Poverty if described as the lack of something can have many dimensions and factors such as economic, political, geographic and cultural. Poverty as a concept is relative and an understanding of poverty changes form one region to another. However, the economic definition of poverty is what has been generally accepted by everyone as it is something that can be measured and dealt with. Academic interest in poverty has also been polarized with development scholars and post-development taking opposing stands on how poverty has come to be defined. Poverty thus has been defined generally as the lack of something whether material or otherwise as there is no single definition that is acceptable to everyone. The economic definition of poverty computed with income levels and living standards has been accepted as it is not an abstract idea. Rather poverty in the economic sense can be broken down into figures and statistics and a general consensus on how to solve the problem of poverty can be reached. However new emerging literature and most of post developmental authors have asserted that the whole idea of poverty is an invention and that it has long been used as a ploy or tool to intervene in the affairs of other countries by the developed nations. Also economic definition of poverty is a quite narrow way of looking at it as it discards the complexities of human existence, geography, political and religious beliefs and culture.
The United States Census Bureau measures poverty using “a set of money income thresholds that vary by family size and composition to determine who is in poverty. If a family's total income is less than the family's threshold, then that family and every individual in it is considered in poverty (How the Census).” Economists also use terms such as GDP, per capita GDP and PPP to compare rich and poor countries. GDP, the Gross Domestic Product is the measure of a country’s economy and since this is considered to be too general to adequately define the poverty levels, per capita GDP is used which is calculated based on the average of poverty or affluence levels of the people in a country. However economists and researchers the world over agree that when it comes to defining or even measuring poverty, an ‘one glove fits all’ approach cannot be used and thus came the idea of PPP or purchasing Power Parity. When GDP is measured using Purchasing Power Parity, economies can be compared across nations as it is based on the specific currency of the country, he ability of people to buy goods, the cost of living and the inflation rates in each country. Using income data and other statistics, the poverty levels in a country is measures and also a clear distinction is made between the poor and rich countries of the world. Countries with a high GDP and PPP are considered to be wealthy while countries with a lower GDP and PPP are either classified under developing or under developed countries. The problem with using data of this kind is that they cannot always be accurate and local perceptions of poverty can vary greatly. Also this definition of poverty and the classification of countries into rich and poor, advanced economies and growing economies, developed, developing and underdeveloped countries creates a space where there are two distinct camps. One camp which has achieved economic success and the other which is or has to strive for the economic success or ideal created by the other camp. Post development authors such as Escobar maintain that poverty or the lack of development was not an issue until the end of WWII and the decolonization process. Till they were colonies, the economy or the poverty levels of the people living there was of no great concern to the colonial powers. Once the colonies got their independence and the colonial powers had to find newer ways to control the market, they were classified as being poor. This would mean that there were in need of ‘development’ and newer avenues of intervention could be found. Escobar says that, “Poverty came to be defined by per capita income and when the World Bank defined poor countries by less than per capita income less than $100, two thirds of the world was defined as poor (Escobar 1995).” The social unrest and poor conditions of the former colonies came to be seen as a threat to the developed economies of the former colonial powers. Intervention thus was deemed absolutely necessary and the ‘poor’ were transformed into objects of knowledge and ‘management. Poverty thus based on the narrow economic definitions of GDP and PPP suddenly classified millions of people as being poor. This classification led to the development paradigm which was big during the 70’s and 80’s and ultimately led to implementation of neo-liberal policies in almost all the countries of the world. This idea of ‘development’ stipulated that poor countries and poverty stricken people should strive to achieve the optimum levels reached in the developed nations. If they could not do it themselves, loans were offered by the rich countries or the International Financial Institutions. This intervention and the idea of pulling a country and its people out of poverty has so far not been a success as many countries have gotten into a vicious cycle of debt and have also defaulted on loans. A narrow economic definition of poverty thus does not do justice to the actual scenario on the ground and it has only so far been used as an intervention tool by the rich, developed countries to intervene in the affairs of the poor countries. Poverty thus becomes something that should be studied and addressed. Poverty was also used as a political tool, especially by the United States to address the threat of communism. A number of proxy wars were fought during the cold war era as the generally held belief that around that time was that if poor countries were not ‘rescued’, they would eventually become communist powers.
Poverty is also used for internal and external interventions in a country. Accepting that the poverty levels in a country are high and that there are many poor people in need of aid would mean that they also need ‘development’ work. A government could take over the natural resources of the native people in the name of development and alleviation of poverty. Using the same principle, a foreign power could take over the natural resources of another country through government or private corporations to develop the region and bring in development. In such cases, poverty is used as a political tool of power. The indigenous way of living of the native people are not taken into concern as development has a very narrow definition. Lack of a proper house, adequate health benefits and roads are seen as signs of poverty while the local people see it as their way of living in one with the nature. When poverty is used as a political tool for power and economic reasons, conflicts arise. People who had been living in relative isolation for centuries are suddenly uprooted from their places and way of living in the name of development. Government and other agencies come up with solutions to an imaginary problem in such cases.
There however is another scenario where poverty is created or happens as a result of bad government policies. When corporations and other agencies take over forests and other natural resources, usually swathes of fertile land, they displace millions of people. These displaced people find themselves on the fringes of urban society with scarcely any possibility of sustaining themselves much less make a living that would match the standards of a well-off society. Poverty then is created artificially. Displacement not only results in material poverty but also a cultural poverty as many do not have the means or the luxury to follow their old ways of life. A country rich in natural resources and a content population still could be called poor as it would be unable to maintain the specific standards of good living set by the economists. Poverty is also used as a tool to blame the victim. The poor are poor only because they are not doing enough to contribute to the society and to their well-being. Poverty thus is seen as a result of laziness and the lack of effort. Lummis says that, “It is fraud to hold up the image of the world’s rich as a condition available to all. Yet this is what the economic development mythology of ‘catching up’ does. It pretends to offer to all a form of affluence that presupposes the relative poverty of some (Lummis 2010).”The intervention programs of poverty alleviation is also mostly designed and implemented by the ‘rich’. There is a top-down approach in how poverty is being ‘treated’. Instead of working with the poor who need the help and taking their suggestions, programs are designed thousands of miles away by people who only have statistics on paper. With no local knowledge on the deeply ingrained cultural, social, historical and economic reasons for poverty in certain countries and regions, intervention programs fail. Billions of dollars that can actually help feed people are wasted on inefficient programs that seek to bring an end to poverty and hunger. Recent academic interest on poverty also focuses on the role of culture as a cause of poverty. Based on numerous studies of minority population and race groups, scholars have noted that the culture can play a part in determining the poverty and affluence levels of the children. Again this cultural aspect of poverty is based on thee economic conditions of the people. Their poverty levels are measured in terms of their income and lifestyle. Culture then is a reason for their poverty. There are not many studies that show how culturally views on poverty differ. What is poverty for someone from a developed nation could just be seen as a way of life by others.
Poverty, the lack of something, can thus be defined as an invention, a political tool or a concept that is used to make people always aspire for something more. Poverty is also usually a negative space that needs to be gotten out of. Although it has a lot of dimensions, the materialistic aspect of poverty is the most predominant and what supports the many governmental, international and non-governmental agencies in their intervention efforts. Although poverty alleviation programs have been in vogue and have been implemented at the cost of billions of dollars no positive results can be shown. Poverty- real, imagined and created still remains a problem that needs to be dealt with. Poverty thus defies a single definition as doing so would mean the many aspects of poverty are being ignored.
Escobar, Arturo. (1995). The problematization of poverty: The tale of three worlds and development. In Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
“How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty.” Retrieved From: http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/measure.html.
Lummis. C. Douglas. (2010). Equality. In Wolfgang Sachs, The Development Dictionary. New York: Zed Books.