Monday, 31 December 2012

Nick Davies' "Dark Heart" and the issue of relative and absolute poverty

The terms ‘Absolute poverty’ and ‘Relative poverty’ can be defined thus:

Absolute poverty measures the number of people living below a certain income threshold or the number of households unable to afford certain basic goods and services.

Relative poverty measures the extent to which a household's financial resources falls below an average income threshold for the economy. Although living standards and real incomes have grown because of higher employment and sustained economic growth over recent years, the gains in income and wealth have been unevenly distributed across the population.

In 1998 Nick Davies, an investigative journalist, wrote Dark Heart, an account of people’s experiences of poverty and its effects in the UK. While there has been academic work on poverty and its effects, Davies’ discussion of how people struggle is, in my opinion, one of the most relevant and explanatory (though it needs to be remembered he is writing polemically). His comments are particularly relevant to the issues of ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ poverty, and how relative poverty does not mean ‘doing ok‘, contrary to some political representations of the term:

“… Beyond the small minority who lack even the basic necessities of life, it turns out that there are numerous people in this community who live in real need and who avoid disaster only by living in the social equivalent of an iron lung, surviving only because they allow themselves to be encased in rigid self-discipline - to control themselves and their instincts, to measure every penny and plan every action, so that they never give in to temptation by spending the evening in a pub or giving their children new toys or buying new clothes or going out to the cinema. If they control every detail of their lives and strap themselves down within strict limits, then they can cling to the four essentials of life. But these lives of quiet desperation are always on the edge of disaster. One mistake, one weakness or one extra problem: that is all it takes to plunge them into trouble. An unexpected bill, a crime, a physical sickness, a mental illness, a violent partner, an aggressive neighbour, and accident at home, a bereavement or an addiction. Some stumble over the edge accidentally, like the old lady with her phone bill. Some deliberately jump, like the ones who drink knowing that they are blowing an entire week’s money in a single night but preferring six days of trouble to a lifetime without laughter. Common sense demands that the circumstances of these people should be described as poverty. So why can’t the Duke of Edinburgh and the others see it?

Apart from the fact that that they have never entered the lives of these people, the larger obstacle is the very idea of ‘absolute poverty’. These people use the term to indicate the state of complete material deprivation in which people once lived on the streets of Victorian England and in which they continue to live on the streets of Calcutta or in the deserts of Ethiopia, conditions in which men and women have none of the essentials of life. On this definition, there is no poverty in Britain. But is that a fair way to think of poverty? What would happen, for example, if they took a similar approach to the idea of prosperity? Following the same line of argument, they would have to say that since absolute prosperity involves a state of complete material fulfilment, it can be found only in the palaces of Saudi Arabia or in the heights of Hollywood, where men and women live conditions in which they lack absolutely nothing. On that definition, they would be compelled to say that despite all that has been claimed on behalf of the British economy in the 1980s and 1990s, there is, in fact, no prosperity in Britain. The idea of poverty is being stretched by these people to a point where it loses its meaning….

… Of course, it is complicated. There are some people, including many families, who suffer from poverty yet manage to survive without collapsing. A few individuals not only survive but also manage to prosper and to escape. Others are forced to stay but nevertheless manage to hold their lives together. They have that much more inner strength, moral or physical or spiritual, than their neighbours. They have luck. They have relatives with savings who will bail them out of a bad time. But most are unable to defend themselves, perhaps because they have been weakened by one problem too many, perhaps because they are simply unlucky, and so poverty’s assault finds out some weaknesses in their armour and penetrates their lives in all its destructive force.

(Davies, 1998: 113-114)

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