Survival alone cannot be a measure of wealth

Poverty is relative to the society we live in. Altering the way we measure it won’t change that


Last week the Conservative government, and the right wing more generally, began attacking the way we measure child poverty.

Poverty is currently measured as anyone living in a household that earns less than 60 per cent of the medium national income. And it’s this that has the Telegraph crying foul.

The Telegraph described the measure as ‘dreamt up’ by academics (oh no – not those crazy academics who spend their careers studying things) in the ‘sixties’ (ahh so they were having sex and taking drugs – now it makes sense) all designed to create a ‘socialist bias’ (Commies – got it).

In other words, they see Relative Poverty as socially constructed and therefore a false or untrue measure.

So let’s put the hysteria to one side and talk honestly about poverty.

Yes, it’s true that things are better than they used to be. Most people have access to shelter (putting aside the homeless or those being forced to relocate because of huge rent or price rises), food (notwithstanding the huge increase in food bank use) and water. Most even have access to washing machines, the internet and mobile phones.

For this reason the government argues that there are actually less people in poverty than described in the latest statistics. (Child poverty is static at 2.3 million.)

The logic of this position is that an absolute indicator is better suited to measuring how many adults or children live in poverty.

Which leads to an important question: where should we place the bar of absolute poverty? At what point in time should we freeze the poverty line: 1900, 1945, 1973, yesterday, tomorrow?

Which items do we consider essential and which are optional extras to live in 2015 Britain? Access to the internet, free time, the ability to pay for school trips?

This is where the argument that dispensing with Relative Poverty because it is socially-constructed falls flat. Absolute poverty, by virtue of its being placed in a certain point in time, is just as socially constructed.

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins described our hunter-gatherer ancestors as the original affluent society, without need for all the paraphernalia and pressures of agricultural, industrial and modern life.

So why not set the measure at pure survival? Surely all one needs is some food to eat and some water to drink and a place to sleep – all of which can be foraged and sourced with a little survival spirit.

Relative Poverty was chosen as a measure because we live in a world where we define things against each other. We exist in a society and not as individual islands or small family bands.

As society changes so do our needs. Poverty is as relative as wealth. To measure poverty in any other way is ignorant of the wider social effects and implications that poverty creates.

It condemns people to having enough to survive but not to enough to live, and rejects the idea that we exist as a society at all.

What is most depressing about the government’s desire to change the goal posts is the sheer small-minded politics of it. Changing the way we measure poverty has more to do with presentation than tackling the root of the cause.

This is all part of a wider narrative that shifts blame to those who struggle on the outside and fringes of society.

It is not becoming of a nation to set ambitious visions for a just and fair society, only to change them if it gets hard or uncomfortable. Poverty is relative to the society we live in. Altering the way we measure it won’t change that.

Matt Aldridge works in social policy in central London. Follow him on Twitter

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4 Responses to “Survival alone cannot be a measure of wealth”

  1. Charlatans

    At least Jeremy Corbyn is doing a real opposition job and, together with Di Abbott and 17 others Labour MPs, has called on Cameron to support debt cancellation for Greece.

    Of course Jeremy missed out, in all fairness, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and the UK as we also need debts writing off as well because according to Labour millions of children are in poverty in our countries too.

    Please could I also be included for some debt relief, as well since instead of paying my taxes I spent far too much on me and the kids skiing holiday this last winter. I had to get a Wonga loan out and am now unable to change my 42″ wide screen Samsung for one of the bendy models, plus I cannot afford 4G for my kids new mobiles and I have to use the food bank since not enough to continue a little tipple, fags and weekly flutter at Ladbrokes. I am also worried to death now about my Tax Credits after hearing the news this weekend. Ta.

  2. stevep

    The wealthy Victorian elite believed poverty among the masses was largely their own fault due to fecklessness and laziness and apart from an enlightened few, either ignored or disparaged the poor whilst simultaneously exploited them for cheap labour.
    This superior attitude persisted well into the 20th century until the Beveridge report put paid to such notions.
    The subsequent welfare state and post-war consensus drastically improved housing, health, infant mortality rates, education etc. over the next 30 years to the point where real poverty was virtually eradicated in Britain.
    The problem now is that we take these improvements for granted (and rightly too!). The distance of time has eroded memories of the very real poverty that existed before WW2.
    Only a few pensioners now in their 90`s can remember. What they have to say should serve as a lesson to those who would erode or dissolve the welfare state.
    Most Tory apologists attacking the welfare state wouldn’t want to back to pre-WW2 Britain to live in a slum and scratch around for the odd day`s menial work to try to eke out a miserable existence. life like that was all too common.
    If the definition of poverty in 2015 is that we can`t afford a mobile phone or a car then it will impact on people trying to find work, as both things are a virtual necessity these days.
    If, however, the definition of poverty is not being able to find work paying enough to afford housing, food, clothes etc. even when benefits are taken into account, we are creeping backwards to pre-WW2 Britain and we should be extra vigilant.

  3. dnspncr

    Bah! Typical bloody scrounger! I’ll have my groundskeeper set the dogs on you if you come sniffing around here for handouts!

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