In this post we focus on three aspects of poverty around the world. The first is the definition of poverty. Is it an absolute or a relative concept? Does its definition change as the world develops. The second is the extent of poverty. Is the problem getting worse as inequality deepens, or are the numbers (absolutely or proportionately) getting smaller despite increased inequality? The third is policy to tackle the problem. What can be done and is being done? What answers are being given by policymakers in different parts of the world?
As far as the measurement of poverty is concerned, the simplest distinction is between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty could be measured as income below a certain real level deemed necessary to achieve a particular standard of living. This could be specified in terms of sufficient income to have adequate food, shelter, clothing and leisure time, and adequate access to healthcare, clean water, sanitation, education, etc. An obvious problem here is what is considered ‘adequate’, as this is partly culturally determined and will also depend on physical and geographical features, such as climate.
The World Bank defines extreme absolute poverty as living on under $1.90 per day in purchasing-power parity terms. However, even after adjusting for purchasing power, what is considered the poverty threshold differs enormously from country to country. As the Wikipedia entry states:
Each nation has its own threshold for absolute poverty line; in the United States, for example, the absolute poverty line was US$15.15 per day in 2010 (US$22,000 per year for a family of four), while in India it was US$1.0 per day and in China the absolute poverty line was US$0.55 per day, each on PPP basis in 2010.
Relative poverty is normally taken to mean when a person’s income falls below a certain percentage of the mean or median. Thus in richer countries, for a given percentage, the poverty threshold would be at a higher absolute income. In the EU, people in relative poverty are defined as those with disposable income (after monetary benefits) less than 60% of the median.
Both approaches focus on consumption. Other approaches include social and cultural exclusion as dimensions of poverty.
What is clear is that poverty has a number of definitions. One problem with this is that politicians can focus on whatever definition suits them. Thus in the UK, with relatively high levels of employment, but often at low wages and only part-time employment, the Conservative government has redefined poverty as where no-one in a family is in work. Yet many working families have very low levels of income, considerably below 60% of the median.
The second aspect of poverty is its extent and whether it is growing. According to the United Nations, globally ‘extreme poverty rates have been cut by more than half since 1990. While this is a remarkable achievement, one in five people in developing regions still live on less than $1.25 a day, and there are millions more who make little more than this daily amount, plus many people risk slipping back into poverty.’
Despite this progress, in many countries extreme poverty is increasing. And in others, although the number in extreme poverty may be declining, it is still high and inequality is increasing so that more people are living only just above the extreme poverty line. The articles look at dimensions of poverty in different countries.
For example, the first The Conversation article argues that the financial crisis of 2008–09 led to a substantial increase in poverty across the European continent.
The impoverishment of Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal has been so severe that these southern European countries, taken together, had higher levels of poverty and deprivation than many of the former Communist nations that joined the European Union in 2004.
The third aspect is how to tackle the problem of poverty. There are three broad policy approaches.
The first is the use of cash transfers, such as unemployment benefits. The second is providing free or subsidised goods and services, such as healthcare or education. The ability of a country to support the poor in either of these ways depends on its tax base. Also, clearly, it depends on its priorities. There is also the issue of incentives. Do benefits encourage or discourage the recipients from seeking work? This depends on the design of the system. For example, if childcare is subsidised, this may both aid poor parents and also encourage parents responsible for looking after young children to seek work.
The third is to attempt to improve the earning power of the poor. This may in part be by the second approach of improving education, training and health. But it may also involve removing restrictions to employment, say by making various forms of discrimination illegal. It may also involve increasing land rights. In many developing countries land is very unequally distributed; redistribution to the poor can make a substantial contribution to relieving poverty. Another approach is to encourage agencies which supply microfinance for poor people wishing to set up their own small business.
The articles below look at a number of dimensions of poverty: its measurement, its extent and its alleviation. They look at the problem from the perspective of different countries. It is interesting to see to what extent the problems and solutions they identify are country-specific or general.
Extreme poverty affects 1 in 8 globally Buenos Aires Herald (20/7/16)
How poverty has radically shifted across Europe in the last decade The Conversation, Rod Hick (20/7/16)
The economics of poverty The Tribune of India, S Subramanian (22/7/16)
Poverty Chains and Global Capitalism. Towards a Global Process of Impoverishment Global Research (Canada), Benjamin Selwyn (20/7/16)
Asia’s cost of prosperity The Nation, Karl Wilson (24/7/16)
Private rental sector is the ‘new home of poverty’ in the UK The Guardian, Brian Robson (20/7/16)
Challenges in maintaining progress against global poverty Vox, Martin Ravallion (23/12/15)
California, sixth largest economy in the world, has highest poverty rate in US wsws.org, Marc Wells (22/7/16)
How gross inequality and crushed hopes have fed the rise of Donald Trump The Conversation, Nick Fischer (21/7/16)
Sustainable Development Goals – Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere United Nations
Children of the Recession: Innocenti Report Card 12 UNICEF, Gonzalo Fanjul (September 2014)
Listings on Poverty Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Poverty The World Bank
Hunger and World Poverty Poverty.com
- Distinguish between absolute and relative poverty. Give examples of specific measures of each and the extent to which they capture the complex nature of the problem.
- Discuss the appropriateness of the seven measures of poverty used in the first The Conversation article.
- How did the financial crisis affect the proportion of people living in poverty? Explain.
- What is the relationship between poverty and inequality? Does a more unequal society imply that there will be a greater proportion of people living in poverty?
- How has international poverty changed in recent years? What explanations can you give?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of using income per head as a measure of poverty, whether absolute or relative?
- Why is poverty so high in (a) the USA as a whole; (b) California specifically?
- How does globalisation affect poverty?
- Are adverse environmental consequences an inevitable result of reducing poverty in developing countries?
- Is freer trade likely to increase or decrease poverty? Explain
More and more food banks are opening every week across the developed world. In the UK alone, there are over 250 food banks. These are run by volunteers and provide food and other basic provisions to those who struggle to feed themselves and their children. The food is donated by people or sometimes supermarkets. Some food banks receive financial help from local authorities.
According to the Trussell Trust, which runs many food banks in the UK, “In 2011-12 food banks fed 128,687 people nationwide, 100% more than the previous year.” But why, in mixed economies, where the State is expected to provide benefits to the poor, do so many people have to resort to food handouts?
Partly the problem is a cut in benefits – a response of many countries to rising public-sector deficits; partly it’s delays in receiving benefits or the complexities in claiming; partly it’s because some people have had their benefits suspended because of a change in their circumstances or changes in the conditions for claiming benefits; partly it’s the inability of people to afford to feed their families properly in times of rising food and energy prices and rising rents, where incomes are not rising in line with the personal rates of inflation that poor households experience; partly it’s the sky-high interest rates that many poor people, often deep in debt, have to pay to continue obtaining credit – often from ‘payday loan companies’ or ‘doorstep lenders’; partly it’s the inability of many poor people to find work which pays enough to feed their families and pay all their other bills.
Food poverty is a real and growing problem. But are food banks the answer? The following videos and articles look at the issues.
Growing demand for food banks in Britain BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (5/9/12)
Children will go hungry warn Bristol food banks This is Bristol, (2/7/12)
Children going hungry ITV News (16/10/12)
Food bank: We need more food to feed UK’s hungry The Telegraph, Gregg Morgan (27/9/12)
Food banks help struggling London families BBC News (21/6/12)
EU food aid to dry up by 2014? France 24 (16/10/12)
Food banks squeezed in Spain Euronews (3/11/12)
As donations dwindle, food banks are feeling the pinch Komo News, Elisa Jaffe (28/9/12)
Breadline Britain: councils fund food banks to plug holes in welfare state The Guardian, Patrick Butler (21/8/12)
Councils to invest in food banks LocalGov, Dominic Browne (22/8/12)
The growing demand for food banks in breadline Britain BBC News, Paul Mason (4/9/12)
Food banks: ‘I had no-one else to turn to’ BBC News (4/9/12)
Poorest starved of dignity as charity food parcels double in just two years Daily Record (4/9/12)
More and more banking on generosity to others for food South Wales Evening Post (13/11/12)
Northern Illinois Food Bank Kicks Off Hunger Action Month St. Charles Patch, Rick Nagel (1/9/12)
More families get help as food becomes discretionary spend Sydney Morning Herald (21/8/12)
How a foodbank works The Trussell Trust
- Why do so many people find themselves trapped in food poverty?
- What factors are likely to lead to an increase in food poverty in the coming months?
- Should the government subsidise food banks?
- Discuss ways of tackling the problem of poor families being trapped in debt and having to pay very high interest rates.
- Is rent control a good means of tackling poverty?
Child Benefit is a universal benefit, which means it is awarded on the basis of having a certain contingency (a child!) and not on the basis of a contributions record or an income test. It is for this latter reason that the equity and efficiency of child benefit has come into question.
Is it really equitable or a good use of money for a family earning £200,000 per year to receive child benefit of £20.30 per week for the first child and £13.40 each week for every subsequent child? Do these families really need the money, or would it be better spent on education, healthcare etc? This question became even more pertinent with the growing budget deficit facing the UK and the Coalition’s policy of cutting the deficit and hence cutting government expenditure.
Child benefit was one of the benefits targeted by the Coalition. It would be removed from higher rate tax payers. Those earning more than £44,000 would no longer be eligible to receive it. For some this seems like a good policy – the benefit is being targeted at those who need it most – it is becoming more vertically efficient. However, for others this presents a problem, not least because it looks at individual income and not family income. If there is a 2 parent household, with each parent earning, say, £40,000 then total household income is £80,000. Yet, this family is still eligible to receive child benefit, as neither of their incomes exceed £44,000. However, a 2 parent household, where one person works and earns £45,000 and the other only works part time and earns £5,000 would not receive child benefit, despite their total household income being only £50,000. This policy, unsurprisingly, faced criticisms of inequity and that middle income households would be the ones who saw their income squeezed and were made significantly worse off.
Amid these criticisms, David Cameron has admitted that there is an issue with the threshold and those facing the cliff edge of becoming a higher rate tax payer and losing the benefit. The Chancellor is unlikely to be in favour of any significant changes that will reduce the projected £2.5bn savings the policy will make. Although the policy still looks set to go ahead, following the Coalition’s defeat in the House of Lords concerning cuts to welfare and Cameron’s desire to retain the loyalty of Conservative supporters, we may still see some revisions to the initial proposal. The following articles consider this highly charged issue.
Child benefit cut will go ahead, says Osborne BBC News (13/1/12)
George Osborne: child benefit plans will go ahead The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (9/5/11)
Child benefit cut to hit 1.5 million families, says IFS BBC News (13/1/12)
Osborne sticks to child benefit cut The Press Association (13/1/12)
Middle-class parents could keep their child benefit after all Independent, Andrew Grice (13/1/12)
Welfare payment cap poses ‘real risks to children’s rights’ Guardian, Randeep Ramesh (11/1/12)
Universal child benefit has had its day Mail Online, Janice Atkinson-Small (13/1/12)
- What is the difference between a benefit such as income support and child benefit?
- Define the terms horizontal and vertical efficiency and horizontal and vertical equity.
- To what extent does child benefit (as a universal benefit) conform with your definitions above? Would the new means tested child benefit meet the objectives of horizontal and vertical efficiency and horizontal and vertical equity any better?
- Why are middle-income families and women likely to be the most affected by the proposed changes to child benefit?
- Why is there a growing pressure on the Coalition government to rethink the proposal?
- If child benefit is removed from higher rate tax payers, should other benefits be changed to compensate some families for their losses?
In Gordon Brown’s last budget as Chancellor he scrapped the 10p starting rate of taxation and this change came into effect for the 2008/9 tax year starting April 6th 2008. The move has been criticised by many Labour MPs and by poverty campaign groups as they argue that the scrapping of the rate will make some poor people worse off. They also argue that it will make it more difficult to meet the targets the government has set for reducing child poverty
Chancellor accused of widening poverty trap for poorer workers Times Online (14/03/08)
Benefit move to cut child poverty BBC News Online (12/03/08)
||Explain what is meant by the poverty trap.
||Explain how the abolition of the 10p starting rate of tax is likely to increase inequality.
||Analyse two policies that are likely to reduce poverty. Then assess the extent to which these policies will also help reduce child poverty.