What is Poverty? (4): Does the Concept of Poverty Collapse Under the Weight of Historical Comparisons?

Many of the people who are considered poor in developed countries have a higher living standard than the average middle class citizens of some centuries ago. If we bracket the minority of the extremely poor in developed countries (the homeless for example), poverty today seems to be a relatively comfortable position to be in, once you see it in a historical perspective.

The same is true for people in poor countries. In 1820, average income per person was low everywhere in the world: about $500 in China and South Asia, and about $1000-$1500 in Europe (1993 US$ PPP). In developing countries today the range is between $1000 and $3100 (the world average is about $6000, the US has more than $40,000). So, the poor of today are equally well off or even better off than the average world citizen 200 years ago. 75% of the world’s population lived on less than $1 a day in 1820. Today, almost no one does in the West. In China it’s less then 20%, in South Asia 40%, in Africa half. Globally, it’s less than a quarter. Historically, almost everyone was poor; today it’s a minority.

So it seems almost futile to talk about poverty today. What is defined as poverty now was the normal way of life not so long ago. However, if that’s the way you want to go, the concept of poverty evaporates. You’ll always find someone who’s worse off. You just need to go sufficiently far back in time (or move in space) to find people who are more deprived and who make the current poor (or the local poor) seem relatively well off. The baseline is then the caveman and everyone else isn’t really “poor”.

Hence, if you want to keep talking about poverty, you can’t engage in historical comparisons. Does that mean that poverty can only be measured against the current average standard of living? That poverty is a percentage of current median income? In that case, there will always be poverty and the fight against it is a Sisyphean task. I’m not entirely convinced of the usefulness of the concept of relative poverty – that you should compare people’s living standards to society’s average standard (where poverty becomes basically income inequality) – and the historical rather than spatial version of relative poverty reinforces my doubts. However, I know that people commonly see poverty as a relative thing and that they may feel deprived because they compare themselves to their living compatriots and not only because they are below a certain absolute level of income, consumption or capabilities. Conversely, the middle classes of some centuries ago, even if they had the same standard of living as some of today’s poor, felt good about themselves because they looked at the poor of their time and felt that they had done comparatively well.

Still, relative poverty is not the only solution to the problem of historical comparisons. Poverty can be measured relative to average historical or current standards of living, but can also be measured by comparing consumption, income or capabilities to a commonly accepted absolute minimum level (for example a minimum amount of calorie intake).

In the latter case, it’s not important how rich the rich really are, or what the median income is, or how poor the poor were centuries ago. It’s important to know what are people’s basic needs, how much they cost, and how many people currently can’t buy the stuff to fulfill their basic needs. Of course, these basic needs can’t always be determined scientifically (as in the case of calorie intake) and some level of arbitrariness is unavoidable. A lot depends on the capabilities we believe are necessary in order to have a minimally decent life, and that’s controversial.

I also understand that social norms evolve and that basic needs can change over time. Several centuries ago a microwave and a cellphone were obviously not a basic need; now you will be considered poor if you lack these tools. In a pre-modern agrarian society, you would have been considered poor only when you were on the brink of starvation. You didn’t need technological tools, child care, education etc. in order to have a minimally decent life, because no one had those things and your functioning in the economy didn’t require them. Today, if you don’t have them, you’ll feel excluded, less than normal, weird, “trash” and in certain cases you’ll end up deeper in poverty because you’ll have a hard time finding a job if you don’t have a car, a cell phone or child care.

Also, why shouldn’t we become more ambitious over time? Should we be content if we’re able to avoid only the worst kind of deprivation? Or should we try to continually improve many different capabilities? The latter is I think a sign of civilization and progress. That doesn’t mean we should scatter our attention and forget to focus on the worst deprivation. It only means we shouldn’t stop after we’ve dealt with the worst. And we haven’t dealt with the worst simply because the percentages of those worst off have been coming down (see the numbers cited above). Indeed, a smaller share of the world’s population suffers from low income than some time ago. But because of population growth – which is a good thing resulting from higher life expectancy rates – the total number of people with low income is now higher. And total numbers also count, just as much as percentages. As Thomas Pogge has argued, the Holocaust wouldn’t be any less horrible if it turned out that the number of people killed was a smaller percentage of the world’s population than initially thought.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (21): The Feedback Loop Between Absolute and Relative Poverty

I’ve come across an interesting and novel argument (novel to me at least) in favor of measuring and doing something about relative poverty, and against an exclusive focus on absolute poverty. Absolute poverty – in other words, the absence of those resources necessary for the fulfillment of basic needs such as nutrition, shelter etc. – remains of course an important concern, but relative poverty is not hogwash: if you lack most of the things an average person in your society takes for granted, then you’ll feel deprived and excluded, ashamed like Adam Smith’s day-laborer who can’t appear in public without a linen shirt,

the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct.

Linen shirts aren’t a basic need and one can be quite comfortable without it, but being without it in a certain society at a certain time in history can signal lack of desert. It can diminish the esteem others feel for you, as well as your self-esteem. As a result, you may be excluded from parts of society, and this exclusion may make it more difficult for you to acquire the resources necessary for your basic resources. Hence, your relative poverty leads you into absolute poverty, and your absolute poverty obviously makes your relative poverty worse. And when considering this vicious circle, we’re evidently not talking solely about linen shirts.

Anthropologists and economists have pointed out that festivals, celebrations and communal feasts are not just entertainment. They have an important social role in maintaining the networks that are crucial to coping with poverty and even escaping it. Household budget surveys have often revealed seemingly high expenditures on celebrations and festivals by very poor people. It is also known that clothing can serve an important social role. (source)

People therefore have very good reasons to claim that their well-being does not only depend on the avoidance of absolute deprivation but also on comparisons with others. Comparisons may even cause absolute deprivation.

More on this issue here and here.

Measuring Poverty (11): The Subjective Approach

Usually, we measure poverty on the basis of objective numbers about income or consumption. Income or consumption levels are put on a continuum from lowest to highest and somewhere along the continuum we put a threshold that indicates the difference between poor and non-poor. For example, the Indian government uses a consumption threshold of 2,400 calories a day in rural areas and 2,100 in urban areas. The World Bank uses an income threshold of one dollar a day (corrected for purchasing power).

There are numerous disadvantages to these objective approaches. One is the inevitably arbitrary positioning of the threshold. One dollar a day, even after correction for purchasing power, means different things to different people in different areas, circumstances, groups etc. Calorie intake also means different things to different people, depending on people’s way of life etc. Moreover, income levels are notoriously difficult to measure (poor people in particular have a lot of informal income, e.g. “income” coming from all sorts of assistance from relatives etc.). Consumption as well is a difficult measure: it doesn’t necessarily have to mean just calorie intake for example. Poverty can mean a lack of non-food consumption. And if you focus on calorie levels after all, you’ll miss the issue of the quality of the food.

Also the third most common approach to poverty measurement suffers from some disadvantages. This approach, also called the multidimensional approach, tries to assess to what extent people suffer from a series of different types of deprivation: do they have access to water, to electricity, are they literate, malnourished etc. Rather than purely quantitative these measurements can be qualitative: a binary yes/no is often enough. Unfortunately, also this measurement system has some drawbacks: it fails to distinguish between deprivation and choice; there’s necessarily a level of arbitrariness in the determination of the “basic needs” or forms of deprivation that are measured; and these needs are often overly general, obscuring some very specific needs for some people in some areas or groups.

That’s why people have been searching for alternative measures of poverty. One such alternative is the use of surveys that ask people about poverty. You could ask people what they believe is “the smallest amount of money a family needs each week to get along in this community”, “what is the level of income below which families can’t make ends meet” etc. That would remove some of the arbitrariness of the cutoff line between poor and non-poor, and putting that decision in the hands of the people rather than the scientists.

Or you could also present people with evocative descriptions of different family situations, of types of families according to their level of income or consumption or according to the type of deprivation. People would then have to decide for every family situation what they believe the standard of living is and which situation can be described as “poverty”. That would specify what poverty means to people. And what it means to people is much more important than what it means to researchers and statisticians.

A disadvantage of this subjective approach is the wellknown effect that people’s income levels affect their judgments about income adequacy. In short, relatively rich people overestimate the level of income inadequacy. A solution to this problem could be to ask only poor respondents about poverty, on the reasonable assumption that poor people are the best experts on poverty. But that’s a circular reasoning: you already think you know what poverty is before you start asking about it. Since you focus only on the poor, you’ve already decided what poverty is.

An advantage of the subjective approach is that researchers don’t have to list basic needs or types of deprivation in order to assess what poverty is; people tell you what poverty is. There’s also no need for researchers to specify regionally or socially undifferentiated and general cutoff levels of income or consumption below which people are considered to be poor.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (17): Freedom From Nature

From the beginning of human history, man has always tried to escape from natural necessity. Christianity views our earthly existence as a valley of tears and is generally hostile to nature, especially the nature within us. Genesis 1:26-27 states that man has been made to rule over nature, rather than the other way around. Philosophers also have long believed that the body is the prison of the mind, limiting the mind with its passions and natural needs.

Indeed, these needs are particularly powerful. We have to struggle continuously in order to preserve our biological organism, to feed the biological process of our body and to stay alive. During much of history and still today in many places in the world, this struggle has been a tough one and has left people without time or energy for anything else. But even the wealthy among us have to work to acquire the necessities of life, and this work has no end except death. And those very few who don’t have to work at all and can live off their capital, have to consume in order to survive. So even they are still tied to natural necessity. Necessity is always there, it’s just its weight that differs from person to person.

The current level of scientific, technological and economic development, resulting from centuries of intellectual progress, makes it possible for many of us to mimic the rentiers, to introduce some moments of leisure in between sessions of work and to focus on something else besides mere survival. Moreover, it has eliminated many harmful types of work or softened the harmful consequences of work. Division of labor has allowed us to gain efficiency through specialization and serialization so that each of us doesn’t have to produce all goods necessary for consumption by ourselves. However, no matter how technologically advanced and economically efficient we are, our needs always reaffirm themselves and we regularly have to give up leisure and return to work and consumption. Some of us have to return to work more rapidly than others, depending on the use our society can make of the available technologies.

Nature is an eternal necessity, imposed on human and animals alike. During our entire existence, nature imposes certain very powerful and compelling needs on us, which we have to fulfill over and over again if we want to stay alive. By producing and consuming we serve nature and nature rules over us. This submission to nature is part of the human condition. Working is a kind of metabolism between man and nature, an eternal, repetitive circle prescribed by nature and biology, a circle of need, labor, production, consumption and then need again. The activities that are necessary in order to stay alive cannot be executed once and for all. Except for birth and death, there is no beginning or end. We always have to go back to work. Men daily remake their own life, in the words of Marx. And the fact that this is easy for some of us doesn’t change the fact that it is necessary.

This perpetual struggle to respond to the biological necessities of our bodies can be painful and a limit on our freedom. It can be tough in itself and when it is, it also limits our capacity to do other things. Nature is a yoke and a burden and we try to get rid of it or at least to soften it and to make it less painful through technology, cooperation etc. Indeed, it seems that we have managed to improve our production methods to such an extent that a certain level of freedom from nature has become possible, at least for those of us lucky enough to live in parts of the world where the use of this technology is affordable. The lucky ones stopped suffering the pain of toil and became able to do other things.

However, as long as we are biological beings – and even the luckiest among us still are – we will never be able to free ourselves completely from natural necessity and labor. All we can do is control it and soften it, make the yoke a bit less heavy and painful, and thereby dedicate ourselves to something “higher”, such as culture, science etc. We can put effort in the production of more durable goods, such as art, cities, homes and machines, some of which we can then use to achieve even more freedom from nature. We no longer have to enslave other people or oppress them, although we still do for other reasons. Other people do not have to carry our yoke together with their own. Slaves, the human instruments (slaves were called “instrumentum vocale”), can be replaced by mechanical and electronic instruments.

The relative ease of modern labor for some of us should not make us forget that we always remain natural beings bound by natural necessity. Necessity of the bearable kind is still necessity. Our artificial world is always situated on earth and in nature, and we will probably always remain natural beings. And I don’t believe genetic modification, nanotechnology, space travel or biotechnology will fundamentally change this. No matter how comfortable our lives are, we always run the risk of a sudden relapse into a tougher kind of natural necessity. And you don’t need an apocalyptic imagination to understand this; sickness, unemployment, a natural disaster or a producers’ strike will suffice. We may think we are free but small events can throw us back into full-fledged necessity.

So even the situation of the luckiest among us is potentially precarious. Nevertheless, on average human naturality has been substantially eroded during the last centuries, and this has often been described as progress, not without reason. Some even go further and claim that this progress in our mastery of natural necessity has contributed to the progress of humanity as a whole because life is supposed to become less oppressive and violent when poverty and natural necessity retreat to the background. Natural necessity indeed causes strife, conflict over scarce resources, slavery, corruption etc. but things are probably much more complicated that this and so it is fair to say that one should be careful with generalizations about the progress of humanity.

One of the perhaps most depressing aspects of life in nature is the impossibility the create memory. It was Hannah Arendt who stressed that life in nature creates survival, if we are lucky, and even decent and comfortable survival, if we are very lucky, but not anything else. The products needed for survival can hardly be called creations because they don’t last. Obviously there can only be memory when something lasts. The permanence of the activity of labor is in strange contrast with the ephemeral nature of the things produced by this activity. The only thing that remains after the activity is done, is life itself. The products of the activity are destroyed by consumption (or decay if they aren’t consumed). The laboring person leaves nothing behind. This ephemeral nature or work (Arendt actually distinguished between “labor” and “work” but I’ll keep that for another time) is an insult to our craving for something permanent and durable, for history, posterity and memory.

That is why, in its struggle against nature, humanity does not only use technology or economic efficiency. It also uses culture. The word “culture” comes from the Latin verb “colere” of which “cultus” is a conjugation. “Colere” means to cultivate, to preserve, to maintain, to care etc. Culture, therefore, initially meant the use of nature, of the earth and of the instruments and technologies appropriate for this use (“to cultivate”). But culture has quickly acquired another, metaphorical sense in which it not only means the cultivation, maintenance and care of nature as a weapon in the struggle against necessity, but also the construction and preservation of durable things that run counter to the cyclical and ephemeral processes of nature, things that are not consumed and do not immediately disappear after being used because they are cared for (care is part of the meaning of culture). Hence the association between culture and art, art being the most durable of human activity (at least it used to be). Culture in the sense of durable human production means production of memory, and hence, derivatively, the cultivation of the mind on the basis of memory (study, schooling etc.).

Our durable world is a world of cultural products that do not need to be consumed. Contrary to the products of the economy, they do not have to be destroyed in order to fulfill their function. On the contrary, they exist because they have to last. And because they last they bestow durability and memory on the world. They are used and cared for rather than consumed, and often they are even useless. As such, they are another step in our liberation from nature, together with but in a way very different from science, technology and economic efficiency.

What’s the relevance of all this for human rights? An obvious and unoriginal point is that human rights need science and technology. In very primitive and prehistoric societies – with the possible exception of those few idyllic and probably imaginary societies where people didn’t have to work and could just pick the fruits from the trees – many human rights were irrelevant in the sense that they couldn’t even arise as an issue: what’s the point of free speech when you’re neck-deep in the struggle for survival? Only rights such as the right to life, to physical security and a few others could even make sense in such societies because the prerequisite for other human rights – leisure for example – simply did not exist. And even these basic rights couldn’t be conceptualized because the people who would have to do the conceptualizing simply didn’t have the time for it.

Another, perhaps more original point is that human rights don’t only require science and the technological applications of science, but culture as well. Cultural products, such as a Constitution – a highly “cultivated” durable product – and permanent government institutions are also prerequisite for human rights. Societies that have neither a scientific mastery of nature, nor a cultural mastery, can’t be rights based societies: they can’t be because they can’t protect human rights, and they can’t protect them because they are inconceivable to them.

This is related to the distinction between negative and positive definitions of human rights. Rights can be viewed as negative, which means that they merely require omissions or forbearance. Given the discussion above, it’s clear that this view is incomplete. Under a negative conception of human rights, a meaningful enjoyment of these rights is frustrated by inadequacies in the scientific and cultural mastery of nature. (I deliberately ignore the ecological dimension of human rights; I’ll talk about that problem another time). In other words, rather than saying that people have a specific human right, we should perhaps say that they have a right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of that right.

The Ethics of Human Rights (33): Different Types of Justice and the Link to Equality

What I want to do here is list some of the types of justice that are commonly identified, and see how they are connected to the concept of equality in order to find out if the traditional link between justice and equality holds up to scrutiny. So let’s first have a look at some possible meanings of the word “justice”.

1. Distributive justice

Distributive justice (often called social justice) is about the allocation of resources and burdens. Justice may require that this allocation is done in accordance with certain rights (e.g. an equal right to a basic standard of living), merit or other criteria. This type of justice is about the fairness of what people get (e.g. basic goods, recognition, rewards etc.).

2. Contributive justice

Contributive justice is the opposite: it’s about what people are expected or able, not to get, but to contribute to society. It’s mainly about work: should people be required to be productive members of society, and if they are, should they have a right to organize their contribution in a fair and just way (for example, is it fair or just that some people are bound to menial tasks while others have much more interesting work?).

3. Criminal justice

Criminal justice is about rectification of interpersonal harm, about the restoration (when possible) of an initial position disturbed by harmful behavior, about retribution and punishment, and about restitutions or reparations of previous harm. Criminal justice is therefore often called corrective justice, rectificatory justice or punitive justice. And sometimes these words are supposed to refer to entirely different (sub)types of justice because there can indeed be substantial differences: criminal punishment may be intended to correct or rectify a wrong (e.g. theft), but it can also be used as plain retribution or even vengeance when the wrong is such that it can’t be corrected (e.g. murder).

Some argue that criminal justice is a type of distributive justice. One interpretation of distributive justice sees it as the distribution or allocation of rewards and punishments according to merit or desert. Punishment for a crime is then distributive justice. But that seems to be stretching the meaning of the word “distribution”. A judge in some case does not distribute anything from the offender to the victim and the victim recovers nothing (e.g. in the case of murder). Those are precisely the cases in which criminal justice is not corrective. I think it’s preferable to keep these concepts separated.

Criminal justice includes the work of the Courts, but also less formal corrective or reparative models, such as truth commissions, apologies etc. Transitional justice, some forms of transgenerational justice, mob justice or vigilante justice also fall under this header.

4. Procedural justice

Procedural justice, unlike the previous types, isn’t about certain just or fair outcomes (just distributions, contributions or punishments), but about fair procedures. The focus is on the processes of arriving at a certain decision (judicial, political etc.). The rules governing the fairness of trials are an example of procedural justice, as are the rules governing legislation in a democracy. People will differ over the fairness or correctness of the legal or political decisions, but they can agree on the fairness of the process. In many cases, defendants in criminal trials or losers in democratic elections may be disappointed in the outcomes but accept them nonetheless because they see that there was fairness in the process; for example, they were allowed to make their case in public with equal resources, there was an impartial judge who weighed the different arguments and so on.

5. Other types

Other types of justice include divine justice (usually a mix of distributive justice for the poor and criminal justice for the sinful), poetic justice (the fateful infliction of harm upon the harm-doer), instrumental justice (doing justice in order to achieve something else, e.g. deterrence) etc.

The link to equality

How are these different types of justice linked to equality?

Distributive justice is often seen as the most egalitarian type of justice, because most interpretations of distributive justice see it as a kind of equalizer of basic goods. Everyone needs a fair share of basic goods, and that means an equal share. Poverty reduction is typically seen as an exercise in distributive justice. However, distributive justice doesn’t need to be egalitarian. Aristotle for example claimed that justice wasn’t merely equality for the equal but also inequality for the unequal: we usually sense that there is an injustice when a teacher gives the same grades to everyone, the meritorious as well as the lazy. However, you could say that even this merit-based type of distributive justice implies equality, namely equality between reward and merit.

Contributive justice as well focuses on an equal contribution in life’s pleasant and unpleasant tasks. Regarding criminal justice the picture is more blurred. Originally, criminal justice focused heavily on equality. The biblical lex talionis – an eye for an eye – was an explicitly – and horrendously – egalitarian form of punishment. The wrongdoer should suffer the same injury as his victim. That’s not fashionable anymore, but still we see that criminal justice strives towards some degree of equality or at least proportionality or correlation between the type of harm inflicted and the nature or weight of the punishment. It’s unfair to impose a life sentence for the crime of not paying your debts, or a fine for murder. Strict equality is, of course, often impossible: you can’t execute Hitler 6 million times. But sometimes it’s possible – i.e. in the case of theft or property damages – and we can demand full correction or rectification from the criminal. Most of the time, some kind of proportionality is more appropriate, not only because we want to avoid cruel punishments but also because we don’t have any other choice.

Procedural justice as well relies heavily on equality: an equal right to call witnesses, equal weight given to testimony, equal duration of arguments, equal access to courts and media etc. Even poetic justice is a form of equality because the wrongdoer suffers the same harm as he inflicted on or intended for someone else. In the story of Esther, for example, Haman is executed on the gallows he prepared for someone else. Something similar can be seen in all examples of poetic justice.

So, whereas justice is not the same as equality, the links between these two concepts are quite strong.