Friday, 18 February 2011

Poverty and targets

The first half of John Osmond’s piece yesterday on ClickOnWales made for depressing reading.  At the risk of over-simplifying or misrepresenting his argument, he suggested that governments seeking to achieve reductions in the level of fuel and child poverty will find that the greatest impact for the lowest cost will be on those for whom the least needs to be done to lift them out of poverty, and thus that any reduction in numbers in poverty will be because the most marginally poor have been helped rather then the most severely poor.
I found it a compelling argument, and I agree with his conclusions that the governments in Cardiff and London are unlikely to achieve their targets, and that the result of any success in reducing the numbers in poverty is likely to be that those left in poverty will be those who are in the most severe poverty today.
John goes on to talk about two particular initiatives which he thinks would do more to help.  Both are aimed at economic development leading to the provision of jobs which would enable families and individuals to escape from poverty.  I certainly don’t disagree that people with decent jobs are less likely to be in poverty than those without; and any actions which increase the supply of well-paid jobs will undoubtedly help to address the problem.  (I’m not going to comment on the detail of the proposals here, although I do have some reservations about the idea of the Cardiff City Region.)
Whilst economic growth would certainly have been seen as the answer in traditional economics, I’m not convinced that it is a sufficiently comprehensive answer to the problem in a world where we have to accept finite limits on resources and therefore on growth itself.  We cannot avoid considering how the benefits of economic activity (and thus access to, or lack of access to, resources - which in a sense is what wealth and poverty are) are shared.
If resources are infinite, it is easy to see how increasing total wealth can lift everyone out of poverty; but once they are recognised as not only finite, but also already over-exploited, then excessive wealth for some will almost inevitably lead to poverty for others, particularly on any relative, rather than absolute, definition.  Serious action on poverty must, at some point, address the disparities of wealth within society.


Britnot said...

Agree with you 100% John! The UK using just about any criterion is one of the most unequal societies in the western world with regards to wealth distribution. Indeed in terms of regional inequality only Mexico has a worse record!

Unknown said...

Completely correct.

Glyndo said...

When someone once said "The poor will always be with us" he was making a relative statement. The “poor of this country are obviously “rich”, by comparison, with people in some other countries. However, they are “poor” here. The trouble is that nothing can be done about that. No matter how much you redistribute “wealth” there will always be some who have more than others. Therefore there will always be “rich” and “poor”. Lifting people out of poverty is simply a politician’s conceit. I get particularly cheesed off when they talk about “child poverty”. Are there any poor children in rich households? There is only “poverty” and that is relative.

John Dixon said...


"The “poor” of this country are obviously “rich”, by comparison with people in some other countries."

True, of course. Although when I talk of fairer distribution of resources, I'm generally talking as much about what happens between societies as about what happens within them. Both need to be addressed.

"No matter how much you redistribute “wealth” there will always be some who have more than others."

Again, true. But -

"Therefore there will always be “rich” and “poor”."

doesn't follow quite as automatically as that. It depends on (a) the definition of 'poor' (which isn't simply a question of having less than someone else - it is more usually defined as being less than x% of the average), and (b) the distribution curve of wealth, and the consequential size of disparities. It is actually an achievable goal to have no-one with an income less than, say 60% of the average, and therefore eliminate poverty if defined in those terms. But it does effectively mean that you cannot have large numbers with an income of more than 140% of the average, otherwise they simply take the average up. And that's the heart of the point that I was making - you cannot eliminate poverty on a relative definition unless you deal with the wide disparities and the extreme wealth of some.

"Lifting people out of poverty is simply a politician’s conceit."

In principle, no. But in practice it's a well-made point, because of the unwillingness to address both ends of the scale.

"I get particularly cheesed off when they talk about “child poverty”."

I wouldn't go that far, but I understand the point. It can sound as though those using the phrase feel that it's OK for adults to be in poverty, as long as children don't suffer and/or an emotional appeal based on suffering children.

In fairness to those who use the phrase, I think that the objective is rather more honourable than that - the unstated assumption is that lifting one generation out of poverty will prevent the next from falling into it.

I'm not convinced by that argument, I tend to agree with the idea that 'poverty is poverty'.

"Are there any poor children in rich households?"

Theoretically possible, but highly unlikely - and the measures used are unlikely to pick up any instances.

Glyndo said...

See Western Mail today. Now I get it, child poverty is defined as that which some children's charity says it is.

John Dixon said...


Not exactly, although there's nothing that stops charities and others defining it as they wish. The Assembly Government's own definition is based on 60% of median income. I suspect that is the same basis as being used by the charity, it's just that the newspaper report has converted that into what looks like a more definitive figure.

There is, of course, an element of arbitrariness about any figure - one could ask why 60% and not 61 or 59 for instance. And I've already agreed with your point that 'poor' in Wales could well look like 'rich' in much of the third world.

But my basic point was, and remains, that however you define poverty, no strategy to eliminate it will succeed unless it also addresses the wide disparities in income and wealth.