Measuring poverty

What is it to be poor? A first answer might be along the lines of “Not having much money.” But money is just a measurement of wealth or poverty, and not a very meaningful one. Imagine someone who doesn’t have any money or property, but society feeds them and houses them and lets them borrow items for use. Or imagine somebody with mounds and mounds of money on a desert island.

We use money as an index because it usually (but not always) represents some degree of power to get what humans need in order to survive or flourish. But take away the opportunities to spend it, or feed the needs without it, and it loses its relevance to wealth. Being wealthy – or at least, not being poor — means having the power to get what you need in order to live, and being poor means not having that power – for whatever reason. The money may not matter. The people in some parts of India have only a fraction of the wealth found in Brazil or South Africa, but their life expectancy is much higher. Conversely, the life expectancy of African Americans is much lower than that of people in China and India, despite their having a lot more money (even after cost of living adjustments).

But there may be more to poverty than this, too. Somebody with their basic bodily needs met but living in a repressive regime (where they are denied education, political opportunities, or choices over their own personal lives) may be said to be in a kind of poverty. Humans need more than what a zoo animal gets. And when a person is incapable of meeting those needs, the person is poor. Consider this: African American slaves in the pre-Civil War South had incomes equal to or greater than the urban workers in the North, and maybe lived longer. Yet who wouldn’t say that their living conditions were more “impoverished” than that of the urban workers?

This is the idea behind Amartya Sen’s 1999 book, Development as Freedom. The book is based on lectures he gave to the World Bank, an organization that should be keen to know who’s poor and who’s not. Sen says we’re better off forgetting about money and GNP.

All this is meant to suggest that “There are good reasons for seeing poverty as a deprivation of basic capabilities, rather than merely as low income” (p. 20). Deprivation of basic capabilities means deprivation of the powers to get what human beings need, so far as I can see. For more on what human beings need, see the “capabilities approach” developed by Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

Sen suggests we start measuring a population’s development not in terms of GNP, but in terms of five freedoms:

1. Economic opportunities
2. Political freedoms
3. Social opportunities (education, health care)
4. Transparency guarantees (social trust; guarantees against cheating, corruption)
5. Protective security (safety nets to preclude abject poverty, starvation)

To the extent these are present, you have a wealthy (or healthy) society; to the extent they’re not, you have a society in need of some attention.

This implies big changes in foreign and global policies. Economists have looked at things like political freedoms and social opportunities as “icing on the cake,” or features that get established once you’ve raised a nation’s GNP. But, if you listen to Sen, you ought to work first at establishing and securing a nation’s five freedoms, and then you can expect the GNP to rise. Loans should be contingent upon genuine changes in infrastructure.

Another interesting fact Sen mentions: never in history has a working democracy suffered famine. He argues that this is because democracy requires broad information sharing throughout a nation, and famines can be headed off before they get going. When power is concentrated in the hands of a few, they may not know (or care) about starving people, so long as they can effectively smack down any riots. (I’ve read elsewhere that Sen’s “fact” is not strictly true, as there have been some famines in democratic African nations – but still, it’s true that famines are far less likely to occur in democracies.)

I’ve also been reading The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. He also sees poverty as a complex phenomenon with loads of contributing factors, from political to geographical. The bright side is that Sachs thinks extreme poverty can be eradicated within the next 25 years. It’s not a matter of sending out wads of cash, but of helping nations to gain the sorts of freedoms Sen describes and getting them on the first rung of a development ladder: once people can begin to save even a small portion of income, and opportunities are open to them, development will follow.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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