Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Measuring Poverty

The Greek philosopher Protagoras is known for the saying that "Man is the measure of all things".

When it comes to the issue of poverty, and especially hunger, this saying seems to have some truth to it. Although its questionable whether well being is connected with be economically well of, it is more apparent that poverty seems to hinder well being.

Poverty is usually defined in relative or absolute terms.

An example of absolute poverty is measuring how many people live (or try to) for under $1 of purchasing power per day. In measuring absolute poverty the correlation between being poverty and well being is apparent. In the sense that being able to live your everyday life without feeling hungry gives a feeling of well being.

Relative poverty is more dependant on the society that a given individual is living in. For example in Denmark recent surveys show that relative (or local) poverty can be not having a cell phone or a personal computer.

The thing that puzzles me is that in this sense a person who can consistently eat and have access to clean drinking water, while living in an area with widespread absolute poverty will probably fell better of than average.

At the same time a person living in Denmark, who can not afford a computer will be inclined to feel deprived in comparison with others.

The everyday surroundings of man seem a stronger measure of personal well being than an absolute measure.
This means that a relatively poor person living in Denmark has access to: clean water, has a home with central heating and electricity, access to free health care and free education (even guaranteed state sponsorship every month).
All these goods besides that person may still feel more deprived than a person who perhaps only has one of these but lives in a society where many have access to none of the above mentioned goods.

So beyond the obvious benefits of eliminating hunger and securing basic educational and health care services, is poverty reduction the best measure of human well being?

Is it even possible to meaningfully compare relative poverty across borders and even across social settings and age groups?
Even though the before mentioned survey in Denmark does not mention age i could imagine that older citizens would have a higher threshold for what constitutes poverty, and would perhaps not see the lack of a computer being a sign of poverty.

In the end its difficult operating with absolute terms and humans in relation to each other as each of us seems to have personal measuring units when it comes to well being and deprivation.

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