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.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (10): Prejudice According to Allport’s Scale

People who are aware of, and ashamed of, their prejudices are well on the road to eliminating them. Gordon Allport

Gordon Allport, a psychologist, created Allport’s Scale in 1954. It’s a measure of the manifestation of prejudice in a society. The scale contains 5 stages of prejudice, ranked by the increasing harm they produce.

Stage 1: antilocution

Antilocution (“speaking against”) means making jokes about another group,’a0but also’a0the expression of hateful opinions. In the former case it’s also called derogatory speech, and in the latter case it’s called hate speech. Both cases can be examples of prejudice, prejudice in the sense of an opinion reflecting negative stereotypes and negative images based on preconceived judgments rather than facts.

Antilocution is often believed to be harmless (“sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you”), but it can harm the self-esteem of the people of the targeted group, and it can clear the way for more harmful forms of prejudice. The line between violent words and violent acts is often very thin. The self-image of a group can be hurt, which can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stage 2: avoidance

People in a group are actively avoided by members of another group. Harm is done through isolation and by preparing the way for more harmful acts. Xenophobia, or the fear of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange, results in exclusion.

Stage 3: discrimination

A group is discriminated against by denying them equal access to opportunities, goods and services. Discrimination is intended to harm a group by preventing it from achieving goals, getting education or jobs, etc.

Stage 3b (added later): subtle aggression

This is an assumption of hierarchy, particularly hierarchy of power, an assumption that somebody has less knowledge because of their age, gender or race or other characteristics and that these people can be excluded in some way.

Stage 4: physical attack

This has become known as hate crime. Groups are the victim of vandalism, the burning of property or violent attacks on someone’s physical integrity such as lynchings, pogroms etc.

Stage 5: extermination

The extermination of a group through genocide, ethnic cleansing etc.