Posted by: John Vandivier | September 24, 2012

European Idea of Poverty is Wrong

Here’s a video that tries to define poverty:

As you can see the definition is shaky at best. If poverty means not being able to pay rent or see a doctor when you should then even myself and most of America can be considered impoverished! Then they talk about extreme poverty. Where is the line between poverty and extreme poverty? They fail to succinctly define either regular or extreme poverty.

Unfortunately this type of confusion is commonplace nowadays. At one time everyone knew that real poverty simply meant that you were so poor you were in danger of dying. Now there is a new definition of poverty which is trying to take over, leading to mixed messages because it often contradicts the old.

The modern European idea of poverty is wrong, and it is creeping into the American psyche from the political left, through the backdoor.

According to Harrell Rodgers Jr in his book “American Poverty in a New Era of Reform” there are two modern definitions of poverty. He explains in the second chapter of that book which is titled, “How Many Americans Are Poor?”

One definition is used traditionally in America and also utilized by the World Bank. It is called “absolute poverty.” The other definition is called “relative poverty.”

The author claims that the definition used in the US, the absolute standard, is “…a serious underestimation of poverty.” The hilarious part about that claim is that he is comparing it to the relative definition, implying that he already thinks the relative definition is the correct one. He could just have easily said that the relative definition is a serious overestimation, but that would not have served to justify his ideology nearly as well.

Harrell also asserts that “Among the prosperous nations of the world, America is the only nation that does not adjust its poverty measure to incorporate rising standards of living.” Here he is first trying to isolate America as different then the other countries of the world and second trying to make the other countries look good by calling them “prosperous.” He does this to bash on America. Liberals love to bash on America because if they can cause people to hate what America has been they will automatically cause those same people to leave conservatism and look for something else.

Surprise! That’s when the liberals pop in with just the “change” these new-found customers are looking for. Take a look at Obama’s presidency and tell me how great their changes are. Then take a look at the history of the US, which is the history of an exceptional nation, and you will find that what America has been throughout its history is actually quite ideal and that the paths of Burkean of other kinds of Conservatism are much more effective than what the other side has to offer.

I mean real conservatism. Not this Bush neo-con crap. Rand Paul is the best modern Paleoconservative I know and his father is very conservative as well, albeit in a more socially liberal libertarian manner. The discussion of what exactly conservatism is, however, is a complex and long discussion meant for another time.

Another interesting phenomenon is that Harrell doesn’t bother to define “prosperous.” India and China have some of the highest growth rates in the world and neither use the relative definition of poverty. Western Europe uses the relative definition of poverty. The author is therefore implying that Western Europe is “prosperous” and we should model ourselves after them.

The author of that book, like an increasing number of progressives, liberals, and social policy academics and advocates, recommends an adoption of the relative definition of poverty. Never does that author consider that perhaps the American method is actually appropriate. Let’s address this question ourselves, starting with some definitions.

Absolute poverty is a measure of the people who’s income is so low that they risk starvation. It is an arbitrary income level or threshold set by either the governing body of a country or by the World Bank who is concerned with eliminating starvation. Relative poverty is a measure of the number of people who have a level of income which is significantly less than the average income of the country in which they live. Why might that definition present a problem? Because having less money than someone else was never the problem. The problem with poverty was always the issue of the threat of starvation.

To further demonstrate the ludicrous nature of the relative definition I will give two examples. Then I will expose the leftist ideology advocating for its use. First, picture this: A country in which the yearly income of every person is $10, but the cost of living for each person in that country per year is $1000. Presumably every member of that country would starve to death by the end of the year, yet according to the relative definition of poverty none of the inhabitants are poor! Why? Because no member of that population has significantly less income than the average income.

Consider another absurd situation. The average yearly income in the economy is $1 billion, but the average cost of living per person per year in the economy is 50 cents. In this economy even the least income earners would presumably have enough income in one year to exceed the cost of living by tens or hundreds, perhaps thousands of times over. Yet even if every member of society has all of their needs and even their outlandish wants met, there is still a large segment that will be called poor. Why? Because they make significantly less than the average.

The reason the left wants this definition is because they prefer the first situation to the second. The idea of having a distinguishable rich and poor class so disgusts liberals that they would rather the whole country starve under “equality” than they would have the whole country flourish under the “unfairness” of inequality. This is revealed in the fact that such a state is hidden in the demand for a relative definition of poverty. Under this definition there is no other way to eradicate poverty unless all members have insignificantly different incomes. The irony, no, the outright disgust, stems from the fact that such a situation doesn’t even solve the problem of poverty!

The fact that the relative poverty definition implies that equality is the only solution is a cheap trick that the left can use to justify income equality without having to claim that they are advocating it. They simply say, “We just want to eliminate poverty! Is that so wrong? You don’t want impoverished elderly or children do you?” The fact that this is only a cheap trick is why I claim that the idea is coming in “through the backdoor.”

The relative definition of poverty is out of touch with reality. There must be an arbitrary level set for absolute poverty which solves the issue of starvation and accounts for the effects of inflation on income over time, no more and no less. There is one objection to be considered: That the poor might fall right back into absolute poverty. This objection is valid and may be addressed by raising the arbitrary threshold appropriately. In fact, that is exactly what the US has historically done by multiplying the absolute poverty standard by 3, a system they have empirically found to be accurate. Using a relative standard is a foolish solution to that objection either.

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