COLUMNS - 18 SEP 2017

How The Poor Make Us Better

How The Poor Make Us Better
Street hawkers fill an oft-ignored role in society, despite our inability to recognise this

In her brilliant TED talk on cities, OluTimehin Adegbeye jokes about buying a cold drink and a puppy in Lagos traffic. Whether you are in Abuja, Adamawa, or Lagos, this scene is familiar to you. Maybe you didn't go as far as buying a puppy, but you certainly got some water, or Gala, or cheese-balls; the possibilities are endless. While it is often easy to write-off poor people as burdens to society, to be rid of, the poor fill a vacuum in society from which most of us benefit. This, interestingly, has been captured before: in the Davis-Moore (1945) functionalist theory of poverty and inequality.

Both sociologists, Davis & Moore built their theory on a foundation laid decades earlier by a more renowned sociologist, Emile Durkheim. Functionalism, Durkheim’s brainchild, was concerned with how different aspects of society contributed to the collective stability of said society. Building on this, Davis-Moore argued that society is, inevitably, divided. This division – based on class – allowed individuals in society to find where they fit more appropriately. Like Durkheim before them, Davis & Moore opined that whatever position/social class people find themselves, they all serve different functions which contribute to the well-being of society.

 

Class Division a Motivator?

A key assumption of the functionalist theory – one which holds true for many, if not all societies – is that societies are inevitably divided. This division/stratification allows society to distribute its members into social positions that are commensurate to their talents and efforts. A reward system is developed and attached to all positions in order to lure people to fill them. This system is supposed to match the degree of talent and effort that each position requires. Consequently, the higher a position, the more the reward attached, and individuals seeking to belong to the high social class, will have to strive to attain highly rewarding occupations.

Davis and Moore argue that two things determine the rank of one’s position in society; the importance of a person’s position/occupation to society, and the talent and training required to fill that position. For example, a doctor will be valued higher than a carpenter because the doctor’s position is quite important to the society if you consider matters of life and death, and the fact that she would have typically spent no less than seven years studying to become a doctor. Meanwhile, a carpenter would need to be an apprentice for probably less than seven years in order to master his craft. 

Even though the carpenter might be valued less than the doctor, his services are required in society, and sure enough, he as well as the doctor serves a peculiar function that culminate in a ‘stable’ society. This analogy can also be extended to a lot of the menial jobs that poor people often resort to in order to make a living. No matter how little the rewards attached to such jobs are, those rewards are available, and according to the theory, this is what motivates people to take up those jobs in the first place. In Yola, Adamawa state, internally displaced women who have found themselves without a means of livelihood have resorted to picking plastic bags from the streets and weaving them into lovely reusable items. Locals get to enjoy a cleaner and pleasant looking environment, and the women get to have a steady stream of income. Many families across the country are able to allocate their time to other things outside the home because they have domestic-help who are assigned responsibility for household affairs. Society might downplay their roles, but in many ways, our lives are made easier because of them.

 

Too Good to be True?

The theory assumes an even playing-field for all members of society, and sadly, this is not the case for many. An example: those born into poverty who, from birth, are not given a chance to compete for those highly rewarding positions. However, this, in turn, is a double privilege for children born into higher social classes: they already have the privilege of being highly placed in society, by virtue of being born to highly placed parents; and they have less people to compete with, considering that many of their would-be competitors are born poor.

The theory also assumes that each society is not only fair, but is also efficient in allocating rewards to its members.  This shortfall is proven when you compare doctors and legislators in Nigeria. Doctors, perhaps the profession that trains the longest in Nigeria, do not earn as much as a national legislator who probably only has an undergraduate degree that typically takes four years to complete. Yet the system rewards legislators significantly higher than it rewards doctors. Also when you consider that we live in a time when reality TV stars with nothing more than a high school diploma are wealthier and more highly placed than you’ll ever be, you begin to question whether there is any consistency in the valuing/rewarding system at all.

 

All Things are Not Equal

The functionalist theory argues that stratification is inevitable because it ensures that people end up in the positions they are most suited for in society. If this is true, then society will always have the less privileged, those whose place is at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Whether we care to admit it or not, our lives are made easier in so many ways because there are people willing to take up so many positions that many of us look down on. Of course, this is not to say that all people in such positions are living in poverty, and ideally they shouldn’t, however many are, and the lot of us benefit from their poverty. 

Martha Sambe

Martha Sambe

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