[Hat tip to Matt Yglesias]
I haven’t read Charles Karelis’ recent book (nor had I heard of him for that matter) but what struck me about his argument that poverty traps people because they have too many “problems to be alleviated” was that it sounds reasonable, compelling and not that surprising. The first thing I thought of was Ted Gurr’s argument about “relative deprivation” in Why Men Rebel – and his finding that what people think they’re capable of getting is key to their (in this case violent) reaction. Even people oppressed to the point of starving to death will not necessarily get violent (or “rebel”) if they see no hope in alleviating their starvation. To the extent that poverty seems to overwhelm possibility then, small assistance to the poor does not necessarily make a big impact. More recently the possibility of moving out of poverty in the United States has probably become harder because of the loss of opportunity.
The other example I thought of pretty quickly from popular culture is the Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy movie Trading Places, which explored similar themes of economic success and failure relative to opportunity (and perceived opportunity).