Reciprocity, productivity, and poverty
Hamilton begins this article with a central tenet of institutionalism: there is no technological reason for poverty in a modern industrial economy. And yet, Hamilton continues, even though the United States declared war on poverty in 1964, it persists. The war concentrated on raising the individual productivity of the poor because the warriors assumed that the poverty of the poor was due to their individual lack of productivity. Hamilton explains that this assumption is a widespread cultural belief and is the major block to the elimination of poverty. Relying on Veblen rather than Polanyi, Hamilton explains that the anthropological notion of reciprocity lies behind this cultural belief. The people in our culture believe that a person’s income from society is equal to some prior contribution he or she made to society: No current income, no prior contribution. This belief in reciprocity leads people also to believe that any major redistribution of income to the poor violates an important social norm. The poor would not be so poor if they had contributed more. Likewise, the rich would not be so rich if they had contributed less. Therefore, redistributing from the deserving rich to the undeserving poor violates the notion of reciprocity and is resisted. Therein, Hamilton emphasizes, lies the problem.