Poverty: A Well-known but Little-understood Social Disease

A woman with her two children living in a dump site in Cambodia

Source: http://keytokhmer.blogspot.com/

Poverty is dreadful. It is miserable. It is a strange social phenomenon. You may be thinking “Strange? Is that the right word to describe poverty?” The answer is No. No, I cannot define poverty by just this one word. I cannot define poverty in terms of financial inadequacy either. I actually only find poverty to be a strange idea when people start talking about it as if being poor is all about having less money. In fact, poverty is about more than just being financially poor. Why? Because poverty encompasses a whole lot more than we think. Poverty exists at many levels and cover a wide range of dimensions in life. Poverty is the deprivation of qualities required to ensure a decent living standard, a quality life. This particular way of defining poverty is mostly overlooked due to the tendency to simplify the term as merely the lack of financial resources.

Being poor comes in different shapes and sizes. Being poor is not entirely about the lack of money to sustain life. Being poor is about being deficient in various desired qualities. Illiteracy is a form of poverty, and so is morbidity. Being poor does not just come from insufficiency but also excess. For instance, obesity is mostly due to the excessive consumption of calories or cake, and as a consequence, you have a poor health. Too much alcohol consumption can also lead to the poverty of health.

There is also the poverty of imagination, the poverty of freedom, in which either the mind or the body or both are confined.So you see, poverty is much related to the society you are in, whether you are financially poor or rich. Either way, poverty have influenced your life.There have been many people who tried to develop new methods to define life quality, new ways to measure poverty, either as substitutes or complements to the conventional poverty indicators like the Poverty Line which is the minimum income necessary to sustain one’s life. For what reasons are we trying to redefine poverty again and again? Because a better definition allows for a more accurate problem identification and analysis, and thus, a more effective and robust problem-solving mechanism.

Mahbub ul Haq
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahbub_ul_Haq

Human Development Index, HDI, for instance, is fruit of those people’s labour. Created by two of the most profound economic thinkers of our time, named Amartya Sen and Mahbub ul Haq, HDIis the compound of three elements deemed requisites of life: Income, Health and Education. The two economists were convinced that people are not machine. People are organic, and thus, policies need to be developed for humans and their well-being which comprises both material and non-material possessions.

Amartya Sen

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amartya_Sen

Mahbub ul Haq

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahbub_ul_Haq

Amartya talked about human capabilities. In short, it is about what people are capable of in addition to what they have. Suppose you were poor, and you were able to earn about $50/month. Starting from this month, and for whatever reasons, you are able to earn $30 more per month. Here are the some questions I have for you:

  • Does that make you $30 richer? or any better off than before?

  • To what extent has your life been improved? and at what cost?

  • Assuming you are buying better and more nutritious food, are your body and mind healthy enough to be able to fully consume and absorb the food or all the nutrients?

  • Are you well-educated enough to spend the money wisely to ensure long-term improvement?

  • Are you given fair opportunity and freedom to spend the money the way you think are best for you?

  • Are you restrained or supported by external sources to further elevate the positive impacts the additional earning may or will have on your life?

  • Is there an enabling environment for your idea and creativity to come to life?

  • How is the long-term projection of your society? Is it under exploitation or oppression of any form? Is social injustice prevalent? Do you see yourself living in a better society where this additional income matters?

  • Are you psychologically healthy enough to feel the motivation and encouragement this improvement in life quality has given you?

These are just several questions I have, but trust me, there are many more. I hope these questions have reflected the point I want to make here. Measuring poverty by solely looking at people’s income is not a good enough indicator to give you a full grasp of the problem.

The last question on the list is actually a very interesting one because it is related to a term called “Relative Poverty”. What is relative poverty? By my understanding, relative poverty is about the relative position you see yourself in within your society, how you compare yourself to different groups of people in your country or the entire world, and how the resulted image about yourself that you derive from such contemplation will influence your psychological well-being and those around you.

Relative poverty is a real challenge, a barrier to emotional well-being of people, in a society where income inequality is conspicuous, where the differences in status are in retina display that they manifest themselves along side each other, giving you time to feel how miserable you are compared to those riding high-end cars like Rolls-Royce.

Relative poverty is an insidious social disease. It gives people the idea that they are poor even though they can sustain their life and live just fine. Relative poverty may lead to social disorder, to the demonstration of discontent of the mass because wealth tends to be concentrated in the hands of the much richer few. These are problems that demand on-time attention and solutions as the country is moving from low-income to middle-income or high-income status. We need to ensure that such transition will also bring along well-being and equity (and equality where it is due) to all people living in our society. This is why treating poverty superficially by attempting to only lift income does not solve the problem. Not to say that we should not put effort into raising the income level of the people, but it should not be the only approach chosen or prioritized. The next paragraph will show you why exactly increasing income doesn’t cut it.

There have been cases of the existence of two countries with the same level of income per capita while at the same time, with a huge difference in HDI or the well-being between people of the two countries. Why? Because of the contexts they live in. For instance, two persons, one lives in country A where free trade is adopted while another one lives in country B where imports are highly taxed (high tariff). The one living in country A is more likely enjoying a better life quality due to lower cost and wider range of products offered, while the one living in country B is having fewer options and facing higher price with inferior technological level of products. So you see, although both have the same level of income, due to the different economic policies adopted, it leads to different outcomes in terms of life quality for each of them.

Despite it being seemingly obvious, there is still a grave misconception by some economists and a large number of people who think that everything else will just fall into place following the rise of income. NO. It doesn’t work that way. Never did and never will.

Holistic treatments are required. We need to stop regarding income as an end, but rather, one of the means. What do I mean by that? Simply put, what I want to say is that, instead of thinking of people as beings that consume jobs and money, we need to think of them as beings that consume food, clothes, clean water, shelters, transportation, justice, equity, equality, and so forth. Of course, most of these are available with good jobs and money. However, the routes taken to achieving such outcomes are highly dependent on your understanding of poverty and its relations to the many other facets of life. A better knowledge of the conceptual framework will allow you to make better decisions in terms of setting priorities for better resource allocation. (This is actually a very important topic that should be explained further to enable a more comprehensive understanding of the concept. I will write another article sooner or later with a sole focus on “resource allocation”. Anyway, let’s move on with our article.)

The true beauty of development. A picture that can make the most beautiful painting pale in comparison.
Source: http://www.minhajwelfare.org/our-work/education/

Education sector is an example of where we can put our effort into to combat poverty. Remember that poor people also have children, and based on empirical research, they have even more children than the richer ones do. So, if education can be a tool to free people from long-term deprivation of good life qualities, then we need to look into this much less visible part of the society, and it will be okay for a government to run deficit to spend more to enable education to spread its wing here. It is a good long term investment because even if we are not capable of giving them much immediate short-term relief, we are at least ensuring that in the longer run, they and their younger generations will live much better lives. Since there are more poor people in many developing countries, I can make a strong assumption that there are more poor children as well. In 10 to 20 years time, they will be a part of the labour force driving the country economy forward. So, investing in them is no different from investing in the future of our nation. This is one way to combat poverty in the long-run. However, note in mind that, for this approach to be effective, it still needs to be executed in conjunction with many other methods used to tackle poverty from different sides of the society, and only then, will we be able to truly prevail.

Of course, education for adults is also important, but I will keep that till later. This is it for now. I hope you enjoy reading the article as always. I will talk more about the remedies one may take to treat such social disease in our next article. I will also try to be more detailed, to write more about what I think of how we can, for example, better improve education for the poor to be more effective, efficient and sustainable with a much stronger impact .

If you are new here and want to know more about this topic, visit the links below to read 2 related articles that will give you a better picture of the idea: