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How poor is poor?

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WHAT is poverty and when is a person poor? Most would agree that poverty involves not having enough of certain things or doing without others that richer people take for granted. poor

However, what is “enough”, which goods and services really matter and who should decide these questions — researchers, governments or international agencies — are less tractable issues.

Perhaps the poor themselves should have the final word. However, this presents its own problems, especially in Africa where some people find going without meals as normal. Diminished expectations are only one of the effects of dire poverty.

In the world of international development, most have rallied around the $1-a-day poverty line and its less acute cousin $2-a-day poverty. These World Bank measures judge a person to be poor if his income falls short of a given level adjusted for differences in purchasing power.

In principle, poverty rates based on these measures count the fraction of people in a country who lack the resources to buy a basic basket of goods. Despite the many merits of the $1-a-day measure, not least its simplicity, some argue that looking only at income risks impoverishing the debate about poverty. Such complaints can be overdone.

Income clearly matters, it determines how much people can buy and, therefore, whether they can afford to do the things like eat enough, that critics of income-based measures think are more important.

However, rising incomes do not always translate into better health or better nutrition. So there is clearly scope for the many different ways in which human lives are battered and diminished.

Research at the Oxford Poverty And Human Development Initiative advocates the need for a multidimensional view of poverty and deprivation seriously.

The researchers developed a multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI) which the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) uses in its human development reports.

The index seeks to build up a picture of the prevalence of poverty based on the fraction of households who lack certain basic things. Some of these are material.

Does a family home have a dirt or dung floor? Does it lack a decent toilet? Must members of the household travel more than 30 minutes on foot to get clean water to drink?

Do they live without electricity? Others relate to education, such as whether any school age children are not enrolled or whether nobody in the family has finished primary school. Still others concern health such as whether any member of a household is malnourished.

A household is counted as poor if it is deprived on over 30% of the 10 indicators used. Researchers can then calculate the percentage of people in each country who are multi-dimensionally poor.

Looking at many aspects of poverty at once has several benefits. One problem with considering just one indicator is that some deprivations may be a matter of choice. What matters is not whether a person eats “enough”, but whether he eats whatever he does out of choice. Fasting is fine, involuntary starvation is not.

Some, for instance, may prefer the earthiness of a mud-floor to the coldness of a concrete one. However, the number of people choosing to be malnourished, illiterate, lacking in basic possessions and drinkers of dirty water all at once is probably fleetingly small. A person deprived along many of these dimensions surely counts as poor.

Life at the bottom is nasty, brutish and short for the reason, heartless folk might assume that people in the lower social classes will be more self-interested and less inclined to consider the welfare of others than upper-class individuals who can afford a certain noblesse oblige.

However, studies suggest precisely the opposite. It is the poor, not the rich, who are inclined to charity.

People in the lower class feel that a greater share of a person’s salary should be used to support charity while the upper class members believe that only 2,1% of incomes should be donated.

When it comes to helping people in need, the lower classes show compassion to the person in need. The upper classes only show compassion when they were reminded, but not spontaneously.

However, this was refuted when people were classified according to the income of the family in which the individual grew up. This revealed that whether high status was inherited or earned made no difference, so the idea that it is the self-made who are especially selfish does not work.

It is suggested that the increased compassion which seems to exist among the poor increases generosity and helpfulness, and promotes a level of trust and co-operation that can prove essential for survival during hard times.

The MPI is calculated by adding lots of different things up. It is possible to work backward and see what contributes the most to poverty in specific places. It also does a better job of uncovering long-term trends.

Successful reforms in health or education increase earnings only many years into the future, but will show up quickly in the MPI poverty rate. Much remains to be done to refine the idea.

For a start, the things the MPI measures are not particularly useful for middle-income countries which have finished out how to get their people clean water and enough food, but where other kinds of poverty still exists.

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