What is poverty?
In 2011 a miracle happened. Despite the bleakest economic situation in decades, austerity Britain, and falling incomes 300,000 children where lifted out of poverty in the UK. How did this happen? Was this the result of the new charitable revolution the Big Society promised? No, 300,000 children were lifted out of poverty because median incomes fell.
This happened because the currently accepted measure of poverty is relative – you are impoverished if you earn 60% less than the median income, and in the last few years the median income has plummeted. Those thirty thousand children are no better off than the year before, most likely they are worse off given the rising cost of living. So why do we use a measure of poverty that is more about what the middle class are earning than the poor?
For most of us, this is not what we mean by poverty. The word poverty brings up images of war zones, disaster and famine (as well as, in my case, feelings of guilt that I ignored that Save that Children collection tin). What we’re thinking of is absolute poverty – the lack of resources to keep yourself alive. Usually talked about as living on around $1 a day. Thankfully, this kind of poverty is non existent in the UK.
In the developed world the poverty debate changes. We’re able to give everyone the resources they need to stay alive, but not what they need to live on a parr with the more affluent majority. Definitions of relative poverty talk of a situation in which people are able to survive adequately, but they are less able to enjoy the standard of life of most other people. You could be forgiven for thinking that not being able to afford a yearly holiday (an actual example used in a 1980’s report) is not that important. But to understand the significance of relative poverty you have to look a bit beyond income measures.
The importance of your relative position in income terms is that having significantly less than the ‘norm’ has social disadvantages that go beyond what goods you are able to afford day to day. New Labour popularized a term that starts to capture this, ‘social exclusion’: a lack of wealth leading to a disenfranchisement with society. It recognizes that if you are relatively poorer you are blocked from the from rights, opportunities and resources that are normally available to everyone else. This leads us away from talking about poverty in terms of what we have (e.g. 1 dollar a day or 1 holiday a year) to a question more relevant to the developed world’s consciousness – of opportunity.
So the story goes, if you are ‘poor’ you wont to grow up in a nice neighborhood, the average grades at your school will be lower, you will be aware that you have less than most others in society and that your parents and friends are unemployed or in low paid jobs. And so because of all this you will be unlikely to have the chance or motivation to improve your circumstances.
Such discussion of the causes and consequences of poverty brings us back to how precisely how we should measure poverty in the first place. Clearly relative incomes measures alone wont do it. I found the stat with which I started from a Government consultation document on how to better measure child poverty. This is the latest attempt to find a better measure – it suggests wordlessness, debt, poor housing, family stability, parental health and parental skill as part of a potential ‘multidimensional measure’. Each of these factors are part of the story as to why people are trapped in poverty and understanding them properly is going to be vital to any coherent attempt to address the underlying problems.