Saturday, May 26, 2012

How to define poor and poverty?

How do you define poverty and whether someone is "impoverished"? Someone asked me this question and i had a surprisingly hard time doing it. My problem is that i reject the numbers-based definition of poverty.

The U.S. government defines poverty based on someone's income and (to a lesser extent) how much stuff they have.  Being that governments need concrete rules for their bureaucracy, this makes sense.  If you make less than 'X' then you are poor.  No thinking or judgement required.  The problem i have with this approach is that it lumps people together without thinking.

A college student might not be making a lot of money, but I wouldn't necessarily call them impoverished.  Quite the contrary, I would call them privileged for the opportunity even if their income is low during their study.  We might also capture someone who has temporarily lost their job.  They might lose much of their income for a year, but with a little hard work and a little luck, they'll find a job and start rebuilding their nest egg.  They may temporarily need government assistance to get them through, but again, I wouldn't call that impoverished(Granted, I might call it stressful, awful, and wouldn't wish the situation on anyone).  Finally, even wealthy businessmen can declare bankruptcy and lose most of their fortune.  For a brief period they may technically qualify for government assistance, but with the help of a vast network of business contacts and established relationships, they can quickly rebuild their fortune.  So, again, I wouldn't call that person "impoverished".  It's because of these exceptions that I think "poverty" needs a better definition.  Something that can better explain the picture most of us have when we hear the word poverty.

Another class of definitions for poverty describes how well someone's basic needs are being met.  For instance, poverty is a lack of  shelter, food, etc...  This is better, but runs into some problems. First, how does one decide what items one should lack to be thought of as impoverished?  We can start with food, but what if someone has food, but no shelter.  A man living under a bridge might have all the food he needs from a nearby church, but that won't keep him warm at night.  So we add in shelter.  Well, what about health care?  Food and shelter is nice, but you're still suffering if you have tuberculosis and can't get the medicine you need.  Then, what about transportation?  What good are all those things if you can't get to wherever they are?  Now you can see the problem with this.  To get a full definition would require an exhaustive list and there would still probably be a form of poverty left out.

Here's another problem with this second definition.  Where the first definition might describe people as impoverished who really aren't, this has the opposite problem.  I think it doesn't necessarily capture everyone who is impoverished.  I think trying to define poverty by listing the things that poor people lacks is that your list is actually describing the manifestations of poverty, not necessarily the condition.  That brings me to the U.N. definition of poverty from 1998.

Fundamentally, poverty is a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society...
I think this was one of the best definitions of poverty I've ever found.  Lacking some income is not the problem for the impoverished, it is a denial of opportunities and choices that everyone else has.

Using this definition of poverty, one can easily explain why things like poverty and social justice matters.  Denying someone the opportunity or ability to participate in society and advance themselves is violence.  Just because nobody is holding a gun or knife to someone doesn't mean that a person cannot be harmed.
Leave a Comment