Emotionally charged terms are shamelessly misused by the media to stir up flagging interest of the general population overexposed to misery and violence. They are also manipulatively employed by the politicians keen to get at one another by misleading the well-intentioned public. One term which has been twisted this way to the point of being meaningless is poverty.
In the best tradition of rationalism let me ask you who can be considered to be poor? Well, you will probably answer that someone who is so financially destitute as not to be able to lead a normal life but if we try to define poverty in more quantitative terms we immediately run into problems. How financially destitute does one need to be to qualify? What constitutes a “normal” life? Since different people may have differing opinions on the above, whose judgement are we supposed to trust?
While da-boss may sound heartless it is completely essential to define what we are talking about before we embark on a mission of curing the social ills, usually through income re-distribution. How else would we know the present extent of the problem, set realistic goals and track the progress of the instituted programs? Well, you may be surprised to learn that there is no one, universally accepted definition of poverty. There are in fact many definitions:
There are basically three current definitions of poverty in common usage: absolute poverty, relative poverty and social exclusion. Absolute poverty is defined as the lack of sufficient resources with which to keep body and soul together. Relative poverty defines income or resources in relation to the average. It is concerned with the absence of the material needs to participate fully in accepted daily life. Social exclusion is a new term used by the Government.
The PR gurus will pick the definition of poverty producing the results most useful for the task at hand. One example of this deceptive manipulation is contained in the following news item:
Recent figures showed fewer children in poverty – but largely because falling wages have narrowed the gap between the poorest and average earners.
Ok, so due to the changing social dynamics the child poverty rates had fallen. One would imagine that this should be associated with the sound of champagne corks popping in the political circles but, surprisingly, this is not what happened:
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith says this income-based method of measuring poverty is too simple.
So a definition which was perfectly adequate before needed to be revised the moment it started to indicate dropping poverty rates.
A child is considered to be living in poverty if their household income is less than 60% of averages wages. Last year that figure equated to £251 per week, which meant 2.3 million children were living in poverty. That was 300,000 fewer children than the year before – but the reduction was due to average incomes falling rather than poorer families becoming better off.
Now the picture is becoming clearer. The relative poverty had reduced so the opposition politicians were questioning the methodology used to work out the numbers.
“Yet at a closer look, real incomes did not rise and absolute poverty was unchanged. For the 300,000 children no longer in poverty according to the official statistics, life was no different.”
So, disappointingly for Mr Smith, the absolute poverty levels were largely unchanged which again had little PR impact.
Mr Duncan Smith says life is unchanged for these children and a broader definition of child poverty is needed. This would be one that looks at joblessness, educational failure and family breakdown as well as income.
Family breakdown, drug addiction, debt and education results are among the factors that could be used to measure child poverty in future, ministers say.
So if the statistics are bad the politicians shout from the rooftops about them. But if comparable statistics are good the PR people feel they have to change the way the numbers are processed, to make the message look bad. Small wonder we seem unable to make any progress in the fight against poverty in the West!
But in this global ocean of gloom there is an island of hope where extraordinary results have been achieved in eradicating poverty. I am talking about China.