June 14th, 2012

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Speeches, Figures, and Figures of Speech

"The number of children living in poverty in the UK fell by 300,000 last year as household incomes dropped, official figures have revealed." (BBC web site)


One doesn't like to say "I told you so". Except that one does, and I did. (Twice.) Defining poverty relatively means a) that it can never be eliminated (at least where there is any inequality of wealth), and b) it becomes a measure of pay differentials rather than of wealth or living standards. Thus you get "paradoxical" situations like this one, where poverty seems to fall, even as everyone* is getting poorer.

I see that the Government is now proposing to define poverty another way, using social measures. So, if you don't have a job and you have a drug habit, those two factors will combine to increase your poverty "score". By that measure, of course, many a Chelsea socialite will be counted as poor. (Except that they won't, any more than Baroness Warsi is counted as a benefits cheat.) This is of a piece with the recent decision to include (and stigmatize) unemployment as one of the markers of a "problem family": it is the projection of ideological assumptions onto the statistics, which while it may be inevitable is seldom this blatant. (Mind, it may be trumped by the US policy of counting any man "of military age" killed by one of their drones as a "militant". With accounting like that, you'll always get the answer you want.)

I'm not convinced that a binary model of "poverty"/"not poverty" is useful for a world that has so many different levels of wealth. What exactly is wrong with using levels of absolute wealth, so that we can all see clearly where, and how far apart, we actually are? In particular, relative measures (which are almost always done on a national basis) tend to disguise inequalities between different societies, which can't be to the benefit of poorer nations - for which reason I was very glad when Ugandans challenged the Spanish Prime Minister yesterday over his dismissive use of them as a metonym for poverty. It's almost as if they thought of themselves as human beings rather than figures of speech.

* ETA I should of course say "most people" rather than "everyone". The richest, as usual, are ensuring that they and their friends are getting richer.