than try to enumerate a stable set of concrete advantages.

Sen initially used his entitlement theory for famine and food availability analyses. What struck Sen when he observed the Great Bengal Famine was how it only affected the most vulnerable and precarious members of the society:

its thoroughly class-dependent character… it was not a famine that afflicted even the lower middle classes – only people much farther down the economic ladder. The 1943 famine can… be described as a ‘boom famine’ related to powerful inflationary pressures initiated by public expenditure expansion….Those involved in military and civilian defense works, in the army, in industries and commerce stimulated by war activities, and almost the entire normal population of Calcutta covered by distribution arrangements at subsidized prices… could exercise strong demand pressures on food, while others excluded from this expansion or protection simply had to take the consequences of the rise in food prices.

Most people remember him for his evidence that famines are food distribution problems, not food production problems. On his account, famines emerge when some people do not have legitimate access to food, which leads to both a booming economy and a group of people who cannot even access basic nutrition. The aggregate of GDP cannot capture the way in which some economies might fail to supply basic necessities. Sen describes our entitlements as our our ways of legitimately accessing food in and out of famine situations: by growing it, by buying it, by working for it, or by receiving it as a gift from a family or community member. By mapping these entitlements, we can map a person’s network of possible food sources, and pinpoint where individuals and groups demonstrate vulnerability to food shortages by noticing where islands and bottlenecks emerge.

One reason to preserve the expansive mixture of social and economic status is to capture these non-market channels that distribute resources in dire economic situations. It’s not enough to treat all poor people or all rich people equally: what frequently separates them are their non-income entitlements, such as their membership in particular organizations or ethnic groupings. Especially when we’re talking about significantly non-market economies, these maps of perks and privileges can be the only way to determine who is higher in status than whom.

What’s more, such mapping can be useful even outside of famine situations, because entitlement maps can show us how other scarce and desirable resources will be distributed, like  how political office and legislative power can be accessed. That means we can apply the same exchange mapping to esteem, political power, and social privilege. This is the essence of civic engagement work. Think about how the average citizen goes about seeking redress: she can access the courts, write an op-ed, form a political action group, agitate her church members or approach her local, state, or federal representatives.

Entitlement mapping thus gives a broader understanding of the ways that agents are embedded in market and non-market networks of exchange that generate economic and social advantages, which then supply or fail to supply the prerequisites of human capabilities. We want SES metrics to supply a single rating of relative standing. Unfortunately, a true SES metric will look less like a bar chart, and more like a social network map.

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