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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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More on poverty
After yesterday’s poverty post, I got to wondering some more just why governments and other institutions prefer to define poverty in a way that dissociates it from any particular standard of living. What is wrong with hafren/Henry IV’s “chicken in the pot” measure? How can it be that a society that has grown poorer as a whole, and in which even the poorest have fewer material resources than before, can still be defined as having reduced or eliminated poverty? Why would anyone be satisfied with such a definition?

One obvious answer is that it stops us from dismissing the poor in our own (rich) society with the claim that they’re not really poor. (“How can they be poor? There are really poor people in Africa, but these people have beer bellies and colour tellies.”) Then there’s the point that different societies work in ways that aren’t always easily commensurable in terms of income, property, and social relations. Five US dollars will get you a lot further in most poor countries than it will in the USA.

The flip side, however, is that relative measures tend to focus attention on redistributing wealth within countries, but at the cost of disguising the necessity of redistributing wealth between them. “Poverty” becomes a sign without a stable referent, denoting quite different states of affairs dependent on deictic legerdemain - a kind of global post-code lottery. Cui bono? The rich, of course, many of whom have pleated the word “poverty” into a decorous fan behind which they can say “A million pounds really isn’t much these days, you know” - and actually mean it.

What is wrong with hafren/Henry IV’s “chicken in the pot” measure?

I can guess what is wrong with it for politicians; it's too unarguably measurable. Politicians who've promised to "reduce/eliminate poverty" can juggle figures and baffle the financially illiterate (ie most of us) till the cows come home, but we can all tell whether or not that chicken exists, or is affordable for us.

How can they be poor? There are really poor people in Africa, but these people have beer bellies and colour tellies

I do actually think there's some moral justification for that argument. There are too many people who class themselves as poor when they mean

  • I have enough to live reasonably on, but not as much as I would like (which applies equally to those who want the huge colour TVs and those who want two homes and a helicopter)
  • I have taken on commitments (anything from ridiculous debt to too many kids) which I could not reasonably expect to handle
  • I choose to spend my money on non-essentials (there's the beer, or the private school for the kids) and then complain because I can't pay the bills.
  • I haven't bothered to check my entitlement from a state that, for all its faults, is not the worst at providing for the poor.

If that sounds over-harsh, maybe it comes of being from possibly the last generation that saved up to buy things instead of getting into debt for them. The number of TV adverts about credit, and paying off debt, staggers me, as do those of my friends who seem happy to live with debts of four figures - I couldn't sleep at night. I am beginning to have more sympathy with dicta like my granny's "there's always someone worse off than you", because for people in this country it's mostly true.