What is Poverty? (6): Absolute or Relative Deprivation?

Is poverty a lack of basic resources, or instead the unequal distribution of resources? Is it the absolute income or wealth of people that matters, or the fact that other people are richer and can afford more luxuries? Intuitively, one would go with the former of those options: people are poor when they are starving or homeless or when they lack some other basic necessity. People can have enough of all basic necessities and still be a lot worse of than some group of ultra-rich. One the other hand, what counts as a basic necessity is not always obvious, and people may form their ideas about necessities in light of the lifestyle of the average member of their society at the current moment in history.

This is another way of expressing the difference between absolute and relative poverty. In the US, it’s common to defend and use an absolute definition of poverty (as does the World Bank), whereas in Europe the focus is on relative poverty. The difference is an important one, because the use of one or the other definition of poverty determines who counts as poor or not. Hence, it also determines who gets government assistance.

Now, something strange is going on here. Intuitively most people favor an absolute definition of poverty – that’s what my own intuition and an unscientific sample of friends tells me –  and yet, if you ask people what one needs to get by in life, the amounts they give you are far above commonly used absolute poverty thresholds. In fact, these amounts are closer to median income. And as median income rises, the amounts supposedly necessary in order to get by also rise. This tells us that people actually use a relative notion of poverty. And this is true even for the country that is supposedly most naturally in favor of an absolute notion of poverty, namely the US.

I made a similar point here. More posts in this series are here.

Measuring Poverty (15): A Common Misconception About Relative Poverty

Yesterday, I had a short email exchange with Tim Harford, in which I reacted to one of his claims in this article, more specifically the claim that the use of a relative notion of poverty in poverty measurement implies that poverty will always be with us:

Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, … defines the poverty line as 60 per cent of each nation’s median income. (The median income is the income of the person in the middle of the income distribution.)

This has an unfortunate consequence: poverty is permanent. If everyone in Europe woke up tomorrow to find themselves twice as rich, European poverty rates would not budge. That is indefensible. Such “poverty” lines measure inequality, not poverty.

This argument against relative poverty is as common as it is mistaken. Here’s my email to Tim:

I read your article on poverty measurement a moment ago, and I wanted to object. You say that using a relative poverty measurement of income below 60% of median income makes poverty “permanent”. It does not. True, someone with an income of 61% of the median does not suddenly become poor because the median person receives a pay rise. But it’s also true that it’s perfectly doable – mathematically if not in reality – to raise every single poor person’s income above 60% of the median without changing the median. Poverty is only permanent when one would use 60% of the average as threshold, but no one proposes such a foolish thing, fortunately.

In fairness to Tim, his article does list some advantages of relative poverty and he qualified his views in our email correspondence.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (54): Lack of Trade Liberalization

I mentioned before that trade liberalization – the removal of trade barriers such as tariffs, subsidies and other distortions of international trade – is, on aggregate and in the medium term, a powerful mechanism for poverty reduction. I say “in the medium turn”, because some structural adjustment may be necessary, and “on aggregate” because some may lose while others gain.

The usual fears about trade liberalization – that it reduces government revenues necessary for redistribution, that it leads to labor competition, lower wages and higher unemployment rates, or that it raises prices in developing countries – are, in general and on aggregate, unfounded (an overview of the evidence is here). Of course, trade liberalization may cause local economic shocks, and there can be distributional effects: some people will benefit more than others, and some may even be worse of after liberalization, especially in the short term. But it’s the aggregate medium term effect on a country or an economy that counts.

This is similar to the positive effect of economic growth on poverty reduction:

The vast majority of the world’s poor live in the rural areas of these two countries [China and India]. Both countries achieved significant reductions in poverty during 1980–2000 when they grew rapidly. According to World Bank estimates, real GDP grew at an annual average rate of 10 percent in China and 6 percent in India during these two decades. No country in the world had as rapid growth as China, and fewer than ten countries exceeded the Indian growth rate. The effect on reduction in poverty in both countries was dramatic, entirely in keeping with the “Bhagwati hypothesis” of the early 1960’s that growth is a principal driver of poverty reduction. (source)

Not all of the poor will be automatically better of as a result of economic growth, and growth may widen income inequality or relative poverty while reducing absolute poverty. But on average and on aggregate, economic growth – like trade liberalization – reduces poverty. That’s not just a story of “trickle down” or “all boats rising on a rising tide”; economic growth also means that the government has more resources to fund welfare and redistribution. (Obviously, none of this implies that growth is always beneficial or that there isn’t room to make growth even more “pro-poor” than it already is).

Arguments in favor of trade liberalization

The interesting part of the argument is that the positive effect of trade liberalization on poverty reduction passes through enhanced economic growth: liberalization reduces poverty because it enhances growth.

[P]ractically no country that has been close to autarkic has managed to sustain a high growth performance over a sustained period. Furthermore, … if one classifies countries into globalizers and nonglobalizers by reference to their relative performance in raising the trade share in GNP during 1977–1997, the former group has shown higher growth rates… [T]he outward-orientation of the Far Eastern strategy … led to the Asian miracle. (source)

Free trade is one of the determinants of economic growth. Growth requires increased productivity, and that’s what free trade delivers. Free trade means more productivity because it means

  • more specialization
  • more use of comparative advantage
  • better access to technology and knowledge
  • better and cheaper intermediate goods (raw products etc.) and capital goods (machines etc.)
  • benefits of scale
  • and increased competition.

All these consequences of free trade have a positive effect on productivity and hence on growth. And that’s not just theory; there’s empirical proof. Reductions in trade barriers were almost always followed by significant increases in productivity (source).

And it’s not just productivity; trade liberalization has other effects as well. The removal of tariffs can reduces prices for consumers and hence reduce poverty. It’s often the case that goods consumed by poor people have a higher tariff tax than goods consumed by rich people:

In his research, [Edward Gresser, senior fellow and director of trade policy at the Progressive Policy Institute] found that the tariff rate on a cashmere sweater is 4 percent; the rate for one made of much cheaper acrylic is 32 percent. A silk brassiere has a tariff rate of less than 3 percent, but the rate on a polyester one is slightly less than 17 percent. The tariff rate on a snakeskin handbag is just over 5 percent but climbs to 16 percent for one made of canvas. Similar variations occur when it comes to household goods. Drinking glasses that cost more than $5 each have a tariff of 3 percent, while those that cost less than 30 cents each have a rate of 28.5 percent. A silk pillowcase has a rate of 4.5 percent; this goes up to nearly 15 percent for one made of polyester.

Overall, clothes and shoes contributed nearly $10 billion in tariff revenue in 2009, while higher-cost items including audiovisual equipment, computers and even cars added less than $2 billion. Gresser contends that the $10 billion is disproportionately borne by people who can’t afford to buy luxury goods. What’s more, when customers pay sales tax on these products, that amount is also higher than it would otherwise be thanks to the tariff that drives up the retail price. (source)

Hence, not only does free trade alleviate poverty, trade restrictions and protectionism actually aggravate poverty. Take also the example of restrictions on rice exports in rice-producing countries:

At first glance, this seems understandable, because a country may not wish to send valuable foodstuffs abroad in a time of need. Nonetheless, the longer-run incentives are counterproductive. (source)

When farmers can’t export, there’s little incentive for them to farm rice. Result: the shortages that were meant to be avoided.

Arguments against trade liberalization

However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the undisputed downsides of trade liberalization. The removal of subsidies can hurt certain producers and it can, especially in the short run, depress employment and wages in certain sectors. It can therefore reduce some people’s incomes and push them into poverty. Trade liberalization can destroy entire markets: it can force a country to abandon tomato production for example, because nonsubsidized local producers are no longer able to compete with increased import competition coming from countries with a comparative advantage. The local producers will lose their jobs and income. However, these same people may benefit in other areas: products which they consume may become cheaper. So, when assessing the impact of trade liberalization on poverty, one has to aggregate all the losses and gains in different areas, and that’s ultimately an empirical question that has to be investigated country by country. Overall, the evidence is that, on aggregate, the effect is probably positive.

There can be individual losers from liberalization, and even individual countries can lose: countries that depend on mineral resources, for example, can take the fast lane towards the resource curse when trade is liberalized. But it’s the global balance of poverty alleviation that determines the desirability and success of trade liberalization.

The claim that liberalization negatively affects government revenues because of decreasing income from tariff taxes, and hence diminishes the generosity of the welfare state, is also not well founded. First of all, liberalization also means reduced subsidies, which should improve governments’ fiscal situation. Secondly, trade volumes increase as tariffs are reduced, and hence the net effect of reducing tariffs doesn’t have to be falling revenues. And finally, even if revenues fall, the poor don’t necessarily have to suffer: it’s ultimately a political decision where to spend which types of government revenues. Priorities can change when revenues change.

Another possible disadvantage of free trade is a cultural one. The claim is that free trade means cultural imperialism: small cultures don’t have the resources to export their cultural products and risk being overwhelmed by, in particular, American culture. Hence, there may be a case for cultural protectionism, but this case doesn’t extrapolate to protectionism writ large.

Conclusion

Liberalization isn’t a magic bullet, neither for economic growth nor for poverty alleviation. Sustained growth and substantial long term poverty reduction require more than free trade. Conflict resolution, good governance, education etc. need to accompany liberalization. It’s no secret that we don’t yet fully understand all the determinants of growth and poverty reduction. The advantage of trade liberalization, compared to other possible pro-growth or pro-poor policies, is that it’s relatively easy to implement: it is – or should be – easier to abolish tariffs and other trade restrictions (especially if there’s an element of reciprocity in global negotiations) than to create a solid education system or a non-corrupt judiciary able to enforce market rules and property rights.

The evidence in favor of the pro-poor effects of trade liberalization is compelling, but we shouldn’t underestimate some measurement difficulties: the measurement of poverty, of trade liberalization and of the effect of the latter on the former is by definition imprecise. The concept of trade liberalization may also be too broad or too vague. And the specific outcomes of liberalization policies depend not only on the precise reforms being undertaken, but also on the context in which they are undertaken. The same measures will have different results in different economic environments. The extent of multilaterality also determines the effects.

Read more on the topic here and here. More posts in this series are here.

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 Poverty (50): The Structure of Income Inequality

It seems that one particular aspect of income inequality – namely the degree of inequality between middle income and lower income people – determines the degree of redistribution in a society, and hence the level of poverty of the poorest:

the key factor determining redistribution is the income gap between middle income voters and lower income voters. Where this gap is low, middle class people feel some degree of solidarity with the poor and exhibit what Lupu and Pontussen describe as “parochial altruism.” That is, they are more likely to support income redistribution because they feel that the poor are in some sense, “like them”. When the gap is high, middle class people will have a much weaker sense of solidarity with the poor, and hence be less supportive of redistribution.

Lupu and Pontussen suggest that the US is an outlier, with weaker solidarity than the structure of US inequality would suggest. They argue that the explanation for this is straightforward – “it is clearly attributable to the high-concentration of racial-ethnic minorities in the bottom of the income distribution.” More bluntly put – middle class Americans feel less solidarity with the very poor because the very poor are more likely to be black. (source, source, source)

Yet another reason to worry about income inequality. More posts in this series are here.

What is Equality? (2): Or, Equality of What?

As I mentioned before, when people talk about equality they mean equality of something very specific. The problem is, they hardly ever agree on the specifics. So it’s not uncommon to see two people talking about equality and actually talking about something completely different. And even when they’re talking about the same specific type of equality, they often disagree about its importance, its definition and its (lack of) merits.

Here’s a list of some of the types of equality that are frequently discussed:

  1. equality of respect and/or dignity
  2. equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)
  3. equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life
  4. equality of capabilities
  5. equality of power (political and other power)
  6. equality of rights
  7. equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments.

I’ll skip the first one for now (I may come back to it in a later post) because it’s vague in its policy implications, and it’s those implications I want to focus on here. In fact, what do we want to do when we say that we want to promote one of the remaining 6 types of equality? And what are the likely problems we’ll face? Let’s go over them one by one.

2. Equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)

Few people actually want to strive towards complete equality of income, wealth or consumption, for several good reasons.

  • First, people have different consumption needs and hence different income or wealth requirements. And I’m talking about needs, not preferences. People who prefer expensive stuff will have a hard time justifying the inequality of income or wealth that they require to satisfy their tastes. On the other hand, a blind person will have no difficulties making the case for a higher income. Preferences may also be problematic when they aim too low rather than too high. People who are born into deprivation and only see deprivation around them may adjust their preferences and expectations so that they are satisfied with their lives. However, it would be wrong to follow their preferences rather than their real needs.
  • And secondly, equality of income or wealth creates an incentive problem. See here. If people are not rewarded for their efforts, they may decide that their efforts aren’t worth their while, and society as a whole may be worse off as a result.

So equality of income is in fact shorthand for reduced income inequality. As we don’t want this type of equality to collapse into the next one (see number 3 below), let’s assume that we’re not talking about a society in which income inequality means that the people at the wrong side of the inequality are poor – poor in the sense that they lack the basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life. So, instead picture a society in which all prosper but some prosper a lot more than others.

Is that kind of inequality a problem? Many say it isn’t. Why should a university professor care about how much a business tycoon earns? However, income inequality in this sense can be problematic. It can, for instance, shock people’s notions of fairness and justice. If the professor successfully teaches her students about morality, and the business tycoon earns his wealth by polluting the earth, it may seem unjust that the professor should be rewarded less. Merit and desert are powerful ideals, and a society that systematically violates these ideals through its system of rewards may not be the ideal place to live.

Even if the tycoon earns his wealth by way of morally sound activities, there can be a problem of justice: perhaps he started life in an advantaged position compared to the professor, and therefore doesn’t (entirely) earn his rewards. Maybe the professor also wanted to become a tycoon, but her blindness forced her into a different career. (See point 7 below). And even if the starting positions are equal, the result of the tycoon’s wealth may be that he, compared to the professor, has a larger influence on democratic politics. (See point 5 below). This may destroy democracy, or at least result in a highly fragmented and therefore also unstable society.

So we have some good reasons to do something about this type of inequality. However, when we try to reduce – not eliminate – income inequality, we’ll probably reach a point at which redistribution starts to discourage people from being productive (the incentive problem mentioned above). Or not. Perhaps the loss of income they suffer because of redistribution makes them want to be more productive. Higher productivity can be the means to compensate for the loss of income. It’s not clear how strong these two possible effects are.

In any case, many of the problems caused by income inequality don’t need to be solved by way of reductions in income inequality. Unequal political influence generated by unequal wealth can be solved by limiting the influence of wealth on politics, rather than by limiting wealth.

More on income inequality here.

3. Equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life

Let’s now drop the assumption that we’re talking about a society in which all prosper, albeit unequally. That’s unrealistic anyway. Even in the richest countries on earth, there are many people who are unable to secure the bundle of basic resources necessary for a decent human life. There’s a theory called sufficientarianism that wants to focus, not on income inequality or relative poverty, but on absolute destitution. It claims, correctly I think, that all have a right to an equal bundle of basic resources and that this is what equality means.

The easiest way to make sure that people possess these basic resources is to give them enough money to buy them. For example, there’s a political movement advocating a guaranteed basic income (an income people receive whether they work or not; Philippe van Parijs is a notable supporter of this policy). But also employment benefits, healthcare benefits etc. aim to provide people with access to the basic resources necessary for a decent life.

The advantage of giving people money is of course that money is fungible: people can use it the way they want. That means it takes into account the fact that different people need different and different amounts of basic goods (take again the case of a blind person). If you give people basic goods directly, rather than the money necessary to buy them, then it becomes difficult to tailor the given goods to the specific and variable needs of individuals. An all-purpose means such as money is clearly better.

However, you’ll still have the problem that some people may need more money than others because they have basic needs that are more expensive, again not because of differences in taste or preferences, but because of different abilities. A blind person does not only need different resources but also more resources in order to lead a minimally decent human life. So we’ll have to factor in capabilities (see point 4 below). Hence, equality of basic resources, outside of the capabilities approach, isn’t enough. If that’s your goal, you won’t do justice to everyone.

An additional difficulty is that the composition of the bundles has to be different from one country to another, and not just from one individual to another. A minimally decent life in one society is more costly than in another one. In a highly industrialized and technological society, it’s more expensive to earn a living than in a society where, in a manner of speaking, you can just pick the fruit from the threes. If you add up all these differences in the content and quantity of the bundles you risk ending up with something very arbitrary. The whole concept of a basic bundle may lose its meaning.

Even if we assume that this type of equality does retain some meaning as a separate type of equality, we’re faced with the same incentive problem as in income equality, depending on how costly the bundle of resources is and how heavily we have to tax to produce it.

A final problem with this type of equality is one of fairness. The guaranteed basic income approach, as well as all other forms of unconditional provision of basic resources, seems to reward the lazy and punish the hard working. It’s reasonable to provide basic resources to people who are poor because of bad luck, lack of talents, bad health etc., but not to those who voluntarily choose not to be productive.

4. Equality of capabilities

So let’s turn to this next type of equality, which can be seen as a fine-tuning of the previous type. Why do we say that people need a bundle of basic goods for a minimally decent life? Because a minimally decent life means something. It means having the capabilities to engage in certain functionings that are part of a minimally decent life. These functionings include “beings and doings” (in the words of Amartya Sen), such as being nourished and in good health, taking part in community life, culture and thinking etc. People’s capabilities to achieve these functionings should be equalized. That doesn’t necessarily require a fixed and equal basic income. On the contrary, because a fixed basic income does not take into account the different levels of incapability across individuals. Some people need no help whatsoever. Others may need a lot. The blind person mentioned a few times already may need more than the average poor person, but perhaps less than a particular person who’s very deep in poverty.

The problem with this type of equality is the precise determination of the list of functionings and capabilities that really matter and that should be equalized. There’s a risk of paternalism, a lack of neutrality and a sectarian bias. Maybe a democratic approach to this determination can solve that problem. And that’s the link to the next type of equality.

5. Equality of power (political and other power).

In a democracy, people have – formally at least – equal political freedom. They all have the right to vote, to voice criticism or support, to campaign and demonstrate, to assemble and associate, and to stand for office. However, a lack in some of the other types of equality mentioned above may reduce the fair value and effectiveness of this democratic equality for a certain number of citizens, e.g. the poor, the blind, etc. As already argued, even prosperous citizens can have unequal power in a society with large income discrepancies (remember the professor and the tycoon).

So, if we want to promote this kind of equality of power, we first need to promote other types of equality. People may need access to basic resources in order to have the time and energy to devote to politics. And some of these resources are directly necessary for political participation (people have to drive to the polling station, read the newspapers etc.). However, equality of power can also be promoted without first promoting other types of equality. We can regulate campaign financing and access to the media and thereby limit the influence of wealth on politics. We don’t necessarily need to reduce wealth inequality to do that (although there may be other reasons to limit wealth inequality, see above). Equality of power, therefore, doesn’t necessarily collapse into other types of equality. It’s a concept that merits a separate existence.

Equality of power isn’t just equality of political power. Slaveholders have power over their slaves, husbands may have (had) power over their wives etc. Again, equality of power in these contexts can be promoted by first promoting other types of equality. If slaves and women are given basic resources then we reduce the cost of exiting the oppressive relationship as well as the power of the counter-party to keep them in that relationship. We may also want to given them equal rights.

However, I see that this post is dragging along and is now way past the saturation level, I guess. So I’ll stop here and just link to some previous posts dealing with the two remaining types of equality:

6. Equality of rights: here
7. Equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments: here

Income Inequality (23): Income Inequality and Poverty

At first sight, income inequality and poverty are completely different things. Poverty is clearly a human rights issue, while income inequality is clearly not, at least not directly (it can have an impact on some human rights). Income inequality is a relative indicator, not an absolute one, and is, for this reason, claimed to be not about poverty at all. Poverty, it is said, is about absolute deprivation and is a lack of the resources necessary to satisfy certain basic needs. Income inequality just describes the unequal possession of resources, basic or otherwise. And indeed, it’s possible to imagine a very rich society in which no one is poor in the sense of lacking basic resources, but in which the distribution of resources is very unequal. Vice versa, there may be countries in which everyone is (almost) equally poor.

However, if we compare countries, we see that the more unequal a society, the larger the numbers of people suffering from poverty. Does that mean that high income inequality leads to more poverty? Not necessarily. That would probably be the case if we saw that a country’s poverty rate grows with increasing inequality. But that doesn’t happen:

If we look across the rich nations, it turns out that there is no relationship between changes in income inequality and changes in the absolute incomes of low-end households. The reason is that income growth for poor households has come almost entirely via increases in net government transfers, and the degree to which governments have increased transfers seems to have been unaffected by changes in income inequality. …

In some countries with little or no rise in income inequality, such as Sweden, government transfers increased and so did the incomes of poor households. In others, such as Germany, transfers and the incomes of low-end households did not increase.

Among nations with sharp increases in top-heavy inequality, we observe a similar disjunction. Here the U.S. and the U.K. offer an especially revealing contrast. The top 1%’s income share soared in both countries, and through the mid-1990s poor households made little progress … But over the next decade low-end American households advanced only slightly, whereas their British counterparts experienced sizable gains [thanks to the Labour government, FS]. (source)

So, in other words, there are countries with soaring inequality that still manage to make the poor better off in absolute terms (not in relative terms obviously) through redistribution. Other countries that witness the same evolution of inequality don’t make their poor better off. And trickle down also doesn’t seem to work, by the way. Vice versa, the less unequal countries also differ in the way they treat the poor. Income inequality doesn’t produce poverty because it doesn’t affect the welfare state.

It’s often argued that income inequality not only fails to produce poverty but actually helps to reduce it. That argument goes something like this. High levels of income inequality – and therefore high wages at the top – are necessary for economic growth. If the top economic performers are allowed to earn very high wages, they will have an incentive to produce and innovate. That will lead to economic growth, which will in turn, through a trickle down mechanism, benefit everyone, including the poor and those earning very little.

However, from the quote above it follows that it’s government transfers rather than automatic mechanisms that have helped the poor during the last decades of increasing inequality. If inequality by itself would reduce poverty, these government transfers would not have been necessary. An increase in income inequality by itself does not improve low-end incomes, as is shown by the example of the US.

And even if it could be shown that rising inequality pushes up the absolute income of the poorest, there are other reasons to object to inequality (such as this for example).

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 (10): Multidimensional Poverty

Poverty can be many different things. It can be different things to different people in different countries or circumstances. It can mean one thing for people in Africa and another for people in the favelas in Rio, and still another for those in the inner-cities in the U.S. It’s probably different for men, women and children. It can be absolute deprivation or relative poverty (i.e. inequality). It can be insufficient income or insufficient consumption. It can be a lack of one thing or another. For some people it means inadequate healthcare, for others it means insufficient water. It can be physical suffering or the stress inherent in insecurity. It can be malnutrition or a lack of self-esteem. It can be illiteracy or child mortality. Etc.

Most poverty measurement systems try to keep it simple. The most common systems just measure income. Poverty is then insufficient income (typically below $1-a-day, corrected for purchasing power; this measures the number of people incapable of buying a basic basket of commodities). That makes sense, because without sufficient income, you’re likely to experience child mortality, illiteracy, malnutrition, inequality, water shortages, stress, insecurity and all the other nasty things that come with poverty.

However, it is important to know those details of poverty. Two people who both have an income of less than one dollar a day, may experience very different consequences: one may be deprived in lots of areas, the other one maybe in just a few. One may lack good health, may be starving and may be illiterate. The other one may just be illiterate. If we want to help people, it’s important to know what the exact nature of their problem is. Which we don’t if we just focus on how much their income is.

That is why some researchers at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative at the University of Oxford have tried to come up with a so-called Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI).

The index seeks to build up a picture of the prevalence of poverty based on the fraction of households who lack certain basic things. Some of these are material. Does a family home have a dirt or dung floor? Does it lack a decent toilet? Must members of the household travel more than 30 minutes on foot to get clean water to drink? Do they live without electricity? Others relate to education, such as whether any school-age children are not enrolled or whether nobody in the family has finished primary school. Still others concern health, such as whether any member of a household is malnourished. A household is counted as poor if it is deprived on over 30% of the ten indicators used. Researchers can then calculate the percentage of people in each country who are “multidimensionally poor”. (source)

Such a multidimensional approach has the advantage of identifying which specific aspect(s) of poverty is/are most common in certain areas or among certain groups of people. It shows how people are poor, and what contributes most to poverty in a specific place and among a specific group. This will obviously greatly enhance response capacity. Rather than just trying to generally increase income, we can target our efforts more specifically: in one area or among one group of people we know that we should focus on nutrition; elsewhere we know that we should focus on literacy for instance. The MPI also shows us how different aspects of poverty overlap: for example, how many people who are illiterate also have health problems?

If 30% of people are malnourished and 30% of children are out of school, it would be useful to know if these deprivations affect the same families or different ones. (source)

The approach also helps us to distinguish between deprivation and choice. People may actually prefer mud floors to concrete floors in some places, and don’t consider having a mud floor as a form of deprivation. It also helps to identify the depth of poverty: deprivation along a wide spectrum of indicators means that poverty is deeper.

Unsurprisingly, the results of the MPI are substantially different from traditional poverty measurements:

Also the totals are different:

About 1.7 billion people in the countries covered – a third of their entire population – live in multidimensional poverty, according to the MPI. This exceeds the 1.3 billion people, in those same countries, estimated to live on $1.25 a day or less, the more commonly accepted measure of ‘extreme’ poverty. (source)

One of the disadvantages of this new approach is the weighting of the different measures: there’s inevitably some arbitrariness involved. Is the death of a child equivalent to having a dirt floor? Worse? How much worse? More criticism of the MPI is here.

There’s a really cool interactive map of the MPI here.

What is Poverty? (3): Vulnerability

Definitional discussions about poverty have convinced me that there are actually different types of poverty. I don’t think that all types are equally urgent policy problems, although they’re all worthy of attention (personally, I think poverty as absolute material deprivation is the one to focus most attention on, rather than relative poverty, poverty as a mental harm etc.).

One type I haven’t discussed a lot is poverty as vulnerability. This isn’t actual poverty in the sense of existing destitution; it’s rather the presence of a high level of risk of poverty, a high level of insecurity or a high probability of becoming poor. Indeed, it’s fair to say that poverty isn’t merely current insufficiency of income or consumption, but also the absence of stable and predictable income or consumption.If you can eat today you’re not poor according to some measures (other measures would correctly include more than just food). But what if there’s a good chance you can’t eat tomorrow? Wouldn’t it be correct to call someone living with such a high risk a person suffering from poverty? People who have enough to eat and who have shelter, but who would starve if they faced unexpected costs or events, such as a health crisis, a flood, a drought, unemployment etc. should be considered poor.

Of course, you might think we’re all living under such risks. Even the wealthiest among us can’t be sure not be become poor tomorrow. Hence we’re all vulnerable, but some are more vulnerable than others. The issue is then how to measure vulnerability and risk. The risk is higher for some than for others, and the consequences when the risk events occur are tougher for some than for others, but how can we know and measure this? We can look at resources and savings for instance. Some people, and some people in some countries, are better armed to deal with risks. They can insure themselves, or their government insures them (unemployment insurance for instance). They may be able to smooth over these events: sell some assets, take a loan… Other people can’t insure themselves, or they live in a country that doesn’t provide public insurance, or they can’t smooth without jeopardizing their future wealth.

This vulnerability is not just a risk for the future; it creates problems here and now. When the risk is perceived – correctly or not – as being very high, then it produces fear, stress and feelings of insecurity. That’s not deprivation or poverty but it sure isn’t pleasant. Those feelings can also be self-fulfilling: people may take irrational precaution measures, counterproductive family planning decisions etc. So poverty as vulnerability is a real problem. Perhaps not as urgent as absolute destitution, but not without importance.

Measuring Poverty (9): Absolute and Relative Poverty Lines

There are many ways you can measure how many people in a country are poor. Quite common is the use of a so-called poverty line. First you decide what you mean by poverty – for instance an income that’s insufficient to buy life’s necessities, or an income that’s less than half the average income etc. Then you calculate your poverty line – for instance the amount of income someone needs in order to buy necessities, or the income that’s half the average income, or the income of the person who has the tenth lowest income if the population was one hundred etc. And then you just select the people who are under this poverty line.

I intentionally chose these examples to make a point about absolute and relative poverty. In the U.S., people mostly use an absolute poverty line, whereas in Europe relative poverty lines are used as well. As is clear from the examples above, an absolute poverty line is a threshold, usually expressed in terms of income that is sufficient for basic needs, that is fixed over time in real terms. In other words, it’s adjusted for inflation only and doesn’t move with economic growth, average income, changes in living standards or needs.

A relative poverty line, on the other hand, varies with income growth or economic growth, usually 1-to-1 since it’s commonly expressed as a fixed percentage of average or median income. (It obviously can have an elasticity of less than 1 since you may want to avoid a disproportionate impact on the poverty line of very high and very volatile incomes. I’ve never heard of an elasticity of more than 1).

Both absolute and relative poverty lines can be criticized. Does an absolute poverty line make sense when we know that expectations change, that basic needs change (in contemporary Western societies, not having a car, a phone or a bank account can lead to poverty), and that the things that you need to fully participate in society are a lot different now than they once were? We know that people’s well-being does not only depend on the avoidance of absolute deprivation but also on comparisons with others. The average standard of living defines people’s expectations and when they are unable to reach the average, they feel excluded, powerless and resentful. Can people who fail to realize their own expectations, who lose their self-esteem, and who feel excluded and marginalized be called “poor”? Probably yes. They are, in a sense, deprived. It all depends which definition of poverty we can agree on.

It seems that people do think about poverty in this relative sense. If you compare the (rarely used) relative poverty line of 50% of median income in the U.S. with the so-called subjective poverty lines that result from regular Gallup polls asking Americans “how much they would need to get along”, you’ll see that the lines correspond quite well.

So if relative poverty corresponds to common sense, it seems to be a good measure. On the other hand, a relative poverty line means moving the goal posts for all eternity. We’ll never vanquish relative poverty since this type of poverty just moves as incomes rise. It’s even the case that relative poverty can increase as absolute poverty decreases, namely when there’s strong economic growth (i.e. strong average income growth) combined with widening income inequality (something we’ve seen for example in the U.S. during the last decades). (Technically, if you use the median earner as the benchmark, relative poverty can disappear if all earners who are below the median earner move towards the median and earn just $1 or so less than the median. But in practice I don’t see that happening).

Measuring Poverty (2): Some Problems With Poverty Measurement

The struggle against poverty is a worthy social goal, and the absence of poverty is a human right. But poverty is also an obstacle to other social goals, particularly the full realization of other human rights. A necessary instrument in poverty reduction is data: how many people suffer from poverty? Without an answer to that question it’s very difficult to assess the success of poverty reduction policies (such as development aid).

And that’s were the problems start. There’s some uncertainty in the data. The data may not reflect accurately the real number of people living in poverty. There are definition issues – what is poverty? – that may reduce the accuracy of the data or the comparability between different measurements of poverty (or between different measurements over time), and there are issues related to the measurements themselves. I’ll focus on the latter for the moment.

Poverty is often measured by way of surveys. These surveys, however, can be biased because of

  1. sample errors: underreporting of the very rich and the very poor (more on sample errors here), and
  2. reporting errors: failure of the very rich and the very poor to report accurately.

The rich are less likely than middle-income people to respond to surveys because they are less accessible (their houses for instance are less accessible). In addition, when they respond, they may tend to underreport a larger fraction of their wealth as they have more incentives to hide (for tax reasons for example).

The very poor may also be inaccessible, but for other reasons. They may be hard to interview when they don’t have a fixed address or an official identification. In poor countries, they may be hard to find because they live in remote areas with inadequate transportation access. And again, when they report, it may be difficult to estimate their “wealth” because their assets are often in kind rather than in currency.

Because we can have underreporting of the two extremes on the wealth distribution, we believe that income distribution is more egalitarian than it really is. Hence we underestimate income inequality and relative poverty.

But apart from relative poverty we also underestimate absolute poverty since we’re often unable to include the very poor in the reporting for the reasons given above. By “cutting off” the people at the poor end of the distribution, it seems like most people are middle class and society largely egalitarian.

However, absolute poverty can also be overestimated: if the poor respond, we may fail to accurately assess their “wealth” given that much of it is in kind. And it’s unlikely that these two errors – underestimation and overestimation – cancel each other out.

These and other problems of poverty measurement make it difficult to claim that we “know” more or less precisely how many poor people there are, but if we make the same errors consistently we may be able to guess, not the levels of poverty, but at least the trends: is poverty going up or down?