2.2 Poverty and inequality
One of the core concepts at the heart of development is that of poverty. This section introduces different conceptualisations of poverty.
Activity 1: Auditing your understanding of poverty
Read Article 1 linked below, ‘Conceptions of poverty’ from Poverty and Development into the 21st Century (2000).
Click below to view Article 1 (0.06MB).
In order to assess or audit your understanding of what you have just read, please examine the statements below. The article has a view on each of these statements – do you think the article generally agrees or disagrees with each view? In some cases the answer is not straightforward, so you may need to qualify your answer with a question mark
Lack of income is a sensible way of measuring poverty.
Poverty differs according to the norms of different societies.
Social exclusion and relative poverty are pretty much the same thing.
Society's attitudes towards the socially excluded range from humanitarian concern to condemnations because of their threat to the social order.
The World Bank and UNDP measure both poverty and development in similar ways.
Now decide whether you personally agree with each statement. Here we are asking you to critically engage with what the article is arguing. Try to reflect on the reasons for your answer – is it based on evidence as to what is the case or on your beliefs/values as to what should be the case? Usually it is difficult to distinguish between analytical arguments based on evidence and normative arguments based on values, and any argument you come across in debates on development and poverty will involve some mixture of the two. However, it is an important skill to be able to disentangle the two, as both your own views and those of others are almost certain to contain a blend of normative and analytical arguments.
Our answers to the first part of the activity are:
Activity 2: Applying your understanding of poverty
This activity is designed to consolidate and extend your understanding of Article 1, above, and to encourage you to reflect on and value your own experiences. The activity has two parts, the first addressing poverty and the second the importance of context in understanding poverty.
Many conceptualisations of poverty are offered in the article, and as you can see from Boxes 1.5 and 1.6, poverty is usefully contextualised. Think about your own experiences of poverty and suggest which conceptualisation(s) has the greatest utility for understanding them.
In what ways do you think our understanding of poverty is handicapped if we de-contextualise it?
This activity gives you an opportunity to draw on your personal experience. Asking you to suggest which conceptualisation underpins your description of poverty encourages you to move beyond mere description, and to draw out the wider relevance and representativeness of such a narrative by providing conceptual underpinning. A conceptual model has wider applicability, and can be the basis upon which responses to poverty might be theorised. One would not get very far in devising policies to combat poverty if every person experiencing poverty had to be viewed as a unique case.
In responding to Part 2 of the activity I hope you appreciated that poverty as lack of income de-contextualises poverty because the focus is upon providing a universal measure. Compared with a starving child in Africa, you would find it difficult to argue that a British child was poor. However, if you compare the life of a child in a leafy suburb of London with that of a child on a ‘sink-estate’ in London (similar to that featured in Box 1.6 of the article) few would argue that the latter is not in poverty. This suggests that poverty is a relative concept and usefully contextualised. Relative poverty and social exclusion recognise the importance of context, while lack of income recognises context less.
Cynics among you might repost that switching between conceptualisations of poverty allows governments and others to ‘move the goal posts,’ to alter the criteria by which poverty is measured for political ends. I would agree. But this is clear evidence that the cynics are contesting what they read, which is to be welcomed.