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An International Glossary
By Paul Spicker, Sonia Alvarez Leguizamon, David Gordón
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2007 CROP
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The concept of absolute poverty is a contested one. Absolute definitions of poverty vary considerably but they are often dominated by the individual's requirements for physiological efficiency. Poverty is defined without reference to social context or norms and is usually defined in terms of simple physical SUBSISTENCE needs but not social needs. Absolute definitions of poverty tend to be prescriptive definitions based on the 'assertions' of experts about people's minimum needs.
The Copenhagen Declaration of the World Summit for Social Development, which was signed by the governments of 117 countries, included a definition of absolute poverty, in these terms:
Absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to social services.
A detailed debate on the merits of an absolute conception of poverty, occurred between Amartya Sen and Peter Townsend. Sen (1983) argued that 'There is ... an irreducible absolutist core in the idea of poverty. If there is starvation and hunger then, no matter what the relative picture looks like — there clearly is poverty.' Examples of this absolutist core are the need 'to meet nutritional requirements, to escape avoidable disease, to be sheltered, to be clothed, to be able to travel, to be educated to live without shame.'
Townsend (1985) has responded that this absolutist core is itself relative to society. Nutritional requirements are dependent on the work roles of people at different points of history and in different cultures. Avoidable disease is dependent upon the level of medical technology. The idea of shelter is relative not just to climate but also to what society uses shelter for. Shelter includes notions of privacy, space to cook, work and play, and highly cultured notions of warmth, humidity and segregation of particular members of the family as well as different functions of sleep, cooking, washing and excretion.
Much of the debate on absolute versus RELATIVE POVERTY revolves around semantic definitions. Sen (1985) argued that
the characteristic feature of 'absoluteness' is neither constancy over time nor invariance between societies nor concentration on food and nutrition. It is an approach to judging a person's deprivation in absolute terms (in the case of a poverty study, in terms of certain specified minimum absolute levels), rather than in purely relative terms vis-à-vis the levels enjoyed by others in society.
This definition of absoluteness in non-constant terms is different from the notion of absolute poverty adopted by the OECD (1976: 69) as 'a level of minimum need, below which people are regarded as poor, for the purpose of social and government concern, and which does not change over time.'
If absolute poverty is defined in terms that are neither constant over time nor invariant between societies, then, Townsend and Gordon (1991) have argued, from an operational point of view the concepts of absolute and relative poverty become virtually indistinguishable — i.e. you could use the same methods and criteria in a social survey to measure absolute and relative poverty. Nevertheless, the distinction continues to exert an influence over the construction of measures of poverty, which are often based in a concept of subsistence, and on political debates, particularly in Latin America.
OECD (1976) Public Expenditure on Income Maintenance Programmes, Paris: OECD.
Sen, A.K. (1983) 'Poor, Relatively Speaking', Oxford Economic Papers 35: 135–69.
Sen, A.K. (1985) 'A Sociological Approach to the Measurement of Poverty: A Reply to Professor Peter Townsend', Oxford Economic Papers 37: 669–76.
Townsend, P. (1985) 'A Sociological Approach to the Measurement of Poverty: A Rejoinder to Professor Amartya Sen', Oxford Economic Papers 37: 659–68.
Townsend, P., and Gordon, D. (1991) What is Enough? New Evidence on Poverty Allowing the Definition of a Minimum Benefit, in M. Adler, C. Bell, J. Clasen and A. Sinfield (eds), The Sociology of Social Security, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 35–69.
UN (1995) The Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action: World Summit for Social Development 6–12 March 1995, New York: United Nations.
The welfare states have singled out certain groups such as the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, single mothers, low-income groups, and large families as eligible for public assistance. Through a system of income transfers from the state or the municipality the groups are made visible and defined as needy, poor, disadvantaged, worthy, and so on. The labels vary, as do the criteria for transfer. Thus the WELFARE STATE creates categories of poverty. The poverty label disappears behind these categories and reappears when benefits are means-tested or reserved for selected groups. But those persons who receive some kind of social benefit are per se defined as poorer than the rest of the population, or at least poorer than some segment of the population with which it is considered just or legitimate to judge their degree of poverty.
Øyen, E. (1992) 'Some Basic Issues in Comparative Poverty Research', International Social Science Journal 134: 614–26.
Amenities are resources which offer basic facilities for daily living. In the context of HOUSING policy, the idea is commonly operationalised in terms of specific items that are available to residents (Hole 1972). Facilities for personal hygiene include water supply, hot water, fixed baths or showers, washbasins, water closets and facilities for the disposal of waste water. Facilities for warmth include heating or cooling systems. Facilities for the preparation of food include drinkable water, food storage and a sink. Other amenities may include a supply of electricity or gas. In developing countries, the focus on amenities tends to fall on the provision of basic services, like water supply or sewerage (Kundu 1993); in developed economies, the focus is liable to shift towards the amenities within the housing itself.
Hole, V. (1972) 'Housing in Social Research', in E. Gittis (ed.), Key Variables in Social Research, London: Heinemann.
Kundu, A. (1993) In the Name of the Urban Poor: Access to Basic Amenities, New Delhi: Sage.
ARABIC (TRADITIONAL) DEFINITIONS OF POVERTY
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) found that in the Arab world there were specific traditional definitions of poverty. In the literal sense, Lisan al-Arab, written by Ibn-Mandhur (d. c. 1311 CE) — the standard Arabic dictionary — defines poverty as the 'inability of an individual to satisfy his own basic needs and the needs of his dependants'. Another source, Fiqh al-Lugha, written by Tha'aliby (d. c. 1037 CE) identifies eight different levels of poverty, assigning to each a specific term:
loss of savings;
loss of assets or property due to drought or natural disaster (this type of poverty is temporary);
an individual is forced to sell the decoration items on his sword (the equivalent in today's standards would be to sell non-essential material belongings);
the individual/household can only afford to eat bread made of millet, which is cheaper than the usual wheat-flour bread;
the individual/household has no food available;
the individual/household has no belongings left which he/it can sell to purchase food;
the individual/household has become humiliated or degraded due to poverty;
the individual/household is reduced to ultimate poverty.
Al Farqir fil Alam al' Arbi (1994) 'Poverty in the Arab World', background paper for the World Summit for Social Development, ESCWA Poverty Eradication Series [in Arabic].
Area deprivation has at least three different meanings (Macintyre 1997):
A compositional meaning, whereby an area is considered to be deprived if it contains a large number of poor people. In this case the spatial effects are entirely due to the concentration of poor people in a given area; there are no independent area effects.
A collective meaning, whereby an area is considered to be deprived because if it contains a lot of poor people a social 'miasma' may exist. That is, a concentration of poor people will exert a collective influence beyond their individual circumstances; for example, it may be difficult to find a job if you live in a deprived area because employers are prejudiced against people from poor areas.
A public goods or environmental meaning, whereby an area is considered deprived because it lacks facilities (roads, hospitals, schools, libraries, etc.) or because it suffers from high pollution levels (Bramley 1997).
These three meanings of area deprivation are separate and distinct, but are often confused (Lee et al. 1995).
The belief that areas can be deprived or poor has been attacked as an example of the 'ecological fallacy', or an illegitimate attribution of characteristics to aggregate figures from the situation of individuals (Bulmer 1986). Against this proposition is the view that geographical areas have distinct characteristics and spatially organized patterns of behaviour, that the characteristics of an area affect all residents (not only those who are individually poor), and that by several definitions of poverty — including relational views and poverty in the sense of multiple deprivation — areas experience poverty.
Bramley, G. (1997) 'Poverty and Local Public Services', in D. Gordon and C. Pantazis (eds), Breadline Britain in the 1990s, Aldershot: Avebury.
Bulmer, M. (1986) Social Science and Social Policy, London: Allen & Unwin.
Lee, P., Murie, A., and Gordon, D. (1995) Area Measures of Deprivation: A Study of Current Methods and Best Practices in the Identification of Poor Areas in Great Britain, Birmingham: University of Birmingham.
Macintyre, S. (1997) 'What Are Spatial Effects and How Can We Measure Them?', in A. Dale (ed.), Exploiting National Survey And Census Data: The Role of Locality and Spatial Effects, Manchester: Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research.
ASSET VULNERABILITY FRAMEWORK
The asset vulnerability framework utilizes the link between assets and vulnerability to explain both the reasons why people move in or out of poverty and how they cope and adapt to the situations they find themselves in. Caroline Moser (1998) develops this concept 'to try to contribute to the debate on strategies to reduce poverty' at a local 'sustained [level] that reinforces the inventive solutions of the people themselves, rather than replace or block them'.
Moser characterises VULNERABILITY as insecurity in the well-being of individuals, households and communities faced by changing conditions in the environment, and implicit in this is their resilience and responsiveness to risk that they face during negative changes. Vulnerability in turn is related to the possession and control of assets. Assets are both tangible and intangible. Tangible assets include labour, and human capital, as well as housing and social and economic infrastructure. Intangible assets include household relations and SOCIAL CAPITAL. Access to and utilization of assets is central to whether people are able to take advantage of a set of circumstances, and to whether they would further slide into poverty. The more assets a person possesses, the less vulnerable they are; and the greater the erosion of the assets on the part of the people, the greater their insecurity.
Moser's research is based in four poor communities in cities whose countries were facing economic hardship in the 1980s: Lusaka (Zambia), Guayaquil (Ecuador), Metro Manila (the Philippines) and Budapest (Hungary). The results of the study identify household income-raising strategies, changes in household food consumption, and shows that the ability of homeowners to use their houses as assets depends on regulatory environment. Other strategies to reduce vulnerability include income diversification through renting and home-based enterprises, as well as children building houses on their parents' plots. In terms of social capital, community-led activity and informal credit networks are shown as important coping mechanisms.
Moser's research shows that the poor themselves are managing a portfolio of complex assets. This approach illustrates the way the management of assets affects vulnerability in the household. In operational terms, Moser's viewpoint adds to the development of tools to contribute to the interventions promoting opportunities and overcoming key obstacles. The asset vulnerability framework tries to help the poor in urban areas to use their portfolio of assets to optimize their position.
The framework has, however, had significant criticism. First, the framework sees SURVIVAL STRATEGIES as 'managing complex portfolios'. This may romanticize survivalist strategies. Moser, however, shows that some households were pushed beyond the point where they could sustain networks, and fell deeper into poverty. Second, the framework does not adequately capture questions of power relations and the structural nature of poverty.
The asset vulnerability framework has opened up new lines of argument and prompted other approaches to understanding household livelihood strategies. Bebbington (1999) develops a framework looking at assets that places questions of power and structure more central to the analytical framework, through focusing on social capital and the broader influences on policy. Rakodi (1999) brings in a time dimension to the analysis, by arguing that a household may be able to mitigate or cope in a given period, but that in subsequent periods they may not be able to manage, as assets may have degraded. He refers to this as a 'capital assets framework'.
Bebbington, A. (1999) 'Capitals and Capabilities: A Framework for Analysing Peasant Viability, Rural Livelihoods and Poverty', World Development 27/12: 2021–44.
Moser, C. (1998) 'The Asset Vulnerability Framework; Reassessing Urban Poverty Reduction Strategies', World Development 26/1: 1–19.
Rakodi, C. (1999) 'A Capital Assets Framework for Analyzing Household Livelihood Strategies', Development Policy Review 3/17: 317–42.
AUSTRALIAN DEFINITIONS OF POVERTY
Virtually all studies on poverty in Australia over the past twenty years have used the broad framework and methodology developed by the Commission of the Inquiry into Poverty in 1975 (Saunders and Matherson 1992). The recommended methodology has since become known as the Henderson Poverty Line (HPL), after the Commission's chairman Roland Henderson. The HPL contains both relative and official elements in its definition of poverty and is based on a study of poverty in Melbourne undertaken by Henderson, Harcourt and Harper (1970):
For our survey of income and needs ... we have accepted as a state of poverty the situation of a man with a wife (not working) and two children where total weekly income ... was less than the basic wage plus child endowment ... We chose this basic wage concept of the poverty line because of its relevance to Australian concepts of living standards This poverty line also has international relevance since, in relation to average earnings, to average incomes and to basic social service rates, it is comparable to the poverty lines that have been adopted in some surveys carried out overseas We have deliberately confined ourselves to a study of poverty as determined by the relationship between the income of a family and its normal needs. ... We have not attempted to study the personal causes of poverty, its life cycle or its perpetuation, which would have taken us into the deep waters of the sociology of poverty Finally we consider poverty to be a relative standard, to be defined in relationship to the living standards typical of the community in which we live.
In their introduction, Henderson, Harcourt and Harper argued that they had used: 'a definition of poverty so austere as, we believe, to make it unchallengeable. No one can seriously argue that those we define as being poor are not so.'
Excerpted from Poverty by Paul Spicker, Sonia Alvarez Leguizamon, David Gordón. Copyright © 2007 CROP. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
- Introducing the glossary - Else Øyen
- Poverty: An International Glossary
- Definitions of poverty: twelve clusters of meaning - Paul Spicker