Theories of Poverty/The Poverty of Theory

51 Pages Posted: 23 May 2010

See all articles by Barbara Stark

Barbara Stark

Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law

Date Written: May 21, 2010


The world has never been richer and there are more billionaires than ever before. At the same time, the number of people living in poverty has increased by almost 100 million and 1.1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. The chasm between the rich and the poor has become unfathomable. The assets of the world’s richest three individuals exceed the combined Gross National Products of all of the least developed countries, with a population totaling 600 million people. As a recent UN study explains, global wealth is distributed “as if one person in a group of ten takes 99% of the total pie and the others share the remaining 1%.”

Few argue that this is inevitable or unimportant, but there is little consensus on how to proceed. What should be done? Who should do it? These questions should not be left entirely to politicians, economists, and celebrities. Rather, this Article shows that theory can illuminate what has become a series of heated but murky arguments. It can clarify the possibilities. Part I of this Article, Why Theory, explains why theory in general is both necessary and problematic in this context. Part II, Theories of Poverty, explains how liberal theories in particular dominate post-Cold War approaches to poverty, as shown in three major legal instruments. It then introduces other theories of poverty, those of liberalism’s ‘discontents,’ conspicuously absent from post-Cold War discourse.

Part III, The Poverty of Theory, focuses on the limits of theory itself. It revisits Marx’s basic insight that ‘being creates consciousnesses’ and applies it to the post-Cold War order. It concludes that the liberal international system of sovereign states has neither the legal muscle to effectively address global poverty nor the political will to develop it. This does not mean, of course, that it cannot improve the lives of millions of the world’s poor. Whether this would offset the costs of globalization remains an open question.

Keywords: economic rights, social justice, jurisprudence

Suggested Citation

Stark, Barbara, Theories of Poverty/The Poverty of Theory (May 21, 2010). Brigham Young University Law Review, No. 381-425, 2009, Available at SSRN:

Barbara Stark (Contact Author)

Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law ( email )

121 Hofstra University
Hempstead, NY 11549
United States

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