Fighting poverty and the deep roots of inequality

In 2018, income inequality in the United States reached its highest level since the Census Bureau started studying it in 1967, despite the longest sustained period of economic growth in American history. The issue has become a flash point, with presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren arguing for a wealth tax, while attacks on homeless people, labeled “parasites” and “bums,” are on the rise, according to the New York Times.

So it was invigorating to read about the winners of this year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, who took a scientific approach to reducing the harms of poverty. The laureates proved it could be done by tackling smaller questions, such as testing whether providing tutors for struggling students in India would make a difference versus expecting children to cope with a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The tailored instruction made for lasting improvements in achievement.

“Our goal is to make sure that the fight against poverty is based on scientific evidence,” Esther Duflo, the winner along with Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer, told reporters on October 14. “It starts from the idea that often the poor are reduced to caricatures and often, even people who try to help them do not actually understand what are the deep roots of the problem.”

Policies devised to combat poverty often backfire, notes behavioral sciences writer Bruce Bower, who covered the award. These researchers not only helped create the science of development economics, he says, they made randomized controlled trials and fieldwork standard practice in the discipline.

The prize was notable also because Duflo, who works at MIT with Banerjee, is only the second woman to win a Nobel in economics. The field is grappling with long-standing problems with discrimination against women, what former Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen recently called “an unacceptable culture.” After the Nobel announcement, Duflo said she hoped “many, many other women” would be inspired to persevere in economics as a result — and that men would give those women “the respect they deserve.”

Now let’s ponder a more distant inequality, in the Bronze Age.

About 4,000 years ago, farming households in central Europe included both wealthy individuals and unrelated people of little means, Bower reports. The researchers said they were “absolutely surprised” to find such inequity within households. The team also identified genetically unrelated high-status women who had presumably married into the families.

“It’s the beginning of a period of expanded social complexity,” Bower says of the Bronze Age. It’s not clear what role the poor people played in those households, but they may have been the precursors to the slaves common in some ancient Greek and Roman families. And the fact that women from afar married into those households may note the beginnings of a male-dominated society. Science gives us insights into how human societies develop and change and invents ways we can alleviate suffering, even if that means, as was the case for Duflo and her colleagues, improving the practice of science itself.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.