photo: Christine Olson via flickr


Ending poverty is both a huge topic conceptually; one which, much like creating ecological sustainable societies, requires not only deep soul searching as to the roots of the problem in the first place but also multiple practical approaches. Also akin the ecological sustainability, how we define the problem informs how it gets solved.

Perhaps the most commonly used definition of absolute poverty—relative poverty being a different but no less important topic—is how many people are living on a dollar a day or less. It's good because, for one thing, it's very hard to argue that having the equivalent of that much income means you've barely got the proverbial pot to pee in (maybe we should amend that to toilet to pee in that doesn't contaminate the water supply), no matter where you are in the world. There can be no rationalizing away that that's poverty, full stop.

But perhaps it's not necessarily the best (or only) metric we should be considering. In a new article at Share the World's Resources, author David Woodward argues that something a bit more complex is needed: A Rights-Based Poverty Line.

Woodward argues that the dollar-a-day approach fails because it's too low a level and is essentially arbitrary in that it provides no "assurances that people will be able to lead a decent life. In fact setting a poverty line at any monetary amount per day would do no better, for the same reason.

By its nature, the dollar-a-day approach only takes account of incomes. But this is only one part of what makes poor people poor. To live on $1 a day with access to free or affordable health services and education, and reasonable living environments and working conditions, is bad enough. Without these advantages, it is considerably worse. But these are not reflected in poverty figures, wherever the threshold is set. The UN Human Development Index and Human Poverty Index represent a creditable and worthwhile attempt to fill this gap; but they fall short of fully resolving the problem.

Woodward gives examples as to why this all fails in the original. And points out that had the poverty line been adequately adjusted for inflation since the Millennium Development Goals were first established, rather than being halfway there, we're only a small way towards actually reducing poverty.

The solution to all this requires rethinking why we set the line at one dollar a day in the first place.

It's not because people have less than $1 a day—it is because they do not have enough income to allow them to live what we would consider a decent (or at least minimally adequate) life. So our aim should be to set the poverty line at a level where people can actually have a standard of living which we would consider morally acceptable.

Makes sense, and is perhaps obvious (the part about it not being about money specifically). But it also parallels efforts to move beyond using GDP as the benchmark by which to measure the success of a nation. Ultimately money as proxy for success, poverty and wealth, falls short of the describing the complete picture.

Woodward says this is how to begin to better define, and therefore reduce, poverty:

The starting point is to establish an agreed set of indicators which reflect economic and social rights—such as health, nutrition, education — and to set an agreed minimum level of each indicator that we consider to be morally acceptable. Based on the statistical relationship between income and each indicator in each country, we can then find the income at which the threshold minimum level is reached (on average) — and this is set as the poverty line corresponding with that indicator

Of course, we need to decide which indicators to use, and what the threshold level should be for each. But, in a sense, this is part of the point of the exercise. Rather than allowing us to make an implicit moral judgment that a certain income is 'enough', without even considering what it means to live on that income, it makes us confront the question explicitly: just how much do we consider to be'enough'? How poor is 'too poor'?

This approach presents a more complex picture than the single headline numbers generated by the dollar-a-day system. In each country we have a number of different poverty lines, corresponding with the indicators we use; and for each line, we have two important indicators instead of one - the poverty line itself, and the proportion of the population below it. We also have two ways of reducing poverty. Either we can increase incomes, so that people move above the poverty line; or we can improve living standards at a given level of income, so that the poverty line itself is reduced.

Read the original: How Poor Is Too Poor?

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