Greg Keller / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. David Grusky, sociology, Stanford University, discusses ways to eliminate societal inequality at a talk Monday in Goldwin Smith Hall.

March 1, 2016

Professor: To Alleviate Inequality, Make Public Services More Accessible to the Poor

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Reducing poverty and inequality depends on improving the poor’s access to public services, Prof. David Grusky, sociology, Stanford University argued in a lecture Monday.

Grusky, the director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford, spoke to an audience of nearly 200 spectators about how rising commodification has exacerbated inequality.

“It’s not just that the poor have … even less money relative to the well off, it’s also that money is increasingly needed to secure goods, services and opportunities,” Grusky said. “It’s the combination of [the two different forces] that gives rising inequality its teeth.”

By commodification, Grusky means that goods, services and opportunities now have to be purchased on the market, whereas in the past they were often directly provided by the family, community or federal government.

Grusky noted that, before, families were responsible for taking care of parents or grandparents when they grew old, but now this service is more frequently purchased in the market.

This means that the poor now have to stretch their small amount of money to cover the purchase of services that were automatically provided for them in the past, according to Grusky.

The decreased marriage rate and increased incarceration rate of black males have acted to promote inequality, while the commodification of services — like care for children and the elderly — makes people increasingly reliant on the market for these services, according to Grusky.

Grusky explained that commodification also applies to indirect purchases of goods and services, such as the indirect purchase of high-quality public schooling that becomes available in expensive neighborhoods.

Grusky modeled increases in inequality through the processes of exclusion, segmentation and erosion. These processes limit the number and quality of services the public can access when the cost of these services increase.

Exclusion, segmentation and erosion — three processes that Grusky used to model increases in inequality — wear away three zones previously protected from the market — family, community and state, Grusky said.

“A neoliberal commitment to monetize everything” may be one of the greatest causes of rising commodification, Grusky said.

He explained that our cultural instinct is to monetize objects rather than giving them away. Grusky discussed two potential ways that this unequal system could change in the future.

The first, which he said he believes is unlikely to happen, is a “major redistributive reform,” where money is transferred to the poor so they can afford services that are currently too expensive.

The second is decommodifying services and allowing the poor to access more opportunities, he said.

Grusky said that regardless of the way change occurs, he simply wants to see it happen.

“It’s not like I have some intrinsic preference for the second option over the first one,” he said. “I’m rather indifferent. I care only about getting the job done and figuring out which pathway is likely to garner support.”