Tapping Our Trans-Local Potential for Change

What is Poverty?

A farmer in West Bengal returns from ploughing the fields. Photo: Douglas Olthof.

This post was written by John Harriss, Director of International Studies at Simon Fraser University.

I can well imagine many readers reacting to this question along the lines of ‘What a silly question. Isn’t it obvious?’ Well, yes, it is, at least on one level. ‘Being poor’ surely means ‘not having enough’, or ‘being deprived’? But not having enough of, or being deprived of what? The obvious answer to this question is probably ‘Not enough money’. But then that only raises the question of ‘Not enough money for what?’ ‘Not enough money’ for some people, clearly, might be a fortune for others. This is particularly obvious when we think across societies. Poverty in our own society might still mean having all sorts of things, like television sets, fridges and motor cars that a poor woman in Lesotho, say, probably can’t even dream of. So answering the question ‘what is poverty?’ really is a bit more complicated than we might think at first.

The standard definition of poverty – the idea of poverty that is referred to in the first of the UN Millennium Development Goals – is in terms of income. It says ‘Halve, between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day’. Why $1 a day? This is because a good many years ago now it was reckoned that one dollar a day, or its equivalent, was just about the minimum that an average person required to be able to live at all. The reasoning behind this idea of poverty is that a person needs to have at her disposal goods or money enough (with which to purchase those goods) to be able to consume food and other essentials so as to feed herself adequately. It’s a very minimalist notion of ‘having enough’, and not quite clear whether it includes an allowance for clothing and shelter, or keeping warm (which can be a problem at some times of year even in very warm climates … some people die of exposure every year, for instance in the North Indian winter).

In defining poverty, economists calculate how much it costs, in a given place, to purchase a ‘basket’ of essentials, to supply enough calories (which means dietary energy) for a person to be able to live. We think that it is calories that really count because if a person isn’t consuming sufficient calories then protein-rich foods don’t do them much good, because the body converts the protein into energy. A country’s ‘poor’, then, are the people who cannot afford the basket of essentials for supplying the minimum amount of food energy.

This measurement of poverty involves all manner of assumptions and measurement problems, and so it is that even in India – the country in which most intellectual effort has gone into defining and measuring poverty – there are now several different more or less official measures of the numbers of ‘poor’ people in the country, ranging from about 27 per cent of the population to as much as 80 per cent.

But in any case, does income alone adequately define poverty? An Indian economist who studied villages around his home over a twenty-five year period found that according to the way of understanding poverty that I have just described, people got poorer. But when he talked to them about how they themselves thought of changes in their standard of living he found that in very many ways they reckoned they had got better off. They were able to eat a greater range of foods, for instance, their homes were more secure because they had locks on their doors, and they didn’t depend any longer on landlords if they needed small loans. The people in the villages thought of poverty in terms not only of ‘having enough income to survive’, but also of ‘having some assets (wealth in some form) that make for security over the longer run’. And last but far from least, they thought of poverty in terms of being independent – in terms that is, of having self-respect.

It is not enough, then, to think about poverty in terms of income alone. We need to think about other aspects of deprivation such as access to water, shelter, health services, education and transport. We need to think about poverty, too, in terms of debt and dependence – like those Indian villagers I described – and of vulnerability. The simple fact of having locks on their doors made those Indian villagers feel less vulnerable and more secure. But of course the idea of ‘security’ means more than just that simple physical security. Having some insurance against the bad times is also, quite obviously, very important, and very many people in the world don’t have assets enough to provide them with any kind of insurance. Their livelihoods and their lives are therefore vulnerable. This is another very important aspect of poverty. There are others, too – such as the social disadvantage that many people experience because of some aspect of their identity – that they are from a low caste, perhaps, in the Indian villages I have spoken of.

A villager's passbook in West Bengal shows mandatory weekly payments against a very high-interest loan. Photo: Douglas Olthof.

Most generally, perhaps, we need to think about poverty in terms of powerlessness – or the inability to make meaningful choices and to lead a fulfilling sort of a life.

And what is it that makes people poor? And what makes a difference – what brings about the reduction of poverty?

Being poor or becoming poor is not, in general, because of choices that people make, but because of the circumstances in which they find themselves. The sort of economy that is growing and as it grows generates more secure jobs, so that fewer people depend upon casual labour, is very likely to make for less poverty. But much depends upon whether or not ‘good jobs’ are created – and one of the very worrying aspects of the growth of many ‘developing’ countries at the moment is that relatively few such jobs are being created.

Women in Southern India work on hand-looms, far removed from the country's booming high-tech economy. Photo: Douglas Olthof. Click to enlarge.

Economic growth is essential for the reduction of poverty. But it needs to be economic growth that generates productive and reasonably stable employment. It needs to be supported by the public provision of education that equips people to take on more productive work – and to deal effectively with the state so that they can secure what they are entitled to as citizens, from the state. Hence the second MDG: ‘Ensure that by 2015, children everywhere, girls and boys alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling’. And it needs to be supported by the public provision of basic health care, so that poor people have greater protection against those episodes of ill-health, and their consequences, that we know are so crippling for them. The MDGs concerned with child health and maternal health, and that aimed at combating HIV/AIDS, all relate to this further, vital, aspect of the tackling of poverty. And in all of this, MDG 3, about promoting gender equality and empowering women – ‘Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015’ – is of fundamental importance. Female literacy pays very high dividends, we know, in terms of children’s health and education, and in terms of civic action. Gender equality is of basic significance in the fight against poverty.

Read the full version of the article “Poverty and What To Do About It”

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