Thursday, July 02, 2015

Making Poverty History

The problem with Polly Toynbee is that she gets so cross about whatever the particular issue of the day is that she doesn't notice that she's contradicting herself, or basing her argument on something flat-out untrue. She is currently spitting feathers over the redefining of poverty away from the old 60% of median income.
In doublespeak, the very meaning of the word poverty disappears when to be poor no longer means to lack money.
The problem is that this entirely undermines her argument: as it stands poverty doesn't necessarily mean that you lack money, just that you have less of it than other people. She herself recognises this later in the piece, as well as correctly identifying the obvious problem with the measure:
Cameron chooses a clever time to scorn the international poverty measure – people living at below 60% of a nation’s median income. That measure means that during recessions when the median falls, the number in poverty may fall too, without the poor being a penny better off.
Which is counter-intuitive to say the least.
A more imaginatively graphic measure comes from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, using an annual opinion poll to ask the public what they regard as minimum necessities. The public regards two pairs of shoes, a winter coat, a one-week self-catering UK holiday and a birthday present costing £50 as essentials for children: fewer people reach this decency threshold than before the recession. 
OK, that's a reasonable approach - like Adam Smith's idea about the labourer and the linen shirt:
A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct.'
This is not a measure of how people's incomes compare to the median but whether they can afford what contemporary society views as an adequate way of life. That's much more helpful than a relative measure, which is a way of determining inequality, not poverty. So how does Polly characterise this?
That’s what relative poverty means – not a dry statistic, but whether people have what are seen as essentials in an ever-changing society.
Which is obviously wrong - it's an absolute measure of poverty and explicitly not a relative one. It is, in fact, much closer to what the Government are proposing. That's the problem with getting so angry when writing - you shout too loudly to hear yourself think.


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