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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