The state has an interest in defining poverty in such a way that only a minority are classified as poor.
It was hardly surprising, after the depredations of war and the
austerity of rationing, that the early post-war years should have been a
period of rising expectations. This increasing optimism was fuelled by
rapid growth. The huge task of social reconstruction soaked up labour
like water in a sponge. Low unemployment pushed up wages and that,
together with the introduction of the "welfare state", meant that the
scourge of poverty seemed to be inexorably receding. Technological
advances made affordable household items that were once the province of
privilege. The mass market had at last truly arrived: a veritable
cornucopia disgorging its superfluity of refrigerators, TV sets and
automobiles. And it was against this backdrop of rising consumption that
the first green shoots of a new kind of social protest would soon
emerge—from budding environmentalists to the hippies of the
"flower-power" generation-fulminating against the crass materialism and
extravagant excesses of the "throwaway society".
It was in these years that a spate of books appeared which seemed to
capture the mood of the time. One such was one written by the economist,
J.K. Galbraith, called The Affluent Society (1958). Galbraith's thesis
was that we live in an age of unprecedented affluence yet our habits of
thought are still rooted in the past. This was a past traumatised by the
experience of "grim scarcity". We need, he argued, to radically adjust
our economic thinking if we are to fully capitalise on the new prospects
opening up and avoid jeopardising what had hitherto been achieved.
It was just as well that Galbraith saw fit to prudently qualify his
observations, restricting their scope to what he called a "comparatively
small corner of the world populated by Europeans". Yet, it must be
remembered that, at the time, even among the developing countries, there
was a widespread expectation that the benefits of modernisation would
soon "trickle down" to everyone, heralding the end of global poverty.
They had only to keep to the same trajectory of economic development
that had so unerringly guided their ex-colonial masters towards the
sweet pastures of capitalist paradise. Little did they know what awaited
them around the corner. The 1970s' oil crisis, mounting Third World
debts and the crushing, hope-extinguishing cutbacks imposed by IMF
structural adjustment programmes soon put paid to such wishful thinking.
But, to be fair to Galbraith, he did not suppose that the disappearance
of "grim scarcity" in the so-called First World signalled the
eradication of poverty altogether. There remained a more intangible,
indeed intractable, kind of poverty—the "elegant torture of the spirit
which comes from contemplating another man's more spacious possessions".
"People," declared Galbraith, "are poverty-stricken when their income,
even if it is adequate for survival, falls markedly below that of the
community. Then they cannot have what the larger community regards as
the minimum necessary for decency; and they cannot wholly escape,
therefore, the judgement of the larger community that they are
This is "relative poverty". It is often contrasted to what is called
"absolute poverty"—the kind of poverty where one has barely enough to
survive on—but, in a sense, that can be quite misleading. Indeed, it can
lend itself to the complacent conclusion we having nothing really to
grumble about; at least compared to others less fortunate. Like a child,
admonished for not eating all their peas, we are told to remember "the
starving millions in the Third World". So we should. Not the inference
that we should be eternally grateful for living in a society that
manages to put food on our plate—providing we can afford it—is, frankly,
one that sticks in the gullet. For this is a society the vast majority
have good reason to get rid of and, perhaps, none more so than those it
lets starve in the very shadow of the food mountains it has wilfully
Rather than see "relative poverty" as something to be contrasted to, and
separate from, "absolute poverty", it can be better understood as
encompassing the latter. As the anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins,
"The world's most primitive people have few possessions but they are
not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it
just a relation between means and ends; above all, it is a relation
between people. Poverty is a social status. As such, it is the invention
of civilization" (Stone Age Economics, 1974, p.37).
In short, poverty presupposes affluence just as affluence presupposes
poverty. Each only acquires meaning in and through its relation to the
other. And, paradoxically, what underpins their mutual dependence is
what enables us to analytically separate one from the other: our
experience of material inequality. In other words, we would not be aware
that we were poor unless we had reason to believe others were better
off then ourselves.
It is conventionally assumed that it is the duty of government to look
after the "less fortunate". But if poverty is essentially relative, how
does one differentiate between those who supposedly warrant this support
and those who do not? In other words, on what grounds are we to
classify one person as "poor" and another, "affluent"? After all, a
millionaire might conceivably be considered "poor" by the standards of a
One approach might be to calculate the average income—or arithmetic
mean—for society as a whole such that all who fell below it are deemed
"poor" and all above it, "affluent". By this token, given the highly
skewed distribution of wealth in society today, a clear majority of the
population would fall into the former category, and a small minority,
the latter. However, while this pattern of distribution remained the
same, any increase in overall living standards which the state may rely
upon to improve the welfare of its citizens would, by definition, have
no impact on the extent of poverty among them. This is because the
proportion of "poor" would itself remain unaltered. For a government
committed to the alleviation of poverty, this would pre-empt any
possibility of success on those terms and, so, may prove politically
It could, of course, decide to significantly alter this pattern of
wealth distribution. Even so, short of everyone getting exactly the
same, the optimum outcome it could thereby hope to achieve—which, in
statistical terms, means eliminating any "skewness" around the
"mean"—would be to reduce the ratio of poor to only half the population
by this reckoning.
There are, in any case, clear limits to a policy of redistribution that a
government cannot ignore in a competitive environment without hindering
the process of capital accumulation. In this regard, there is
undoubtedly some truth in the neo-liberal critique of the welfare state:
"excessive" redistribution, involving massive increases in sate
welfare, would impose an unacceptably high tax burden on capitalist
enterprises which would substantially reduce their profits. That, in
turn, would diminish their capacity to mobilise capital for future
investment and, hence, their ability to compete in an increasingly
Redefining the poor
Clearly, then, from the state's point of view, some other approach to
the identification of poverty is needed to circumvent these
difficulties. Ideally, this would allow it to conclude that the problem
of poverty was, by no means, widespread. An appropriate formula could
then be devised to yield just such a conclusion. By such means, a state
could, if not altogether define it out of existence, at least enable
this problem to "assume" manageable proportions. There are several
reasons why such an approach might be officially favoured.
Firstly, the "poor" could thus be portrayed as a minority, small enough
not to appear as a serious political threat and not too large as to
overwhelm the state's efforts to render them some token "assistance".
Secondly, by defining poverty in this arbitrary fashion, this draws
attention away from a structural explanation of poverty, allowing it to
be blamed, say, on personal "defects". Thirdly, by effectively splitting
the working population into those officially classified as "poor" and
those who are not, this facilitates the state's ideological objective of
securing their support through a process of "divide and rule".
Since Elizabethan times, poverty was equated with destitution.
Initially, parishes were responsible for supporting the poor but, after
the 1834 Poor Law, this task was taken over by boards of "guardians",
each comprising several parishes, which were overseen by a government
commission. As David Donnison points out, paupers "had to pass a crude
kind of means test-calculated in loaves of bread—and the relief they
were given kept them alive at a standard which was intended to be worse
then the lot of the lowest-paid labourers . . ." (The Politics of
Poverty, 1982, p.10).
According to Donnison, one of the main purposes of the 1834 poor law was
to "impose the labour disciplines required for an industrial economy".
Another was to mitigate the risk of social unrest. However, the
"lowest-paid labourers" were themselves not given any assistance, and
this effectively remained the case right until 1971 when the family
income supplement was first introduced.
Then, in the early 20th century, the meaning of poverty underwent a
subtle shift, in part instigated by Seebohm Rowntree's classic surveys
of poverty in York. Rowntree's notion of poverty involved the
formulation of a minimum income needed to ensure the reproduction of
labour power at a level of physical efficiency increasingly demanded by
industry. To that end, a simple diet sheet was prepared with help from
the British Medical Association which would ensure adequate nutrition at
minimum cost to the state. "Subsistence poverty" was held to be a
standard of living that fell below this tolerable minimum; as such, it
was distinguishable from "destitution poverty"—or what we usually mean
by "absolute poverty"—which was simply concerned with physical survival.
From the standpoint of the state, the advantage of setting a fixed
threshold is that it enabled it to look to a gradual rise in living
standards to lift growing numbers of the poor above a condition of
poverty without having to seriously address the vexed question of
unequal distribution. In short, it could thus hope to progressively reap
the political benefits of a society that was becoming increasingly
"affluent". However, at around about the time that The Affluent Society
was first published, an increasing number of social scientists, led by
Peter Townsend, began to question the validity of this approach.
Townsend and his colleagues, argued that, far from disappearing since
the war, poverty had increased. They pointed out that the "poverty line"
adopted by the then National Assistance Board (set up in 1948) was
actually lower than even that recommended by Rowntree himself. Further,
it was unrealistic to expect the poor to confirm exactly to such a
stringent spending pattern paternalistically laid down by the state;
what the state regarded as a "necessary expenditure" was not something
that could be absolutely fixed for all time but constantly changed along
with society itself. This called for a definition of poverty that was
essentially relative and thus sensitive to the distribution of social
Their approach was one that had been anticipated, not only by Marx, but
also, Adam Smith. In The Wealth of Nations Smith wrote that "by
necessaries I understand, not only the commodities which are
indispensably necessary to support life but whatever the custom of the
country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest
order, to be without". Such a sentiment was, as we saw, echoed by
In due course, the notion of a fixed "poverty line" was abandoned and
replaced by more relativistic measures of poverty. One current example
is what is known as "Households Below Average Income" (HBAI) which
identifies "the poor" as those living below 50 percent of average
income. But, crucially, from the standpoint of the dominant ideology,
this still retains the assumption that the poor constitute only a
minority and, consequently, that the majority have reason to be grateful
for not being included amongst their number.
But, in truth, that majority is impoverished. It is impoverished insofar
as it has no other option than to sell its working abilities to those
who monopolise the means of living and whose conspicuous wealth must
irresistibly provide the very yardstick by which that poverty will be
This may not be the poverty of material destitution. But if the measure
of a human being consists in the accumulation of material possessions to
which he or she may claim the, by that token, we are demeaned. And,
ultimately, it is in this devaluation of our human worth—not simply in
the fact of material inequality but in the meaning this society attaches
to it—that we may glimpse the very essence of this poverty.
(From Socialist Standard June 2000)
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