When thinking poverty, also think inequality

by Teo You Yenn

In 2013, I began to do research to better understand the lives of people who live in HDB rental flats. Over three years, I visited people in their homes, chatting with them about their experiences, learning about their everyday living conditions, work lives, family lives, their kids, and their encounters with neighbors, schools, social workers.

I thought I would eventually write a book that would surprise people, because it would be a book about poverty in Singapore. That would be surprising because many people think poverty does not exist here. I recently completed writing a book of essays detailing what I found. I surprised myself because it was not the book I had set out to write. In the end, I wrote a book about poverty and inequality, not ‘just’ about poverty.

A few days after I finished a complete draft of the book, I went out celebrating with some friends. My friends proceeded to do what friends do—first they congratulated me, then they gave me a dose of hard truths. They informed me that people don’t read books anymore. So, although it’s very nice that I have poured everything I have into it—years of my life, and my heart and soul—no one is going to read my book. One of my friends joked that I should just tweet pieces of it out to her because that’s all she can manage to read these days.

So, with the knowledge that perhaps few people will ultimately read the book, I shall attempt to summarize what I have written in it. And I will do so by anchoring my remarks with three tweet-sized statements.

My first tweet-sized statement is this: the story worth paying attention to is not poverty per se, it’s inequality.

As mentioned, I started this project thinking I was studying poverty. By going into people’s homes, I saw how cramped their space is and how poor their living conditions are. By talking to people, I saw how tough it is for them trying to balance wage work and care responsibilities. By hearing their stories about jobs, I saw how hard they have to work and how little they get in return for their labor. By asking them about their children, I saw how much their kids struggle in school and how worried parents are that they will eventually have difficult lives. By listening to them talk about their crises, I heard about their feelings of humiliation trying to access social assistance. In paying attention to their everyday experiences, I saw how little dignity they are accorded in our society.

While collecting this research data, I was living my own life. I have the same needs—for a home to live in, for a job to work in, for caregivers for my child when I’m at work, for getting housework done and meals cooked. My kid also needs to grow and learn, also has homework to complete. In the three years when I went back and forth between their world and mine, it became clear that although my respondents and I have similar needs—for things, for relationships with others, for love, for respect, for dignity—our needs are met very differently. Our needs are met differently not because we are doing things radically differently but because we face different social conditions.

What is inequality? A shorthand for thinking about it is this: inequality is about how people can need the same things and indeed do very similar things but face very different outcomes.

The first few essays in my book detail the everyday experiences of people living with low income and, very importantly, they situate their experiences in the larger context of this wealthy city, juxtaposed against people with more money.

Situating the low-income experience in the wealthy city is important for a number of reasons.

First, people do not live in isolated bubbles, we live in society. Our sense of wellbeing is embedded in our relationship to others in society. How people experience the world—the respect or dignity they feel or do not feel is very much about where they place in a social hierarchy and the way that translates into everyday interactions. When I go about my day with people addressing me as “Prof Teo” and my respondent goes about her day cleaning toilets as people pass her by without seeing her, these are the concrete experiences that shape our sense of belonging and of who we are.

A second reason to situate the low-income experience in the wealthy city is this: once we see that inequality is partly about how people can have the same needs and do the same things and yet have different outcomes, then we must ask—how come?  

This brings me to my second tweet-sized statement: we must learn to think and talk about power.

One profoundly problematic common sense belief in contemporary Singapore society is the belief that individuals reap what they deserve. It is a belief sometimes expressed in the form of “in the end, it’s up to the individual.” We think individuals have choices, and that what they do with those choices is what makes or breaks them. If people ‘choose’ to work hard, they will be rewarded. If they ‘choose’ to be lazy, then they will fail. This belief is premised on an illusion of a flat society—where everyone has about the same choices and the same freedoms to exercise agency. This belief stems partly from an avoidance of the discussion of power differentials and sometimes an overt misunderstanding of how power works.

One of the dominant themes that comes up in discussions of poverty alleviation, both in Singapore and elsewhere, is the notion of ‘empowering’ the poor. In the abstract, no one can criticize this. Of course what we want to do is empower people. But if you listen more closely to the discourse around this, you will keep hearing this other word in the talk about empowerment: ‘mindset.’ Empowerment is typically framed as being about changing the mindsets of the poor—changing their feelings of self-belief, their sense of confidence, their attitudes toward their lives. The logic goes that once they change their mindsets—toward employment, parenting, or education—they will be empowered to do things differently and their lives will hence improve. This ‘empowerment-mindset change’ framework is actually a theory of change—it entails a set of presumptions, beliefs, and claims about how change can come about. This is a theory of change that is embedded in many of our institutions. This theory that individual mindset changes can lead to changes in the material circumstances of the low-income underpins our education system and its claims of meritocracy, as well as our institutions set up for social assistance.

The problem with this theory of change about individuals and mindsets and so-called empowerment is that power is a material condition, not a frame of mind. People sitting in positions of power—where they are able to make decisions that shape their own and other people’s lives—are powerful not because they feel empowered but because they have power. Their feelings of empowerment are an outcome of their actual ownership of power, not the cause.

One can think—and indeed many of the low-income people I speak with try to think positively—“I can do this. I must try.” But if one is in fact lacking in actual power—lacking in control over time; lacking in leverage in the labor market; lacking in bargaining power with managers, teachers, social workers, landlords, creditors; lacking in voice to get one’s interests represented in social policies—if one is lacking in all these actual forms of power, no amount of merely changing how they think about themselves will change these realities. People feel disempowered precisely because they are disempowered. The notion of ‘choice’ is useless when people don’t have genuine options. People do not and cannot manufacture choices as individuals. Choices are accorded or not accorded based on how systems—of education, of the labor market, of welfare—are set up. And the way systems are set up, by certain groups and not others, embed within them different choices for different groups of people, partly along class lines, and often intersecting with ethnoracial and gender lines.

Inequality is about structure, about systems, about differential power. A shorthand way of thinking about it is that systems—with their rules, regulations, criteria—reward certain practices and punish certain others. Systems do not accord the same choices to all people, even when they claim they do. A major part of my book is therefore to show that our systems—of education, of care, of labor, of welfare—embed within them class biases. They afford to people in this country different degrees of choice, such that the hard work of my respondents is recognized and rewarded differently from the hard work of people like me, such that my love for my family is legible and valorized in ways that their love for their families are not.

It is important to have a theory of change that includes an accurate recognition of power differentials. This involves two things: first, it must be made explicit that people don’t all have the same choices. Second, it must also be explicit in pointing out that when I use the word “system,” it is not a box with no actors, no agents. Specific persons, groups, institutions are making rules by which everyone must play—we should not pretend that there is no human agency behind how systems work and therefore how inequalities are reproduced.

The kind of theory that dominates now—with its emphasis on empowerment through mindset change—directs us toward trying to craft solutions that are about changing low-income persons. With a theory of change that better reflects empirical realities, we can focus on thinking about how to change the rules, regulations, logic, principles, that are embedded in our institutions, and what must change in the way those decisions are made.

My third and final tweet-sized statement then is this: since the story is about inequality, then this is a problem for us not of ‘them.’

It would, quite frankly, be easier to just talk about poverty, write a book about poverty. I would offend fewer people. I can stay comfortable.

Given the data I now have, that would be ethically problematic. The reality is this: when you recognize some people’s disadvantages, you must also confront other people’s advantages. The story of poverty isn’t about exclusion in a flat world, it is about injustice in a hierarchical one.

At the same time that I am meeting kids who enter Primary 1 and are immediately marked as falling behind, I live my own life in a social milieu where kids enter Primary 1 and can already read and write. In one ear, I hear about parents worrying they can’t help with homework and can’t pay for tuition, and through my other ear, I hear parents complaining about their weekends being burned because they need to drive their kids from one enrichment activity to another. I meet kids the same age as mine struggling to read at the same time that my kid blazes her way through the Harry Potter books.

What is one to do? We have been hearing for a number of years now that the solution is to ‘level up.’ Like the empowerment claim, this is hard to argue with in the abstract. Again, however, let’s take a step back and look more carefully at what’s happening in the education system as a whole. It searches for and rewards precocity, it centers on high-stakes exams, it is oriented toward narrow forms of defining merit or lack thereof, it allows for the buying of these qualities in the private shadow education market. If these remain the rules of the game, you can level up but this will not change the fact of stratification among our nation’s kids.

At this point, you may ask: are you saying that we should hold some children back so that other children can catch up? Sort of but not exactly. For sure, if the kids running ahead keep running ahead, then the kids behind will never catch up, so there must be a sense that the kids ahead cannot be continually pushed—often through advantages gained outside of schools—to run ahead. But it is important to note that we should not think of this as a lowering of standards, but as an expansion of how we see and nurture strengths. Here, we must step back to think about what we want to see in an education system. Across class lines, we have shared interests in a system that adequately prepares our nation’s kids—all of them—for the future. This is a future not just as economic digits, but as well-adjusted adults with varied talents, who care not just about their own individual successes but also about how they are leading meaningful lives that includes how they are contributing as members of society.

We will all grow old in a society populated by other people’s children. Our wellbeing depends on the capabilities not just of our own kids but of other people’s kids. The kids I meet in the low-income neighborhoods are kids with just as much potential as the kids in my own social circles. They can learn just as well as my kid or my friends’ kids. They in fact have qualities I admire that are often missing in kids like my own—qualities of independence, of generosity, of grit. It is arbitrary to reward my child’s ability to read Harry Potter without rewarding these kids’ capacities. And it is unjust to have a school system that applauds kids who read and write early and discourages and demoralizes kids who do not do the same. Our system is not giving them sufficient time to learn, it is marking them as weak the minute they start, and in the process demoralizing them and their parents. It is unfair from the individual perspective, and irrational from the societal perspective.

We will all grow old in a society populated by other people’s children. We should care very much that every one of these future adults has the opportunity to learn properly rather than be labeled slow, be demoralized, be told they are not capable of more. We should also be tremendously troubled that a tiny subset of our nation’s children may emerge as adults who think they are smarter and more deserving than everyone else.

The consideration of education and inequalities illustrates two key points: first, whether we realize it or not, our wellbeing is connected to other people’s wellbeing. Because #societypopulatedbyotherpeople’schildren. Second, the problem at stake is an ethical-moral one. To address poverty and inequality, we cannot be fixated on changing the mindsets and practices of those with less class privilege. Education is an area where it is especially apparent that if those of us with more choices keep acting as individuals looking out for our own narrow interests, doing what’s best for only our children, doing nothing to advocate for systemic changes, we will perpetuate inequalities in our system. This will be something that ultimately hurts all of us—concretely, materially, morally.


October 17

October 17 is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, declared 25 years ago in December 1992, by the United Nations General Assembly:

“On the 17th of October each year, we come together to demonstrate the strong bonds of solidarity between people living in poverty and people from all walks of life, and our commitment to work together to overcome extreme poverty and abuse of human rights through our individual and shared commitments and action. An important commitment is to honour the human dignity of people living in poverty and to fight to end the discrimination, humiliation and social exclusion they suffer.”[1]

There are real persons living with real hardship in Singapore society. The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is a sharp and necessary reminder to all in our society to recognize and honor the human dignity of everyone. October 17 is a day we should take to consider our shared humanity and the importance of our connectedness to one another, and it is a time for us to pause to evaluate if those of us who live in comfort have built adequate solidarity with those who don’t. Because poverty is not just about poverty but also about inequality, this is not a problem about ‘them’ but a problem for ‘us.’ October 17 is a day that serves as an annual cue to review: there are values we aspire to, of justice and equality—how are we doing?

There remains much to be done. Let’s get to work.

[1] https://www.un.org/development/desa/socialperspectiveondevelopment/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2017/06/idep2017-conceptnote.pdf


About the Author

Teo You Yenn’s book of essays, This is what inequality looks like, is published by Ethos Books (forthcoming January 2018). She received her PhD in Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. She is currently Associate Professor and Head of Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University.  Her work centers on understanding inequality—how inequality is experienced; how it is reproduced; and the ways in which inequality is rationalized and naturalized. Her writings also address questions around governance, state-society dynamics, citizenship, welfare, and poverty. She has published journal articles, book chapters, and op-eds, and is the author of Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How family policies make state and society (Routledge, 2011). In 2013, she received the Nanyang Education Award (School). In 2016, she was winner of the American Sociological Association Sex and Gender Section’s Feminist Scholar Activist Award.