332

# Absolute or relative?

##### Definitions and the different understandings of poverty

Authored by: Therese Saltkjel , Ira Malmberg-Heimonen

# Routledge International Handbook of Poverty

Print publication date:  October  2019
Online publication date:  September  2019

Print ISBN: 9780367178666
eBook ISBN: 9780429058103

10.4324/9780429058103-3

#### Abstract

This chapter discusses the merits and shortcomings of absolute and relative definitions of poverty. Depending on the definition, socio-political models for poverty alleviation can be residual and target the neediest, aiming at securing people’s basic needs, or they can be redistributive and focus on enhancing living standards and welfare. Drawing on the “command over resources” approach, resources are seen as the most central element of welfare. Through discussion of various definitions, critical debates and understandings of poverty, the aim is to show that in order to understand poverty one needs definitions that account for absolute and relative perspectives in combination. Absolute definitions help shed light on the unacceptable situation of the global poor and recognise that some forms of poverty are worse than others. Relative definitions show that even within a wealthy nation with high living standards some people experience intolerable material and economic hardships. The resources needed to escape poverty are always relative to the society where people live, at a specific time, and conditional to individuals’ characteristics and opportunities. Nevertheless, socio-political solutions to poverty should acknowledge the importance of raising the incomes of the poor. Hence, the significance of money should not be downplayed.

#### Introduction

Various definitions of poverty lead to different perceptions of who is poor and who is not, and imply different understandings of human needs, welfare and wellbeing. Depending on our definition, socio-political solutions to poverty can be either residual (i.e. based on the residual model) and target the neediest, aiming to secure their basic needs, or redistributive and focus on enhancing living standards and welfare. An important question is whether only the most deprived people in the world should be defined as poor. Alternatively, do we simultaneously need to recognise that even in a wealthy nation with high living standards and a comprehensive welfare state some people experience intolerable material and economic hardships?

The aim of this chapter is to discuss the merits and shortcomings of absolute and relative definitions of poverty, and their implications for socio-political interventions. First, we will discuss wider frameworks of welfare and wellbeing for a more in-depth understanding of poverty. Second, we will elaborate on absolute and relative approaches and their assumptions and opposing arguments. We will end the chapter by summarising the implications of the various understandings of poverty.

#### Poverty as an aspect of welfare

One major debate in defining poverty is whether we should concentrate on physical survival only, or include a broader understanding of people’s wellbeing and welfare. Behind varying perspectives lie competing visions of human agency, needs and welfare. These perspectives should be recognised and discussed, also with regard to their contribution to policies that address poverty.

In Scandinavia, the level of living research has a strong tradition and has been influenced by British socio-political research. Drawing on Richard Titmuss (1907–1973), resources in terms of money, possessions, knowledge, social relations and security are highlighted as central elements of welfare. Understanding level of living as “command over resources” implies that individuals are active human beings, a perspective that has roots in classical sociological theory (e.g. Marx, Weber) (Johansson 1970, 25; Erikson and Uusitalo 1987, 184–186).

Resources can be individual, collective or acquired (Official Norwegian Reports (NOU) 2009:10, 10). In the possession of resources, individuals can actively control and direct their living conditions, as opposed to being viewed as passive human beings who are provided for. Having command over resources also increases individuals’ life chances and opportunities to maximise welfare. The value of the resources an individual has command over depends, however, on the circumstances in which she lives and whether there is a possibility to use the resources.

In contrast to the resource perspective, the basic needs perspective gives prominence to day-to-day survival (Esping-Andersen 2000, 6; Erikson and Uusitalo 1987, 189). Within the Scandinavian welfare approach, welfare problems are seen as interrelated. In other words, they do not affect individuals and families as isolated problems, but tend to correlate and accumulate over time (Esping-Andersen 2000, 5; Fritzell and Lundberg 2007, 6).

Social policies involve normative standards and value judgements, and should therefore be subject to dispute and discussion. Nevertheless, the more general a welfare problem is, the more difficult it is to arrive at a single, unambiguous answer (Weber 1949, 56). Johansson (1970, 29) argues that, while it is difficult to agree on what characterises a good life, it is easier to agree on the opposite, i.e. what characterises poor life conditions. The aim of the level of living approach, as described by Johansson (1970, 30), is to give priority to problems or conditions that can be addressed through political decisions and relieved by means of institutional arrangements such as national health services, educational institutions or labour market institutions.

The resources approach is closely related to Amartya Sen’s concept of capabilities (Esping-Andersen 2000, 5) as part of a more subjective wellbeing approach to welfare. Sen distinguishes between functionings and capabilities. Functionings are the many things a person may value to be or to do. Examples of such functionings are being able to work and being in good health. Capabilities are a person’s actual freedom to choose from combinations of functionings, irrespective of whether that person chooses to exercise this freedom or not (Sen 1999, 75). Emphasis is placed on the level of freedom that people can achieve and resources are instrumental to increased wellbeing (Robeyns 2005, 95). People are seen as active and able to make changes. Moreover, individual achievements are assessed in terms of people’s own values, objectives and choices (Sen 1999, 19).

According to Sen, poverty should be seen as deprivation of basic capabilities, rather than low income (Sen 1999, 87). There are aspects of human needs that are universal, meaning capabilities that apply at all times and in all places. For instance, the capability of avoiding shame (Sen 1983, 161). However, the resources we need to meet a capability, say, to buy adequate clothing for our children, require varying commodities, which are relative to the society we live in. In such cases an “absolute approach in the space of capabilities translates into a relative approach in the space of commodities” (Sen 1983, 167–168).

The capability and wellbeing approaches are oriented more toward individual agency and less toward the influence of institutions and processes (Daly 2011, 45). Theoretically, the command over resources approach stresses the importance of individual agency and the commitment of the welfare state to enabling citizens to uphold agency.

#### Absolute poverty: minimum necessities and basic needs

Picture an unemployed single mother living in an urban slum in Southern Asia. The mother and her children are deprived of basic human needs in terms of money to buy nutritious food, and access to safe shelter, clean water and proper sanitation. There are no available collective benefits. The mother, lacking command over minimum resources to provide for the livelihood and security of her children, is forced to live from hand to mouth to survive. The choices and opportunities open to her and her children are severely restricted by lack of resources. This fictitious, but realistic example suggests that absolute definitions of poverty shed light on the severity of deprivation of those who are worst off globally.

Absolute poverty is often associated with objective and definable basic needs, irrespective of time and place. Examples of basic needs are food, clothing, shelter, which are all essential to the physical survival of humans (Roll 1992, 14). An absolute standard measuring poverty can also serve as a fixed benchmark that is used to measure progress, or lack of progress, over time (Townsend 2010).

Absolute approaches based on basic needs tend to treat individuals as passive human beings. Seen from the perspective of the poor there is, however, and this applies to all of us, a fundamental desire to have freedom of choice and action, to be able to make choices, to do basic things without constraints, and to have some form of control over what happens in the future (Narayan et al. 2000, 29).

Poverty definitions based on basic needs have been criticized, as judgements of what constitutes minimum necessities cannot be objective. Instead, they represent normative standards and value judgements usually established through expert opinions (Langan 1998, 1; Roll 1992, 15).

Needs comprise both elements that arise from nature, such as physical survival, and elements that are socially determined (Langan 1998, 4). The World Bank report, Crying Out for Change: Voices of the Poor (Narayan et al. 2000, 29), shows variation in needs by individual characteristics, such as livelihood, age and gender, and across contexts including region and rural and urban areas. Townsend argues that we cannot separate people’s “physical efficiency” from their wellbeing and without reference to the way their society is organised and structured and the available societal resources. Hence, poverty is a dynamic concept as needs change over time and across different contexts (Townsend 2010, 93–94).

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