What is Poverty? (5): A Psychological Thing

Poverty is not just the absence of sufficient income or a level of consumption that is below a minimum threshold. Poverty is multidimensional: it also means bad health, high mortality rates, illiteracy etc. And these different elements of poverty tend to have a negative effect on each other (the so-called poverty trap). Being deprived of literacy or education is usually seen as an obstacle to material wellbeing.

The absence of material wellbeing – whether expressed in terms of income, consumption, health, mortality etc. – is often viewed as an isolated evil. However, it’s possible to make the case that it can also have psychological effects that harm people’s mental wellbeing. If this is true, and I think it is, then poverty does more harm than we usually think it does.

I believe it’s widely accepted that poverty does some psychological damage, such as stress, depression, loss of self-esteem and of the feeling of control, loss of ambition and aspirations etc. Although usually people assume – correctly or not – that this type of damage is less severe or less urgent than the physical damage that results from poverty (such as bad health, mortality, hunger etc.). Some even argue that there’s a tendency to overemphasize the link between material deprivation and (the perception of) subjective wellbeing, and that psychological problems which may seem to be caused by material deprivation have in fact other causes (genetics, upbringing, personality etc.).

However, I think the tendency is rather to underestimate the effects on mental wellbeing. A recognition of the psychological effects of poverty would also open the possibility of a more positive evaluation of notions such as poverty as vulnerability and relative poverty. Vulnerability, or a high level of risk of poverty, can perhaps produce the same amount of stress as actual poverty. And one’s self-esteem can suffer as much from actual deprivation (including illiteracy) as from comparative (or relative) deprivation (e.g. comparatively low levels of education or income).

Measuring Poverty (4): The Problem of the Definition of Poverty

Before you can start to measure poverty, you first have to decide what you actually want to measure. What is poverty? That’s not just a philosophical problem because depending on the definition of poverty you use, your measurements will be radically different (even with an identical definition, measurements will be different because of different measurement methods).

Among people who measure poverty, roughly 6 different definitions of poverty are used:

  • insufficient income
  • insufficient consumption spending
  • insufficient calorie intake
  • food consumption spending above a certain share of total spending
  • certain health indicators such as stunting, malnutrition, infant mortality rates or life expectancy
  • certain education indicators such as illiteracy.

None of these definitions is ideal, although the first and second on the list are the most widely used. A few words about the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Income

Advantages:

In developed countries, income is a common definition because it’s easy to measure. Most people in developed countries earn a salary or get their income from sources that are easy to estimate (interest payments, the value of houses, stock market returns etc.). They don’t depend for their income on the climate, crop yields etc. Moreover, developed countries have good tax data which can be used to calculate incomes.

Disadvantages:

In developing countries, however, income data tend to be underestimated because it’s difficult to value the income of farmers and shepherds. Farmers’ incomes fluctuate heavily with climate conditions, crop yields etc. If you ask them one day what their income is, there’s no guarantee that this is a good estimate of their yearly income.

Another disadvantage is that people are generally reluctant to disclose their full income. Some income may have been hidden from the tax administration or may have been earned from illegal activity such as corruption, smuggling, drug trade, prostitution, theft etc. For this reason, using income to estimate poverty means overestimating it.

And, finally, some income may be difficult to calculate (e.g. rising value of livestock).

Consumption

Advantages:

The main advantage of using consumption rather than income to measure poverty is that consumption is much more stable over the year and over a lifetime (see above). Hence, if you ask people about the level of their consumption, they can just tell you about their current situation, without having to go back in time or to predict the future – which they would have to do if you asked them about income. Their current consumption is likely to be representative of their long term consumption, which isn’t the case for income. This is even more true in the case of farmers who depend on the weather for their income and hence have a more volatile income. If you know that farmers are often relatively poor, then this issue is all the more salient for poverty measurement.

Another advantage of using consumption is that people aren’t as reticent to talk about it as they are about certain parts of their income. It’s also appears that people tend to remember their spending better than their income.

Disadvantages:

If you want to measure how much people consume, you have to include durable goods and housing. And consumption of those goods is difficult to measure because it’s difficult to value them. For example, if a household owns a house, you have to estimate what it would cost to rent that particular house and add this to the total consumption of that household, at least if you want to compare their consumption to the consumption of the household next door who has to rent its house. And you can’t make poverty statistics if you don’t make such comparisons. Then you have to do the same for cars etc.

Another difficulty in measuring consumption, is that in developing countries households consume a lot of what they themselves produce on the family farm. This as well is often difficult to value correctly.

And finally, different people have different consumption needs, depending of their age, health, work etc. It’s not clear to me how these different needs are taken into account when consumption is measured and used as an indicator of poverty.

Other definitions

Calorie intake: the problem with this is that different people need different amounts of calories (depending on their type of work, their age, health etc.), and that it isn’t very easy to measure how many calories people actually consume.

Food spending as a fraction of total spending: if you say people who spend more than x % of their total spending on food are considered poor, you still have to factor in relative food prices.

Stunting as an indicator of malnutrition and hence of poverty: stunting (height for age) is a notoriously difficult thing to measure.

Other issues

Some aspects of life tend to be excluded from poverty measurement, even though they have a huge impact on people’s wellbeing. The amount of leisure time people have is perhaps a good indicator of poverty, in certain circumstances (excluding CEOs and US Presidents), but it’s hardly ever counted in poverty measurements.

Another thing: people may have comparable incomes or even consumption patterns, but they may face very different social or environmental conditions: an annual income of $500 may be adequate for people living in a rural environment with a temperate climate where housing is cheap, heating isn’t necessary and subsistence farming is relatively easy. But the same income can mean deep poverty for a family living in a crowded city on the edge of a desert. The presence or absence of public goods such as quality schools, roads, running water and electricity also makes a lot of difference, but poverty measurement usually doesn’t take these goods into account.

Crime and Human Rights (1): Poverty and Crime

Poverty is the mother of crime. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

Does poverty cause crime? Are people criminal because they are poor, or are they poor because they are criminal? The latter is uncontroversial, given the time and professional and educational experience inmates lose, the difficulties they have finding a job after their release etc.

But what about the former statement? Crime obviously has many causes, and poverty is most likely one of them in some cases. It seems likely that some poor people may sometimes have to resort to theft in order to survive. But the causal relationship between crime and poverty is only likely for some types of crimes. Other crimes, such as fraud, crimes of passion, serial murder etc. bear absolutely no link to poverty. There may be even an inverse link, since poor people are not in a position to carry out a crime like fraud or insider trading.

This paper lists some of the statistics that show a possible correlation between poverty and crime – mainly property crime, more than violent crime. There is also the fact that African-Americans in the U.S. are overrepresented both in prisons and in poverty statistics, indicating as well that there is a correlation. There is some anecdotal evidence (there are many news stories indicating a link, such as the stories about people stranded on a desert island, being subject to extreme scarcity and engaging in crime such as murder and cannibalism). But there’s also anecdotal evidence to the contrary. During the Great Depression, for example, crime did not increase significantly.

Anyway, it seems intuitively acceptable that there is some causal link between crime and poverty, in both directions. So dealing with crime without dealing with root causes of crime such as poverty, and only focusing on punishment is indeed not the best option. However, none of this should imply:

  • that poverty somehow determines crime, or that crime is a necessary result of poverty; many poor people are not criminals, and many rich people are
  • that poor people are perhaps not predetermined to be criminals, but that they are more disposed to crime than other people; that would be insulting
  • that there are no other, perhaps more important causes of crime such as irresponsibility, immorality etc.
  • that poverty is somehow an excuse for crime, or perhaps even a justification; I think it’s not even a mitigating circumstance
  • that poverty should be reduced to a problem of crime; poverty, slums and homelessness should not be eliminated because they are so-called breeding grounds of crime, but because we have a moral duty to do so.

Given the causal link, we should also accept that poverty, like a bad upbringing, is often abused as a false excuse for crime.

A related question is the following: are poor inmates incarcerated because they are criminal or because they are poor and can’t escape the law as easily as the rich? Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights gives everyone the right to legal defense, without charge if necessary:

Everyone shall be entitled to have legal assistance assigned to him, in any case where the interests of justice so require, and without payment by him in any such case if he does not have sufficient means to pay for it.

Religion and Human Rights (9): Honor Killings

An honor killing is a murder, carried out by a family to punish a female family member who has supposedly brought dishonor on the family. The acts which are the cause of dishonor can be

  • refusing an arranged marriage
  • being the victim of a sexual assault or rape
  • seeking a divorce, even from an abusive husband
  • committing adultery or fornication
  • pre-marital sex
  • flirting
  • etc.

Men can also be targeted by honor killings, but more rarely (for example in the case of homosexuality).

Causes

  • The practice is mostly associated with Muslim cultures (sometimes in minority Muslim groups in the West), although there is no support for the act in Islam. And it does occur in other cultures as well. In India, more than 5.000 brides are killed annually because their marriage dowries are considered insufficient. (However, one can argue that honor is not the main motivation in such cases). It also occurred in some Latin cultures (“crime of passion” is often still a “mitigating circumstance”). In Muslim countries, the practice is seen by some as a justified enforcement of religious rules, and therefore not strictly a matter of honor. This is corroborated by the fact that sometimes the killings are perpetrated against women by individuals who are not close relatives, but who claim enforcement of religious rules as their motive. In Iraq, for example, honor killings are conducted by armed insurgent groups on politically active women and those who did not follow a strict dress code, and women who are perceived as human rights defenders.
  • There is a strong correlation between honor killings and illiteracy rates.
  • Men often use honor killings to assert their dominant patriarchal status. Women in the family may support the practice in order to preserve the honor of other female family members and to preserve their chances of getting married in the community. It’s a kind of purge or purification.
  • Some claim that the practice goes back to ancient motivations based on anxieties about reproductive power. Women, who were considered by the tribe to be a factory for making men, were forced through “honor” killings to obey the man’s family planning and not to reproduce outside of the tribe or the extended family.
  • In a society where marriages are arranged by fathers and money is exchanged, a woman’s desire to choose her own husband is a financial problem, one which can be “translated” in terms of honor.

Consequences

Apart from the obvious consequences (death or lifelong disability), the practice of honor killings also forces women to stay in abusive marriages or to avoid reporting rape. If the women are killed, they are buried in unmarked graves and the community denies that they ever existed. And if they don’t die, the chances of receiving justice are minimal as many governments fail to prosecute the crime. And even when there is a trial, it’s the woman’s behavior that becomes the focus, not the defendant’s. As a result, the women sink deeper into shame and often don’t take the trouble of reporting the crime.

Numbers

Because the murders frequently go unreported and the perpetrators unpunished, it is difficult to get precise numbers on the phenomenon. Estimates range between hundreds and thousands of women each year. In Pakistan, it is estimated that every day at least three women are victims of the practice.

What can be done?

Some say that the backwardness of the tribes where most killings take place makes it very difficult to do anything. However, education can work. The fact that the Koran does not prescribe the practice should be explained and taught. Honor killings are just one instance of gender discrimination and education should focus on women’s rights and the equality of women. Where the practice is linked to arranged marriages and dowries, one should first tackle these problems.

The judiciary and the police should be forced to intervene. Penal codes should be modernized, and the economic dependence of women should be dealt with.

Related phenomena

Related phenomena are acid attacks (instead of killing women, acid is poured on them) and honor suicides. People can be forced by their community or by their feeling of guilt to kill themselves. Relatives thereby avoid penalties for murder.