Still on the road; something quick.
Like the good Bishop said, and said well, “If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell: literally.” The poor figure in two of the four sins that cry to heaven for vengeance. For those with check-sheets, these are: murder, sodomy, oppression of the poor, and defrauding workers of their just wages.
Serious business, then, the poor. So important that we must strive to understand what we mean when we say “The Poor”? Who are these unfortunates?
We’ve all heard the quip, unfortunately not apocryphal, of the politician who laments that, despite the best, intensive, and expensive efforts of the government, fifty-percent of all individuals still make less than the median income. Yet less appreciated is that the same asininity occurs regardless which quantile is used.
The problem of defining “The Poor” relatively is that they will then always be with us. Nothing short of perfect and exact equality for all—each and every, no exceptions, all as in all, as in even you, my dear, even leaders—which is impossible in practice, can eliminate “The Poor” when they are defined relatively.
If being poor is relative, poverty cannot and will not be eliminated. The benefit of this definition is that there will always be something for activists and the government to do, a permanent goal to progress towards with increasing vigor, but one which is ever receding and unattainable. Defining poverty relatively is thus a form of cultural insanity and a guarantee of misery.
So who are the real poor? Well, that’s difficult. The same person can be poor at one time and not-poor another, vice versa, and so on (see Thomas Sowell). Knowing who is an official member of The Poor is an imperfect science. Maybe that’s why the same religion that insists one must care for the poor says to love your neighbour and not The People™. You’re in a much better position to know what’s going on in your own family and with real neighbors—you know who really needs what—than you are with some amorphous mass of strangers. Indeed, if the bulk of us took this commandment to heart, and looked after those closest to us, we could do real good and never have to worry about The People™.
One thing is clear: poor people have fewer resources at their command than the rich. It’s a gross simplification, but useful shorthand, and anyway true, to say that poor people have less money. Careful! Money is relative—the absolute amount of it is not fixed and there is no objective standard to say a dollar or a yen means this level of poverty—so the danger of lapsing into poor-as-relative is real. Stay alert.
We’re finally to the fallacy, which is in the class of informal fallacies. Headlines like this appear with depressing frequency: “Fuel Prices Rise: Poor Hurt,” “World Ends: Women, Minorities, the Poor Hardest Hit.” This first is logically equivalent to “Fuel Prices Rise: Everybody Who Buys Fuel Will Now Pay More”. Since the poor have less money, and the poor like to be as warm as everybody else, they will of course pay a greater relative amount of their wealth than the rich. But if heating does indeed cost more, than nothing can be done to prevent this. And when the world ends, we all go, poor and rich alike.
Raise the price on anything and it follows that the poor will pay relatively higher amounts of their wealth—unless the price is raised so that the rich by design pay a higher proportion of their wealth, which happens only with the government and taxes. Enforced equality.
The “Falls disproportionately on the poor” is thus a variant on the ad misericordiam, the appeal to pity. It is a fallacy if it is used to imply that something need be done (by, say, government) because the cost increase falls “disproportionately” on the poor. As said, unless the cost increase is gauged so that it increases more, not relatively but absolutely, for those with less, which is unheard of, the increase will not be disproportionately against the poor (though it is true as said any fixed increase, by definition, will cost the poor a greater percent of their wealth).
All uses of the fallacy are restating what amounts to the tautology “The Poor have less money than the rich.” And it never goes toward solving what it means to “be poor,” how being poor is defined absolutely, not relatively. Indeed, the fallacy is usually used to argue the poor should have a product or service the absence of which would not make somebody poor absolutely.