We usually define poverty as a level of income or financial assets below a certain “poverty line”. This poverty line is set, often implicitly, at a level that is supposed to make the difference between decent survival and a life unworthy of human beings. The line is typically a single line, identical across all individuals – or even across nations. The best example is the $1 a day line. This is a single, universal line, adjusted only for purchasing power parity. Many national poverty lines are also fixed and identical for all citizens.
The problems with these fixed and uniform lines have been noticed by many, notably by Amartya Sen. According to Sen – and he’s right I think – being poor means being unable to achieve certain minimally satisfactory states of being and doing, for example the state of being sufficiently nourished, of being mobile, of being free of disease and ignorance, of being sheltered against the forces of nature etc. Poverty is about what people are or are not able to do and about who they are able to be. Poverty is capability-deprivation.
A poverty line only makes sense if it’s set at an amount of money, income or resources that is sufficient to guarantee the required capabilities. A first problem: it’s not at all clear that existing poverty lines are indeed set at a level sufficient to guarantee this. $1 a day in particular seems low, intuitively. Of course there are pragmatic reasons to set the line at a low level (one has to make priorities in life and help the worst off first). But then you’ll have a hard time calling it a poverty line, given the definition of poverty as the inability to achieve certain minimally satisfactory states of being and doing. Call it a survival line instead.
A second, and more serious problem arises from the fact that poverty lines are fixed and uniform. People, however, are obviously not uniform. Different people require different things in order to achieve the same capabilities. A pregnant women or a young mother needs more nutritional resources than the average person in order to achieve the state of being sufficiently nourished. A physically handicapped person needs more resources to achieve the capability of being mobile. If you focus on the average person – which is what you do with a uniform poverty line – then you’ll fail to identify some as being poor, while erroneously identifying others as being poor. And the environment also plays a role. A person living in unsanitary conditions may be forced to drink infected water. This affects his or her calorie absorption, implying a larger than average amount of food necessary to be sufficiently nourished. Cold weather means more effort to protect against the environment. And so on.
Identical capabilities require different levels of resources or income. A single, fixed poverty line obscures this reality. The only good poverty line is individually specific. However, that’s completely impractical. Differentiation across demographic groups, regions, occupations, lifecycle etc. might be more feasible, but at the cost of simplicity. Be that as it may. I would already be happy with increased awareness that there is indeed a problem. Talk of a “line” reduces this awareness, but I’m realistic enough to understand the appeal of something as simple as a line.
More posts in this series are here.