This concept describes an empirical reality, both globally and in individual societies, but the meaning of which is contested. What constitutes poverty depends on how it is defined and measured. The main debates around definition concern the role of material resources, in particular income, and whether poverty should be understood in absolute or relative terms. The nature of the debates differs according to context, in particular that of the global South or North.
Disagreements about the role of income revolve around a number of issues. One concerns the relative importance of income versus living standards, which may also reflect factors such as access to services and quality of the local environment. Another raises wider questions about the significance of nonmaterial aspects of poverty that are often raised by people in poverty in both the North and the South. These include disrespectful treatment, loss of dignity, lack of voice, and of power. With regard to nonmaterial aspects, it is possible to resolve any disagreement by making a distinction between the (narrower) definition and (broader) conceptualization of poverty. The latter is better able to embrace the relational aspects of poverty while the former focuses on poverty as a material condition.
The other key definitional debate has revolved around whether poverty should be understood in absolute or relative terms. Definitions deployed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Charles Booth (1840-1916) and Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954), the pioneers of modern poverty research, were supposedly absolute in the sense that poverty was said to be understood as lack of sufficient money to meet basic physical needs to subsist and survive. The alternative, relative definition was pioneered by Peter Townsend. In his major study Poverty in the United Kingdom (1979), he defined poverty in terms of exclusion from the living conditions, and inability to participate in the activities, taken for granted by the wider society because of lack of material resources. Central to his approach was the concept of relative deprivation, but understood as an objective condition rather than a subjective feeling as in W. G. Runciman's formulation.
In judging whether relative poverty exists, comparison is made with others living in the same society at the same point in history. This means that historical and global North/South comparisons are misplaced. Such a comparison also highlights any inequality of resources between groups in a society, although relative poverty and inequality are not synonymous. The latter does not necessarily imply the inability of some members to participate fully in society because of lack of material resources. A relative definition also involves a particular reading of human needs not merely as physical but as socially and culturally constituted. One implication of an understanding of even the most basic physiological needs as socially conditioned is that the conventional notion of absolute poverty falls apart. Indeed, contemporary scholarship questions the conventional wisdom that Rowntree promulgated a definition of poverty, in terms of subsistence, that was absolute.
There have also been attempts to develop a framework that treats absolute and relative as complementary rather than competing formulations, which can be applied to both North and South. The first was by Amartya Sen (1933-). He identified an absolutist core to poverty, the most obvious manifestation of which is starvation and malnutrition. He suggested that what one is able to do or be (capabilities) is a question of universal absolutes, whereas the goods (or commodities) needed to translate this ability into actual being or doing (functionings) takes us into the sphere of relativities because commodities vary according to cultural and historical context. A heated debate with Townsend ensued in the early 1980s, which was confused because of a failure to clarify different interpretations of absolute and relative. More recently, Townsend and colleagues have promulgated a two-part definition of poverty - absolute and overall - which emerged from the 1995 United Nations (UN) Copenhagen summit. This, it is argued, can be applied to both industrialized and poorer countries.
The capabilities approach has been developed by Sen and Martha Nussbaum (1947-) in numerous books and papers, most recently, Development as Freedom, 1999. Their approach has been particularly influential in development circles, providing the framework for the annual UN Development Program Human Development Report. The essence of Sen's thesis is that what matters is not income or living standards as such but the kind of life that a person is able to lead (functionings) and the choices and opportunities open to people in leading their lives (capabilities). Money, Sen argues, is just a means to an end and the goods and services (commodities) it buys are simply particular ways of achieving functionings. Thus, poverty should be defined in terms of failure to achieve minimally acceptable capabilities.
In order to identify and count those defined as poor, measures are needed. These too generate controversy, involving choice of indicators and the standard, often called the poverty line, against which indicators are assessed. Questions include whether poverty should be measured in terms of income, living standards / consumption, or expenditure; increasingly the view is that a combination of approaches is needed to improve the accuracy of measures. Official measures tend to use income levels to establish a poverty line. Examples are 60 percent of median national income, as used within the European Union, and the World Bank's (much-criticized) $1, $2, or $4 a day. In addition to headcount measures, poverty-gap measures have been devised to gauge the extent to which people fall below the poverty line, although these are used less frequently. A focus on the numbers below the poverty line or on the poverty gap can point to different policy priorities.
This is one of the criticisms made by those who query the very construction of poverty lines. At the heart of such criticisms is the question as to whether there exists a clear threshold which neatly divides the poor from the nonpoor or whether the relationship between the two is better understood as a continuum, with gradations among both groups. The idea of a simple dichotomy between poor and nonpoor has also been questioned in the light of the growing use of longitudinal datasets to measure the dynamics of poverty. These show considerable movement in and out of poverty (although not usually very far), which is obscured by traditional snapshot measures. The length of time in poverty also affects the degree of deprivation of necessities experienced.
An alternative approach to drawing a poverty line is based on estimates of the income levels at which people are unable to afford items specified as essentials by either experts or the population at large. Typically, budget standards are calculated, based on the cost of a basket of goods and services. In the United Kingdom, a number of poverty studies have used a list of necessities agreed by a survey of the general population. Yet another device is to ask a sample of the population directly a question aimed at gauging what they think the poverty line should be for their household.
Although poverty estimates generally refer to individuals, they are typically based on measures of combined household/family resources. This is problematic where resources are not shared fairly within households, as research indicates can be the case. The result can be hidden poverty experienced primarily by women. It is one example of the ways in which poverty is gendered, although this was largely ignored prior to the intervention of feminist scholars. Even on conventional measures, women are more likely than men to be in poverty. They also tend to take the main responsibility for managing poverty and often go without to protect other family members, especially children, from its full impact. The stress involved can damage both physical and mental health.
Poverty is also racialized in terms of its incidence, racialized stereotyping, and the effects of discrimination and racism. This dimension is most marked in the United States where race and ethnicity and urban segregation figure prominently in the sociological poverty literature. Segregation is one aspect of the geography of poverty, which is a manifestation of wider spatial inequalities.
Explanations of poverty can broadly be understood as behavioral or structural. Behavior-based explanations attribute poverty to the values, attitudes, and behavior of the poor. An example is Charles Murray's writings on the underclass (including The Emerging British Underclass, 1990). In the United States, the earlier notion of a culture of poverty drew attention to the ways in which a subculture, marked by fatalism, an inability to defer gratification, and pathological behavior, was passed down through the generations. Although Oscar Lewis, who coined the term in the 1960s, emphasized that the culture of poverty represented an adaptation to rather than cause of poverty, it was used to argue with the latter meaning by others who blamed the poor for their poverty, as both supporters and critics of Lewis have observed. A related notion in the United Kingdom, in the 1970s, was that of the cycle of deprivation.
In The Other America (1967), a pivotal intervention in the United States, Michael Harrington linked the culture of poverty to a structural analysis. Structural explanations of poverty focus on economic, social, and political structures and processes - from the global to the local/familial. Examples are unemployment, low pay, and women's position in the family. Another perspective is institutional, which points to the failure of government policies. For example, the term poverty trap was coined in Britain to highlight the way in which means-tested benefits can trap the working poor: the interaction of the withdrawal of means-tested supplements with taxation and insurance contributions meant that a pay rise could leave a low-paid worker worse off. Although the system has since been reformed to avoid this extreme situation, large numbers of lower-paid workers can still lose a significant proportion of a pay increase because of the poverty trap. An example of an explanation that combines the behavioral and institutional is that which locates the cause of poverty in a dependency culture said to be created by welfare benefits.
Recently, some poverty analysts who subscribe to a structural explanation have married this approach with a sociological account of agency in order to understand better the ways in which people cope with poverty. One formulation, taken from the development literature, is of people deploying a range of resources (personal, social, cultural, and material) to compose their livelihoods. Structure and agency also combine in some sociological accounts of the concept of social exclusion, which emphasize the agency of the more powerful in excluding the less powerful.
Labels such as “socially excluded,” “poor,” and “underclass” are examples of how the more powerful name those without power. They are not labels with which those experiencing poverty necessarily want to identify. organizations of people in poverty are, however, developing alternative discourses that have also been promulgated by some more powerful bodies such as the United Nations. This is a discourse of human rights, citizenship, voice, and power. Two key principles underpin the conceptualization of poverty in terms of human rights and citizenship: recognition of the dignity of all humans and the interdependence of civil, political, social, and cultural rights. In addition, this perspective emphasizes participation in society and the polity and the right to be heard in decisionmaking. In both North and South, people in poverty identify lack of voice and associated powerlessness as critical to understanding their situation. Calls for their voices to be heard in policymaking and campaigning are becoming more emphatic. In the South and, to a lesser extent, the North, the case is being made for participatory research that involves people in poverty as experts in their own lives. The argument is that sociological accounts will provide a better understanding of poverty if they reflect the analyses of those with experience of poverty.
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