Advances in Applied Sociology
2012. Vol.2, No.2, 111-119
Published Online June 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/aasoci) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/aasoci.2012.22015
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
Balancing the Budget through Social Exploitation: Why Hard
Times Are Even Harder for Some
John Tropman, Emily Nicklett
School of Social Work, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA
Received March 14th, 2012; revised Apr i l 1 6th, 2012; accepted April 30th, 2012
In all societies needs and wants regularly exceed resources. Thus societies are always in deficit; demand
always exceeds supply and “balancing the budget” is a constant social problem. To make matters some-
what worse, research suggests that need- and want-fulfillment tends to further stimulate the cycle of want-
seeking rather than satiating desire. Societies use various resource-allocation mechanisms, including price,
to cope with gaps between wants and resources. Social exploitation is a second mechanism, securing labor
from population segments that can be coerced or convinced to perform necessary work for free or at be-
low-market compensation. Using practical examples, this article develops a theoretical framework for
understanding social exploitation. It then offers case examples of how different segments of the popula-
tion emerge as exploited groups in the United States, due to changes in social policies. These exploitative
processes have been exacerbated and accelerated by the economic downturn that began in 2007.
Keywords: Social Exploitation; Social Surplus; Elderly; Policy
The year 2011 brought to Washington, D.C. a new Congress,
ushered in by calls for budgetary responsibility, budget align-
ment, and spending reduction. That those who voiced such
demands belong to the group that—from the perspective of
many—created budgetary difficulties is a complex circum-
stance that, itself, requires interpretation. In this paper, though,
we seek to move beyond political discourse. Our purpose is to
examine the socioeconomic mechanisms of privilege and op-
pression that fuel inequality, funding misallocation, and debt.
The “Bush Tax Program,” recently extended, and also called
into question, demonstrates the exacerbation of privilege. Tax
breaks for the wealthiest Americans and deductions for second
homes or first home “McMansions” embody sustained privilege.
But these breaks come with a bill: That is, they reduce the
revenue available to meet the needs of the polis.
Simply put, federal policies that benefit wealthy Americans
at the expense of tax revenue must be paid for. That bill can be
paid—that is, resources to care for society can be gathered—via
government debt. It can also be paid with the currency of social
exploitation—securing labor from population segments that can
be coerced or convinced to work for free or at below market
compensation. It is this payment mechanism that we explore
Social Policies: Closing the Gap between Needs,
Wants, and Available Resources
We approach this topic from the premise that, in all societies,
members have needs and wants that—collectively—regularly
exceed available resources in both an absolute and a relative
sense. All societal subunits, whether governments, organiza-
tions, families, or individuals, at every level of collective life,
fight “the battle of the budget,” struggling to balance needs and
wants with resources. How have societies historically achieved
Thrift, or frugality, is one of a host of principles by which
individuals and groups balance resources and desires. Trim-
ming needs and wants to align with available resources is a
time-tested, if infrequently used, approach. A number of scho-
lars (Yates & Hunter, 2011), have explored in detail patterns
of thrift and frugality in American history. Formal organiza-
tions promoting thrift played a significant role in balancing
wants and resources during difficult periods of history. The
American Society for Thrift, for example, encouraged garden-
ing in school. The food produced from these war-gardens added
$850,000,000 of food to the World War II wartime supply
(Straus & Kirby, 2005: p. 71). The hidden thrift in this histori-
cal movement is now remembered as part of the “Victory Gar-
den” movement during WW II. The current trend toward “sim-
ple living” subcultures exemplify the aphorism, “live simply
that others may simply live.”1 These American patterns fol-
lowed widespread thrift movements across Europe. More than
100 thrift (“Friendly”) societies developed across England and
Scotland between 1850 and 1900. As Sir F. Eden (1979) re-
“Comforts of the laboring classes who belong to them, as
will be evident from comparing the conditions of mem-
bers and those who, in the same village, are content to
rely on the parish for relief. The former are generally
comparatively cleanly, orderly, and sober, and cones-
quently happy and good members of society; while the
latter are living in filth and wretchedness, and very often,
from the pressure of casual sickness or accident, which
incapacitates them from working, they are tempted to
1“Simple liv ing” is discu ss ed at
J. TROPMAN, E. NICKLETT
commit and improper act (not to say crimes) against
which the sure results of a benefit club would have been
the best preservative.” (quoted in Straus & Kirby, 2005: p.
Such friendly societies were not a form of charity; rather,
these organizations aimed to conserve resources at community
and societal levels. With such strategies came positive exter-
nalities such as individual benefits—among them the establish-
ment of savings accounts for the poor.
Debt, borrowing money to meet present needs and wants, is,
of course, another approach to balancing resources with needs.
Arguments about whether societies should employ debt or thrift
to secure their needs and wants are at the heart of the most re-
cent European fiscal crisis that reached a crisis point in late
2012. While German policy reflects a frugal, thrift-oriented
approach, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal have relied heavily
on a debt-oriented approach. These examples are current in
2011 but are also symptomatic of a more general problem. One
way to close this gap between needs and resources, John Ken-
neth Galbraith (1985) contended, is through the accumulation
of debt, which exploits future generations by shifting the bur-
den of cost to them.
Another possible approach to balancing resources and desires
is economic “equality,” in which all members of a community
or society share equally in gains and losses. For example, all
employees of a corporation take a $1000 reduction in salary to
assist the corporation in balancing its books during a particu-
larly difficult quarter or receive a $1000 bonus during a par-
ticularly fruitful quarter.
“Equity,” not to be confused with equality, is another possi-
ble alternative to the budget question. Equity employs a ba-
lancing principle to differentially allocate resources. In an
equity scenario, the employees of the same corporation would
take a 10 percent raise to allocate the excess resources of a
profitable quarter or a 10 percent cut in an unprofitable one.
The typical pay increase based on percentages is an equity
In an equity adjustment, those who make more money get
more money; those who earn less get less. But equity may be an
upward sloping-curve as well. In some respects an upward-
sloping curve represents the American tax system. Individuals
and families with smaller incomes pay a smaller proportion of
those incomes in taxes. Indeed, questions of equity are at the
heart of many fiscal debates raging in early twenty-first century
America. In the much-debated “Bush tax Program,” wealthier
por- tions of the population pay a smaller proportion of their
income on taxes, and firms and other organizations are not
taxed equally. The “tax millionaires and billionaires” move-
ment asserts that those with vast wealth should pay considera-
bly more than they currently are.
Need for resources could be a criterion for budget adjustment
as well. A need-based approach is similar to the Catholic con-
cept of “preferential option for the poor.”2 This alternative is
best expressed by the old Marxian phrase “From each accord-
ing to his abilities to each according to his needs.” The problem,
of course, is that needs are hard to define, and an individual’s
appropriate contribution to those needs even harder. For this
process, families, groups, and whole societies require a com-
plex bureaucracy to determine the level of need. This is further
complicated as there is a large financial incentive to demon-
strate higher or lower levels of need depending on the political
positions of various groups.
Other balancing policies exist, though any policy advantages
some members of a society or societal subunit and disadvan-
tages others. Often, a mix of balancing approaches can provide
a practical solution.
However, the option that seems most popular in American
policy-making in the first part of the twenty-first century is an
approach examined in detail in The Winner Take All Society
(Frank & Cook, 1995). It might also be called “for those to
whom much has been given, more shall be given.” The “pre-
ferential option for the well-to-do approach” to balancing the
budget provides more for the socioeconomically privileged and
less for the socioeconomically marginalized. The mechanisms
through which society selects those who have less, and secures
their acceptance of that role, is the process of social exploita-
Social Exploitation as Social Policy and Practice
We define social exploitation as the creation and mainte-
nance of social and cultural structures that result in population
segments contributing their labor for free or for very little com-
pensation. Societies at varied levels of complexity, in varied
cultures, during all periods of history have used varied expres-
sions of social exploitation to balance resources and needs.
Slavery (Smith, 2006), child labor3 lower wages for women,4
and temporary contracting of international labor5 are four of the
most prominent social exploitation structures.
Social exploitation also occurs through cost shifting—arranging
for others to bear part of the cost of a product, service, or ad-
vantage. Cost shifting most commonly occurs when organiza-
tions are not required to pay the full cost of their products. For
example, heavy industry seldom bears the full cost of reclaim-
ing the environment from carbon emissions, dumped waste, or
improperly reclaimed strip mines.6 In the case of temporary
international labor, host cultures do not always assume full
responsibility for educating the workforce or for the social costs
of healthcare and retirement once the workers become elderly.
The society is also able to avoid providing many of the same
societal benefits for “guests” to which citizens are entitled,
despite taxation and other economic contributions that guest
workers make to the host culture’s economy.
While debt is a form of cost-shifting social exploitation
whereby the burden of current consumption is shifted to future
generations, cost shifting also occurs at the “back end” of pro-
duct life, when the company producing a product abdicates
responsibility for the product after the sale, shifting all respon-
3Child Lab or Education Project,
4An Analysis of Reasons for the Disparity in Wages Between Men and
Women. Consa d Research Group.
5The United States’ Bracero program (1942-1964) and Western Europe’s
guest-worker programs (1960s and 1970s), which fueled agriculture and
industry, respectively, are two primary twentieth-century examples.
6Minnesota Se a Grant Report.
7But European Union policy requires the manufacturer to dispose of the
vehicle at the end of i t s li f e (Koonz, 2009).
2For more information, see “An Introduction to Catholic Social Thought,”
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
J. TROPMAN, E. NICKLETT
sibility to the owner with the sale.7
Social exploitation has been both directly and indirectly cho-
sen to address the needs/wants-versus-resources” question and
has, in many cases, become an operational practice. Policies
supporting slavery, military draft, and fractional compensation
to social agencies for child welfare cases are directly chosen
means of social exploitation.8 Exploitative policy, however,
must not result from action; as with human rights violations,
legislatures, juridical, and executive bodies fail to undertake
appropriate preventative or remedial action, permitting ex-
ploitative policies or practices to take root and remain in place.
Social Exploitation in the Literature
The gap between needs and wants and available resources is
created, maintained, and even accelerated through specific so-
cial and cultural mechanisms. Most critiques of modern society,
whether implicitly or explicitly, discuss social exploitation and
the socio-cultural mechanisms that create, maintain and ace-
lerate it. In this review, we focus primarily on the Marxist, evo-
lutionary, and neo-Marxist critiques of social exploitation,
though we begin by referencing two philosophers who employ
diverse approaches to the question.
Alan Wertheimer in Exploitation, does not believe he “has
much to add” and does not feel, in any event, that “… the moral
core of the Marxist view is … unique to Marxism. ” (Werthei mer,
1996: p. x) Ruth Sample in Exploitation: What it is and Why It
is Wrong (2003) makes two, possibly more nuanced, arguments:
First, not everyone who gains disproportionally is necessarily
an exploiter. Second, situations in which there is mutual gain
can still be exploitative if the actions interfere with human
flourishing (exploitation as degradation).
Wertheimer, in line with Marxist, evolutionary, and neo-
Marxist scholars, takes the position that exploitation occurs
when someone pays a nonstandard price. He explores, among
other relationships, the possibility of social exploitation of stu-
dent athletes, commercial surrogates, psychotherapy patients,
and those participating in “unfair (where one party has a clear,
and sometimes secret, advantage) transactions.” His book in-
cludes no fewer than sixteen example definitions of exploitation
(Wertheimer, 1996: pp. 10-12.) Sample, working from a con-
structive viewpoint, argues that “… exploitation occurs …
when the value of a being—particularly a human being—is not
being recognized.” (Sample, 2003: p. xiii). She further notes
that her view “… is compatible with the idea that many things
other than humans, such as landscapes, systems, and works of
art, may be exploitable” (Sample, 2003: p. xiii).
Karl Marx (1902), however, explored social exploitation by
positing political-economic theories of class conflict and work-
ing class exploitation. These have proven some of the most
influential in recent history. Marxian political economy, at its
core, addresses appropriation of surplus value in the system of
capitalism (Caporaso & Levine, 1992). In Kapital, Marx (1867,
2007) argued that capitalism led to ever-increasing levels of
production; therefore, ways of assimilating the surplus value
from that production must be developed or the economic sys-
tem would stagnate. Thus, as Marx saw it, the initial growth
inherent in a capitalist mode of production perpetuated a system
in which production could never equal consumption and the
budget would never balance. Inherent in this system, he as-
serted, would be an eventual decline of land-rents, profit rates,
and other aspects of capitalism In neo-classical economic
theory, self-interest and individual preferences drive markets,
and formal (and informal) economies to develop, facilitate, and
order that process. But “for Marx, causation [ran] in the other
direction” (Caporaso & Levine, 1992: p. 56). That is, Marx
viewed capitalism not simply as the manifestation of the power
of markets; instead he understood it as an economic system
built with the goal of assimilating surplus value to promote
social reproduction of the capitalist system (Harvey, 1978), and
the accumulation of wealth for the capitalists who controlled
the means of production.
Thorstein Veblen (1899) suggested that social exploitation
emerged from the evolutionary need for “conspicuous con-
sumption.” Veblen did not suggest a massive program of social
exploitation per se, but he posited the emulative social mecha-
nism of spending to impress others and to therefore maintain
one’s position in the social hierarchy. According to Veblen, that
need eventually became a driving force to “need” more re-
sources, which fomented the “revolution of rising expecta-
tions.” Following on Veblen’s theory, John Kenneth Galbraith,
in his seminal work The Affluent Society (1958), theorized that
consumption—instead of satiating an individual’s wants and
needs—actually generates more wants that seem as important
as those already supported. Furthermore, such a driving com-
pulsion to consume, Galbraith argues, led the United States
economy to be completely centered on expanding production
and consumption, which causes needs and wants to regularly
outstrip available resources. Robert Frank takes up Veblen’s
“conspicuous consumption” thought in Luxur y Fever (1999).
In Regulating the Poor, Piven and Cloward (1977, 1993)
provide a neo-Marxist account of social exploitation in the
United States. They begin their analysis by summarizing Ame-
rica’s shifting economic structure, because they believe that the
true goal of poverty relief is to moderate recurring crises caused
by capitalism (Piven & Cloward, 1993). In their view, capita-
lism depends on a large supply of cheap labor easily exploited
for the gain of those in power. Instead of alleviating poverty,
relief or welfare programs pacify exploited populations just
enough to quell unrest, thus perpetuating the exploitative eco-
nomic system. Power holders, they posit, may use repressive
measures that beat the poor back into submission, or they may
enhance welfare benefits just to the point where protest sub-
sides. Additional Neo-Marxist “poor-controlling” perspectives
are explored in Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor (2009) and
Schoss, Forting and Shram’s Disciplining t he Poor (2011).9
What categories of social exploitation exist in society and in
relationships? By what mechanisms are these categories im-
plemented? While exploitation as such can extend beyond per-
sons to animals or the environment, social exploitation refers to
the unjust use of persons. For purposes of this inquiry, we limit
our examination of social exploitation to those categories rein-
forced in a societal context, rather than particular instances
imposed by individuals, firms, or other institutions. This per-
spective locates the actions of societal subunits—individuals,
organizations, and communities—as within the larger social
system. Acts of exploitation in these subunits of society could
demonstrate societal-level desires to continue social exploita-
tion or societal-level failures to reduce exploitation in practice.
Specifically, we explore social exploitation as attempts by
9See the authors’ research project site and related publications at
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 113
J. TROPMAN, E. NICKLETT
societal power holders to meanly, unjustly, or inequitably cap-
ture the labor of individuals or groups. We refer particularly to
the use, or exploitation, of persons in an attempt, through the
exploitative capture of their labor, to narrow the gap between
perceived needs and available resources by reducing the cost of
the need and of need-fulfilling services. Several writers and
historians have been instrumental in shaping the direction of
In his argument for a residual welfare state, Goodin defines
exploiting a person as “taking advantage of some peculiar fea-
tures of that person and his situation” (1988: p. 124). He ob-
serves that opportunities for exploitation crop up naturally from
unequal interactions in the free market, and asserts that a wel-
fare state is the only way to protect both the integrity of the
market and the exploited (as well as those vulnerable to exploi-
Zinn (1999) offers a popular account of American history as
the struggle between those who hold power and those who do
not.10 He highlights many examples of social exploitation, and
the range of exploitative mechanisms in American history,
beginning with Columbus’s exploitation of Arawak men and
women upon discovery of the new world. Others detail the long
history of social exploitation of African Americans, Native
Americans, Latinos, and other people of color in the United
States. Indeed, America has not yet come to terms with the fact
that many obvious symbols of our democracy were built, at
least in part, by exploited and enslaved laborers (Ellis, 2004;
McCollough, 2002). The United States’ legacy of social ex-
ploitation also includes encroachment into established Native
American lands, as well as land practices in the now-south-
western United States. The reparations movement continues to
demand that descendants of historically exploited groups re-
ceive compensation for their exploited labor and loss. Scholars
have calculated astronomical compensatory sums that indicate
the immense debt the federal government owes to just one
group of exploited persons (America, 1990; Browne, 1993).
There are three major methods by which socially exploita-
tive activities are carried out in societies: force, inducement,
and cooptation. When force is applied, an individual is coerced
into providing services.11 In the case of inducement, an ex-
change occurs—albeit an unfair or socially inequitable token in
return for services or products.12 In social cooptation,13 an indi-
vidual is convinced to give his or her services free of charge.
None of these mechanisms works independently from the
others, and in many cases multiple methods have been, or are
being, used to socially exploit. However it is useful to isolate
the different mechanisms in order to more fully understand
Social coercion, or force, is perhaps the most familiar form
of exploitation, and slavery is perhaps the most familiar form of
social coercion. Not only has slavery had a long record in hu-
man societies, but it has also served as an important mechanism
by which dominant aggressors secure free labor from subju-
gated victims. The need for labor is a societal pressure that
strains available resources, prompting the generation and per-
petuation of slavery or slavery-like institutions.
The United States continues to contend with its own legacy
of slavery, most obviously of black Americans. The enslave-
ment of black Africans on American soil from the seventeenth
century through the mid-nineteenth century illustrates how
social exploitation can perpetuate an otherwise inefficient sys-
tem of production. Specifically, some prominent eighteenth
century plantation owners recognized, and some scholars have
argued, that the institution of slavery perpetuated a planting
system, based on a few crops, that was otherwise inefficient in
both labor and natural resources (Dowd, 1958; Genovese, 1965;
Ellis, 2004). Child labor, the abusive employment of younger
workers, is another form of social exploitation, though it
changed dramatically with arrival of the Industrial Revolution.
Before the Industrial Revolution, at least in the United States,
children were seen as a necessary form of labor, and children in
the family were laborers in a very immediate sense (Glass &
Estes, 1997). However, it is hard to classify such behavior as
always exploitative. It becomes exploitation when the child is
considered and treated as source of labor, and the benefit of
that contribution does not accrue proportionally to him or her.
The transformation to industrial employment must be under-
stood within the family context. In America’s early industrial
years, the family labor model was simply transplanted to the
factory; families commonly worked in the same factory, com-
pleting different tasks, as they had in a domestic setting (Glass
& Estes, 1997).
Over time, conditions deteriorated and production expecta-
tions increased. The ensuing brutal conditions and long hours in
these factory environments made working in factories far more
dangerous, dirty, and inhuman that farm labor ever was. (Glass
& Estes, 1997).14 The exploitation of children became com-
monplace, as they were forced to worked very long hours in
toxic environments, and faced physical and emotional abuse
(Humphries, 2003). During the Progressive Era, especially in
the emerging field of social work, many of the settlement house
movement’s “founding mothers” focused on minimizing the
exploitation of children (Trattner, 1989).
Child labor remains a major form of social exploitation.
While strict labor regulation has curtailed its presence in the
United States, it continues around the world in the form of fac-
tory work, enslaved labor, sexual exploitation, and human traf-
A second mechanism of social exploitation is unequal or
disproportionate exchange. Here individuals are not forced to
give their services for “free,” but neither do they receive fair
market value or necessarily a sustainable wage. Wage dis-
crimination—due to gender, race, religion, or other characteris-
tic—is a classic case of exploitation through social exchange.
Individuals are paid less than going market rates for work, thus
lowering the cost to the exploitative perpetrator of the product
or services. Usually, Goodin (1988) contends, unequal ex-
10Zinn’s book has been criticized for factual errors. However, his overall
perspective seems useful here.
11A historical example of the use of force as social exploitation is provided
by Mamdani (1985) in a description of colonialism, forced labor, and disas-
ter prevention in Africa.
12Whether or not a given exchange classifies as inducement—and subse-
quently social exploitation—is a subject of debate. See Macklin (1988) for a
discussion of surrogate motherhood.
13For a classic discussion of economic exploitation and deprivation of youth
in the militar y through cooptation, see Sperber (1970).
14Such reforms were underway at least fifty years earlier in England (Shafte-
sbury’s Children Employment Committee , 1842). See Bready (2006).
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
J. TROPMAN, E. NICKLETT
changes occur because marginalized people or groups have no
leverage to enforce just exchanges. They must work and inte-
ract in the market, but they lack the power to protect themselves
Unequal exchange also manifests in group and job dimi-
nishment, in which sexism, ageism, and racism (to name but a
few of the many -isms) diminish the self-worth of individuals
or groups. McIntosh argues that “privilege simply confers do-
minance, gives permission to control, because of one’s race or
sex” (p. 77), thereby allowing whole populations to be margi-
nalized (McIntosh, 1992). Such diminishment often sets the
stage for social coercion or unequal exchange. If, for example,
women are socialized to believe that they are less capable than
men at certain tasks, then, individually and collectively, they
will most likely not be able to secure a fair market value for
In other situations the job itself is diminished, thus under-
mining the ability of workers to secure adequate compensation
for their labor. For example, fields of work are gendered and,
thus, marginalized. Hochschild’s study of flight-attendant train-
ing (1983) provides one example of job diminishment. Even
though “emotion work”—an important component of work
often done by women—is central to the functioning of the sys-
tem (in this case, the airplane), it is devalued because it is gen-
dered female. “Women’s segregation into jobs that pay less
than men’s jobs and the undervaluation of women’s work” are
well-documented phenomena in historically female occupations
such as social work and social work education. (Kalleberg,
Reskin, & Hudson, 2000: p. 261; England, Reid, & Kilbourne,
1996; Chambers, 1986).
“Guilty contributions” are a somewhat different form of so-
cially exploitative exchange, in which individuals are paid for a
job, perhaps even adequately, but they are induced to feel they
should contribute more time and energy than they are being
paid for. The workaholic is a perfect example of such an indi-
vidual. Although workaholism may indeed benefit the worka-
holic, and psychological reasons for the individual’s behavior
may exist, the social ramifications of this behavior cannot be
overlooked. In fact, some suggest that the United States’
economy in particular is structured so that contemporary wor-
kers feel compelled to work long hours, beyond what is neces-
sary, to protect against an uncertain tomorrow (Riech, 2001).
The individual workaholic may view these overages as a risk
investment, hoping that more time investment today will reap
future rewards. But on an aggregate basis this risk investment
operates as a source of social exploitation and a generative
center for organizational wealth. If, for example, all employees
of a firm work fifty hours a week instead of forty to achieve a
promotion but only one promotional space exists, only one
worker gets the job. However, the organization enjoys (though
the employees may not) the results of ten extra hours from all
Social Coop tion
Social cooptation is a socially exploitative mechanism that
occurs when individuals are convinced, rather than forced or
bargained with, to give their services inexpensively or for free.
In many cases of social cooptation, individuals or groups are
co-opted into socially exploitative situations because of major
structural changes in society. The change of early industrializa-
tion reshaped the experience of women for more than a century.
According to Hare-Mustin (1988), a “two-tiered production
system has evolved in which the husband as breadwinner and
provider works for money outside the home while a familial
production system continues within” (p. 37). Industrialization
and the birth of the family wage (Quadagno, 1990) redefined
gender roles (Coontz, 1992; Glass & Estes, 1997) and margi-
nalized women. These structural changes co-opted women into
a new role of helpmate (Assmann, 2009), working hard but not
receiving adequate compensation or recognition in the family or
society. The social cooption of women is evident when they
serve as primary informal caregivers to their spouses, parents,
in-laws, and children. (A large proportion of caregiving, so-
cially co-opted women also face social inequity in the formal
work sector.) The cooption of women as caregivers provides
strong cost-saving benefits at the expense of the wealth, health,
and wellbeing of women who, in response to societal expecta-
tions, are placed in uncompensated and undervalued roles.
One might ask why the gap between needs and resources
persists. It is apparently not the case that, in wealthier societies,
increasing productivity narrows that gap. There appear to be
several reasons for its continuing existence. Galbraith theorized
that, in modern society, “the more wants that are satisfied, the
more new ones are born” (1958: p. 125). Ever-increasing de-
mand drives continuous expansion of production; instead of
satiating wants, production compels people to further consume
and demand. Such a driving compulsion to consume, Galbraith
argues, has led to the U.S. economy’s focus on production and
consumption. The whole system, it seems, is predicated on the
quest to meet expanding needs and wants.
Related to the focus on production and consumption is the
concept of relative deprivation (Samual Stouffer, et al., 1949;
Vanneman & Pettigrew, 1972; Gurr, 1970; Walker & Pettigrew,
1984). That is, all societies are comprised of those who possess
more and those who possess less. In a wealthy society, those
not quite as wealthy as their peers may feel relatively deprived
of the satisfactions of their needs when compared with wealth-
ier peers. “One man’s consumption becomes his neighbor’s
wish,” explains Galbraith (1952: p. 125). Relative deprivation,
or “keeping up with the Jones,” may be a driving force in the
lives of persons, and may incite the constant need for expand-
ing production. Frank (1999) found that most Americans would
rather make $100,000 and have their neighbors make $85,000,
than to have their neighbors make $200,000 and themselves
$110,000. Therefore, “relative income matters” (Wheelan, 2002:
p. 114). That the needs and wants of some individuals are satis-
fied generates unfavorable social comparison to the rest of so-
ciety and probably fuels constant demands for growth. As a
result, the gap between needs and resources—at least partially
fueled by the wealth of peers—persists.
The decay of ends also fuels the persistence of a needs-and-
resources gap. As Merton (1968) observes, there is an interac-
tion between means and ends. Needs and wants represent one
kind of end. As a society grows richer, the wants faction grows,
since basic needs are already met. But ends, once achieved,
tend to decay. Disappointment sets in, and new preferences
arise. Thus ends are indefinitely extended, and the gap persists.
Problems at the total resource level are compounded by dis-
tributive difficulties. Societies are rarely able to use the sum of
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J. TROPMAN, E. NICKLETT
resources available. Institutional theory suggests that organiza-
tions within society hold onto procedures for undertaking tasks,
commonly referred to as “myths and ceremonies,” long after
they become outmoded (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Meyer &
Rowen, 1977). These myths and ceremonies usually take the
form of organizational or societal practices that lead to ineffi-
ciency. For example, in twenty-first century American culture,
banks may refuse to lend though money is available because of
ideas they have about “the market.” Families overspend at
holiday time, because “that is what we do”. But both of these
myths and ceremonies reflect cultural norms; inside the organi-
zation and in the society as a whole, they are retained and re-
ceive sacred status. Institutional theory of organizations further
suggests that societal forces and expectations shape how or-
ganizations act internally (Scott, 1995). Thus, even though
resources may be avaible their use may be constrained, or
required, by cultural norms, further compounding the budget
ba lancing efforts. Societal approb ation of myths and c eremo nie s
provides extrinsic legitimization for an organization at the ex-
pense of internal period task efficiency (Meyer & Rowan,
1977). However, societies cannot always capitalize on the
available resources because inefficient practices have become
sacred. While these myths and ceremonies are not necessarily
socially exploitative, organizations’ quests for legitimacy often
waste resources and exacerbate the needs/wants-versus-re-
The free market, a powerful construct in contemporary Ame-
rican society, is another inefficient use of resources. As the
ubiquitous “prisoner’s dilemma” and much of the collective
action literature (Olson, 1965) illustrates, acting individually
can, in some cases, lead to a worse outcome than acting collec-
tively. It is usually in the immediate interest of any actor to act
according to individual intentions. Thus individual action at the
heart of the free-market system wastes resources. Such scena-
rios lead to market failures (Wheelan, 2002). For example,
while it is in the interest of everyone to protect the environment,
it is in the immediate interest of each firm to pollute. Doing so
is cheaper in the short-run and could provide the polluting firm
with a competitive advantage. In this way, acting on immediate
self-interest produces a less-efficient use of societal resources
than acting collectively.
While all societies show a predilection toward social exploit-
tation, it seems that some societies are more exploitative than
others. The prevalence of social exploitation can vary depend-
ing upon the socially achieved balance between norms of suffi-
ciency and norms of acquisition. Norms of sufficiency focus on
obtaining the amount of a good necessary to meet a base stan-
dard for a group of people. Such a framework dampens the grip
of both relative deprivation and the need to consume. Norms of
acquisition tend to support an endless round of activities and
achievements, resulting in over-work.15
Achievement may best be thought of as acquisition motiva-
tion or need-to-acquire (Atkinson & Feather, 1966). No amount
of money is enough; no amount of power, status, or reward is
sufficient (Barnes, 2002).16 The achievement of any goal re-
quires that it be set aside and the next goal established. When
an athlete runs a four-minute mile, then a three-minute, fifty-
nine second mile becomes the next goal. This acquisitive domi-
nance focused upon the production process usually requires
insensitivity to humanity. “Inhumane” training schedules for
the athletes striving to attain a three-minute, fifty-nine second
mile represent a (usually self-inflicted) example. But the at-
tempt to continually extend one’s power, influence, and wealth
is often associated with insensitivity to the harm that these ex-
tensions inflict on others. Further, acquisitive dominance can be
enhanced through social exploitation, creating an affinity be-
tween the two.
Social Exploitation as an Analytic Lens
Social exploitation is a useful lens through which to consider
problems that are interconnected, though they might appear to
be disparate or discrete.
As discussed above, the United States and its various societal
subunits have a long history of social exploitation. Despite its
record of social exploitation, the United States and various
subunits within the United States developed a pattern of op-
posing exploitation (Meyer & Tarrow, 1998). In the second half
of the twentieth century, United States’ society made important
strides in disarming socially exploitative patterns.
The new, post-World War II affluence of the 1950s made
exploitative social patterns clearer, enabling society and its
subunits to identify the patterns and the possibilities for replac-
ing them. The subsequent “rights revolution” of the 1960s ge-
nerated cultural pressure to supplant exploitative centers within
American society. During thi s rights revolution exploited groups
asserted rights, most of which focused on aimed at stopping or
curtailing exploitative activity of power-holding groups. Al-
though social exploitation in the United States persists, society
and its subunits have made tremendous strides toward mitigat-
ing exploitation and restoring the rights of previously exploited
It became evident during and after this restorative process
that restoring rights is an expensive undertaking. After all, ex-
ploitative patterns exist to secure inexpensive labor. When a
society moves away from these patterns, it loses free or cheap
labor and additional in co me.
Burgeoning personal debt accumulated in the United States
since the 1980s, when viewed through the lens of social exploi-
tation, can be understood as one tactic a society uses when the
gap between needs and wants and resources becomes too great.
It borrows, effectively shifting the exploitative debt burden to
The borrowing tactic, however, has many obvious costs,
among them cost shifting to future groups and high debt that
can curtain needed investments. (Opposition to this tactic sur-
faces periodically, as it did in the early 1990s, and as it may in
the near future in response to the global financial crisis of 2007/
2008.) Because a borrowing tactic shifts, but does not mitigate,
exploitative societal patterns, American society needs new ap-
proaches that permit it to actually narrow the gap between
needs and wants and resources, in effect to “balance the
15Social comparisons influence subjective experiences. See Stouffer et al.
(1949) The American soldier: Adjustment during Army life.
16Barnes (200 2) argues that belief in American achievement ideology g ene-
rally entails blaming underachievement on attitudinal or moral differences
among individuals. Those who critique the achievement ideology generally
oint to institutional and structural forces as underlying some differences in
Two general types of solutions are possible. One is to re-
strain needs and wants. This is a strategy that more thrift-
oriented societies are likely to adopt, as evidenced in the cur-
rent European Union currency crisis. In this circumstance,
thrift-oriented societies such as Germany are able to balance
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
J. TROPMAN, E. NICKLETT
needs, wants, and resources. Other countries such as Spain,
Portugal, Greece, Italy, and Ireland have been compelled to
undertake mandatory “austerity” or adopt “balancing the bu-
Given the current produce-and-consume socioeconomic pa-
radigm in the United States, it is unlikely that American society
will elect to restrain needs and wants. Absent a solution to this
imbalance, it is possible that American society will continue to
exploit vulnerable populations. For example, the U.S. economy
depends on the labor of millions of undocumented immigrants
who work for low wages (Sunn, Fogg, Harrington, Khatiwada,
Trub’skyy, & Palma, 2002); lower socioeconomic-status per-
sons still face discrimination and opportunity limitations that
force them into exploited positions. Moreover, people of color
or women in higher-status positions may continue to encounter
exploited situations due to “last-to-be-hired, first-to-be-fired”
discrimination. Professions dominated by women, and female
workers in general, still face a serious compensation gap. The
reasons behind these persisting inequalities are myriad, ranging
from overt discrimination to structural differences in demo-
The case study below illustrates how policy makers planning
for the future can benefit from an understanding of social ex-
Case Study: The Elderly and Social Exploitation
Social exploitation assumes many forms. Individuals move
in and out of socially exploitative situations as they engage in
activities that are socially defined as “beneficial” or “a drain” to
society. Wertheimer (1996) identifies such temporary groups as
student athletes or financially motivated surrogate parents.
Groups, however, are more likely to be exploited when they
have a vulnerable social identity—especially one compounded
by financial or political vulnerability. As argued by Sample
(2003), nature, animals, and works of art are also vulnerable to
social exploitation. Socially exploited groups are diverse; they
are often targeted according to defined contemporary social
problems. As a population group, for example the elderly are
increasingly experiencing social exploitation, exacerbated by
recent financial and population trends and combined with other
such societal vulnerabilities as poverty or discrimination.
Since the 1935 passage of the original Social Security Act
(P.L. 74-271, 49 Stat. 620), the elderly have been fairly well
protected from exploitation (as measured by the number of
elderly living in poverty) in the United States. Indeed, the po-
verty rate among the elderly dropped from 35 percent in the
1960s, to approximately 11 percent in the early twenty-first
century17. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities studies
indicates that, in the absence of Social Security legislation,
approximately one in two of America’s elderly, rather than one
in eight, would live in poverty (Porter, Larin, & Primus, 1999).
However, a number of recent trends provide cause for con-
cern about a possible rise in social exploitation of the elderly.
The numbers above do not take the cost of healthcare into con-
sideration—particularly medic ations which is estimated to dou-
ble the estimated rate of poverty among the elderly. By 2030,
the percentage of Americans over age 65 will increase from
about 12.4 percent of the population to as high as 20 percent
(Administration on Aging, 2005). Thus, by 2030, 70 million
Americans will be considered elderly, more than twice the
number in 2000 (Administration on Aging, 2005). Under the
weight of these numbers, the stability of social programs—most
importantly Social Security, Medicare, and private pensions—
will be placed in jeopardy (Hamilton, 1997). Exacerbating this
possible problem, some data suggest, is the possibility that
Baby Boomer retirees have not adequately saved for retirement
(Stanford News Service, 1995), and unforeseen problems such
as investment losses (stock market instability, falling house
prices) could exacerbate this problem. Given these circum-
stances there is reason to project that many older adults will be
forced to work at least part-time, introducing a new growth
population in the labor force.
Elderly workers are stereotyped in many of the same ways as
other marginalized populations. In fact, Nelson argues, “age
prejudice in this country is one of the most socially condoned
and institutionalized forms of prejudice, such that researchers
may tend to overlook it as a phenomenon to be studied” (Nel-
son, 2005: p. 207; Palmore, 1999). Since the United States has
a youth-centered culture, the elderly are in many cases regarded
as less capable. “Older persons today are treated as second-
class citizens with nothing to offer society,” and “these negative
attitudes have persisted in our society, and have in fact, only in-
creased” (Nelson, 2002; Nelson, 2005: p. 208).
Because the youth-centric culture views the elderly as less
valuable, prospective employers may find it possible to offer
them a lower wage. Assuming that those elderly who continue
in the workforce are those in financial need, they may face the
compounded discrimination of wages based on age and social
class, race/ethnicity, or gender.
Data also suggest that such economic exploitation of the
elderly could lead to further stratification along the same lines
that currently exist. Specifically, if the predicted shortage of
skilled workers materializes, it is likely that highly skilled se-
niors will continue to be a valued commodity in the labor force
(Haider & Loughran, 2001; Atwater & Jones, 2004). But data
suggest that even skilled elderly workers receive substantially
less pay then they did when they were younger, due in large
part to their preferences for greater flexibility (Haider &
However, those elderly who find themselves at the bottom of
the economic ladder (Haider & Loughran, 2001) can expect to
find themselves employed in the fastest-growing jobs sector:
low-wage service jobs, with few benefits and unpredictable
schedules (Kalleberg et al., 2000). This segment of the elderly
population will be especially vulnerable to social exploitation.
The elderly are vulnerable to social exploitation for multiple
reasons. Age itself creates some vulnerability, as does the
health of the elderly population, which is not as robust as the
non-elderly population (Estes, 1983). Then, too, the elderly
population is comprised of a higher percentage of women than
men (Administration on Aging, 2005), creating a group suscep-
tible to compound exploitation: elderly women. Finally, the
group benefited from social legislation enacted in the late twen-
tieth century. They enjoyed improvements in Social Security,
Medicare, and Medicaid, and support of numerous state and
local initiatives. Given these benefits, the elderly might, as a
group, be convinced to relinquish its financial protections as
American society balances its checkbook (which seems unlikely).
However, these social benefits also demonstrate the political
power of the elderly—especially as a large voting block. This
political power which, in the twentieth century, made Social
Security the “third rail” of American politics, does represent
17www.nber.org/ag inghealth/summer04/w1 0466.html.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 117
J. TROPMAN, E. NICKLETT
some protection from increasing social exploitat io n .
However, the older adult could nevertheless remain a target
for social exploitation. What forms might such exploitation
assume? Since the elderly are a politically powerful group, and
society is more aware of exploitation than in previous genera-
tions, overt coercive exploitation is unlikely. Thus increased
social exploitation may capitalize on elderly vulnerabilities in
more subtle forms, stemming from major shifts in society’s
structural trends that lead to possible compromised positions.
Exploitation of the elderly seems to be growing in the area of
kinship care. Kinship caregivers “are raising the children of
their relatives, who for a wide range of reasons are unable to do
so themselves” (Shaefer & Talley, forthcoming). Usually kin-
ship care occurs when a grandparent raises grandchildren, for
reasons that include death, incarceration, severe mental illness,
abuse, or neglect on the part of a parent (McLean & Thomas,
1996). Recent trends suggest that foster care administrators find
kinship care a preferable alternative to foster care placement
(Testa & Slack, 2002). As this is more prevalent in the African
American community, kinship care provided by (usually black
female) grandparents is a mechanism through which inequality
is exacerbated by social exploitation. Informal care giving for
spouses is also highest among the elderly population, where
both the provider and the recipient of care are likely to be
physically disabl e d.
However, in most states, kinship caregivers receive no sup-
port for their wards. In many cases caregivers draw heavily on
any financial resources have saved for retirement, leaving them
in a financially precarious position (Shaefer & Talley, forth-
coming). A case can be made that society is shifting the burden
of parenthood onto grandparents of children who, in the past,
have been entitled to foster care resources. While there is no
overt exploiter, this can be understood as a type of social ex-
ploitation. Grandparents—who may already be socially disad-
vantaged—fill a role that is not inherently theirs, receive in-
adequate compensation, and have little room for claiming com-
pensation given the moral construction of their undefined care-
giving role as grandparents. These grandparents cannot access
most of the usual supports provided to parents and are not even
eligible for the services other parents could access. As elderly
caregivers, they fend for themselves, while states save substan-
tial resources they would otherwise expend.
Additional exploitation may come in the loss of promised
benefits. Even with the political power the elderly enjoy, there
is much discussion in the press about the cost of medical care,
particularly the cost of medical care for older adults. Such dis-
cussion is ominous if not specifically prognostic. Of course it
may be necessary to cut or restructure some benefits, in an ef-
fort to reconcile needs and wants. It may be important to adjust
the tax system; to remove certain exemptions; to deal with ris-
ing medical costs. But when these changes are links in a larger
pattern, a problem emerges. The elderly have enjoyed a pro-
tected status during the last seventy years. Will future changes
endanger the protection th ey receiv ed in the twentieth century?
Social exploitation appears a common result of the univer-
sal gap between needs and wants and available resources,
whe ther societal, organizational, familial, or individual. Thi s pa-
per builds a theoretical framework for understanding social
exploitation, and discusses some of its forms, motivations, and
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