Contribution to a debate with Philip Mendes at the Melbourne Social Forum, at CERES on 19th November 2005

What is Poverty?

We agree that as a general idea poverty means social injustice which is rooted in the economic system. This is just to distinguish poverty from other forms of social injustice such as patriarchy and racism, or deprivation which, for whatever reason, cannot be counted as injustice.

The reason for having a further debate about “What is Poverty?” is three-fold:

My main focus is the first of these.

I am not a social-worker or an economist or anything of the kind. I have spent lifetime as a trade union representative and what I have to say will reflect that.

The way I would like to explain my view of poverty is to trace the ideas of Amartya Sen from his first studies of inequality in the 1950s up to recently. Sen started by trying to measure inequality and the level of the poverty line by measurement of wealth in its conventional economic sense, commodities and value. But Sen realised that the kind of life people could lead with a given amount of money differed according to circumstances, and on the one hand, with strong social supports, people could lead a good life even without much personal wealth, or conversely in the midst of violence and social disintegration, even well-off people had a poor life.

So, in the 1980s, he introduced the concept of functioning, the level at which a person actually operated, using the wealth at their disposal; this would include life-expectancy, health, mobility, etc. However, this concept failed to capture the level of people’s living because it omitted the element of freedom; even a comfortable life if not freely chosen is not a good life, but on the other hand, an artist, who leads a simple life with their art, can hardly be said to be deprived.

So the third determination Sen came up with was “capability,” the set of functionings from which a person has the freedom to choose. Having a small set of choices in life means being poor, having a large set to choose from means being well-off. Someone who dies young because they chose to live dangerously has surely led a better life than a person who dies young due to poor diet. Capability is the concept for which Sen is most well-known; however, by the late 1990s, Sen realised that even this concept did not really grasp what it means to be human and was still treating human beings “consumption machines.”

The fourth determination is “voice,” the say a person has in determining not only their own functioning, but in determining the capabilities which society will make available to them, the kind of world they will live in and the choices available to them. Crucial to Sen’s work here were the problems of development in India and the role of women in that development. His work uncovered the fact however, that even wealthy and socially liberated women were often complicit in discrimination against girl-children.

So fifthly, reflecting the fact that recognition as an equal participant in the social and political life of a society still leaves the person trapped within a dominant paradigm which could include unjust constraints on themselves, Sen introduces the term “critical voice,” as the ingredient which needs to be fairly distributed if social injustice and deprivation is to be overcome.

What people need to overcome poverty and exclusion, Sen concluded, is “critical voice.” I will go one step further, for it is said that many poor people have a voice, but that voice is not listened to in the quarters where their lives are decided. So my claim is that it is “self-determination” which people need; it is the lack of self-determination which constitutes deprivation.

I think it is clear enough the kind of things people need to attain self-determination, a real, critical say in their own lives; it means education, it means decent public media, it means public health and education, it means a democratic political system which allows for participatory democracy in little things as much as big things. It means having organisations and public figures with whom people can identify, organisations to speak for them and fight for them.

Just to avoid any misunderstanding, here is the definition of self-determination (or sovereignty) from a book called Framework for International Law:

A subject is sovereign if it ‘answers only to its own [internal] order and is not accountable to a larger ... community, save only to the extent it has consented to do so.’

This kind of self-determination cannot be achieved by individuals in a fragmented society, but only by means of a variety of social ties, forms of social cohesion, identity and participatory community. So knowing who you are and having a way of expressing that socially is vital.

Having money does give people a kind of self-determination, so does the capacity to produce things that other people need. You can’t get away from that. And if people are denied a means of earning a living, then they have to get access to the negotiating table by other means. So economics is important, too; the alternative is political struggle or often violence.

To put it really simply, being poor means having no real say in your own life. And there are lots of things a society can do to see that no-one is denied that right.

Most people do not have a real say in their own life, and some people are really suffering as a result and can’t get heard, and don’t even know what they'd say if they did get a hearing. And it’s getting worse. That’s what riots mean, that’s what obesity and anorexia mean. And welfare payments do little to help.