Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What is poverty?

What does a man need to live? Water, food, shelter, say some. Mobile phones, say others.
There is genuine disagreement about what poverty is. The official definition sets it at earning below 60% of median income after housing costs, which means that the poor are quite literally always with us, because the threshold rises as earnings rise.

The face of genuine poverty, however, is more subtly veiled by debt. However little you earn, it is always horribly easy to borrow, for there are always people unscrupulous enough to lend to you at the cost of your sanity. Some of the poorest people “own” mobile phones and satellite dishes whose value is dwarfed by the debt incurred to obtain them.

The Retail Price Index, based on a regularly updated shopping list of items, only shows what we like to buy, not what we need to buy. This month, children’s sandals and car seats dropped off the list while iPods and champagne were added. It only means that more people buy iPods than have babies; it does not mean that car seats are any less essential for saving children’s lives, or that children no longer need sandals. And if sandals suddenly become expensive, the RPI won’t notice.

There is an argument that poverty essentially consists of being unable to satisfy the pressures of your peer group. Thus, if a child is bullied and spat on for not wearing £85 trainers, and as a consequence his mum sells her happiness to a loan shark in order to buy the desired trainers, the family is clearly poor. It is pointed out that very poor single parents prefer to keep children at home, shoeless, until the cash for shoes can be scraped together.

What is wrong with this analysis is that second hand shoes are easily obtained, but the pride it takes to wear them with dignity harder to come by. What is also wrong with it is that the social stigma of debt, once reinforced by pride and piety, has gone for ever; what is also wrong with this analysis is that if the child’s school exercised its powers properly, the school bullies would have no idea whether the child even possessed anything other than the school’s “regulation” trainers.

On the other hand, a teenager without a PC and broadband is at a real disadvantage at school nowadays. So when an impoverished single mother gets into debt to buy a home computer, is she not as prudent as the middle class parents who take out a second mortgage to send a child to a prestigious school?

I am not saying that anybody defines poverty as finding it hard to pay for a computer…or for private education. I am saying, however, that it is misleading to define poverty by the lack of what you fancy you should be able to afford, rather than by what you actually need to help yourself towards independence and dignity.

Thus, the mobile phone is a luxury for me, as I have a home with a landline. But in the refugee camps of North Africa, where thousands languish in the hope of slipping into Spain one day, the mobile phone is a lifeline; it is more important than a pair of shoes or a loaf of bread, because it is the only channel by which a man may learn that he has a chance of being smuggled out that night.

Debt, susceptibility to peer pressure – these are different ways of defining poverty. One American bankruptcy expert claims that two-income families, despite being richer on paper than families with a stay-at-home mum, are among the most financially vulnerable of all because they have no “slack”. Asset-rich, time-poor, but stretched to the limit – there is nobody left in the family to send out to work.

“Man cannot live by bread alone”. It’s a two-edged dictum. It strikes most sharply at the rich who think the poor should be satisfied with bread and satellite dishes, and need not learn to aspire to dignity and spiritual enlightenment. But it also strikes at the nearly-rich who believe that happiness is just another credit card loan away.

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