Poverty & Inequality

The 'poverty line' - I

  • Blog Post Date 25 May, 2016
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In the first of a three-part series on the poverty line, Prof. S. Subramanian, former National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, contends that the term should not be bandied about frivolously.

Why does the phrase ‘the poverty line’ generate so much disagreement and controversy? Are the quarrels on the subject akin to, and of no more significance than, disputations on how many angels can dance on a pin’s head? Is the frequently encountered concern with the notion no more than an affectation, a waste of time, an insensitive preoccupation with definition-mongering, a cynical hobby of the hyper-specialised professional, an instance of what Camus once called ‘sterile exercises on great subjects’? There is, in my view, something of truth in these charges; and to the extent that this is the case, one must feel free to turn one’s back on the subject and engage with issues that one considers to be more urgent and relevant and meaningful.

But there might also be a strong case for not treating everybody that deals with the subject with scorn and suspicion. For lurking behind the seemingly arcane and cold-bloodedly abstract debates surrounding the subject are substantive issues of political economy, moral concern, and practical import. The essay titled ‘How Not to Count the Poor’ (versions of which should be easily accessible through some purposive googling on the net) is an example of this proposition. The authors of the essay are Sanjay Reddy, an economist at the New School of Social Research in New York, and Thomas Pogge, a philosopher at Yale University. Their work is one of the few bulwarks available against a complete swamping of perspective on global income-related poverty by the World Bank over the last 25 years or so. So there might, after all, well be something to be said for not judging too harshly some at least of those that have been involved in a principled engagement with the meaning, the (ab)uses, and the significance of the phrase ‘poverty line’.

What does ‘poverty line’ mean? It is very interesting to note that the definitions suggested by Oxford Dictionaries and by the Mirriam-Webster dictionary (both available on the net) are so different. According to the former, the poverty line is “the estimated minimum level of income needed to secure the necessities of life.” According to the latter, the poverty line is “a level of personal or family income below which one is classified as poor according to governmental standards.” The difference between the two definitions resides in the fact that the poor are identified, in the first definition, according to some external and presumably objective norm encompassed in the term ‘necessities of life’; and in the second definition, according to some internal and possibly subjective and bureaucratic norm encompassed in the term ‘governmental standards’. As citizens who have a stake in the responsible use of language, all of us should have a legitimate concern that key concepts, which have a profound bearing on our well-being and that of our compatriots, are not bandied about frivolously. And this certainly goes for the phrase ‘poverty line’.

What, then, is actually involved in all of this? A major clue is afforded in a piquant conversation that occurs in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through The Looking-Glass’: “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master - that’s all.” Much of what Carroll wrote can be read at the level of ingeniously provocative and side-splittingly humorous children’s literature. Much of it is also profound and deadly serious – after all, Lewis Carroll, in real life, was Charles Dodgson, who taught logic and mathematics at Christ Church College in the University of Oxford. It is significant that decades later, the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, was, effectively, to espouse the cause of Humpty Dumpty, in his ‘Philosophical Investigations’, in opposition to his own earlier views on language (comparable, one supposes, to Alice’s), as contained in the younger Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’. To simplify drastically, for the earlier Wittgenstein, the function of language is to represent a reality which is out there; for the later Wittgenstein, language is a ‘game’, in which ‘the meaning of a word is its use’, and which therefore allows for subjectivism in its employment - what Wittgenstein called ‘private language.’ Thus, Alice would have no use for a description of a horse as a creature with eight legs, whereas Humpty Dumpty would be able to get away with it by simply pronouncing that when he says ‘horse’ he means what other people have in mind when they say ‘spider’: the meaning of his words is the use to which he puts them.

I must say I prefer the earlier Wittgenstein to the later one, Alice to Humpty Dumpty, the Oxford Dictionaries to Merriam-Webster’s! In this reckoning, the poverty line must be based on an objective and reasonable assessment of what it costs to achieve the minimum ‘necessities of life’, and not - self-referentially - on a subjective and possibly arbitrary assessment determined by ‘governmental standards’. For official standards can - and in the absence of vigilance, must - be expected to be informed by vested interest, by considerations of convenience rather than justice, by respect for the expedient rather than the right and the good. That’s possibly a cynical view, but certainly not a lazy one: it suggests that all of us have a right and a duty in the matter of participating in the activity of arriving at a reasonable understanding of the meaning and magnitude of the poverty line. This in turn enjoins on us a stance of alertness to, and engagement with, what at first blush might seem like an esoteric issue that is best left to the economic expert to decide. And leaving it up entirely to the economic expert is also to abandon the path of democratic deliberation. In the bargain, it is a way of upholding a notion of language that accords the status of ‘master’, as Humpty Dumpty puts it, to the official expert.

For the poverty line is crucial in determining how much poverty there is in a society at a given point of time, and how it has changed over time; in determining who, and how many, will be eligible for State assistance on grounds of poverty; in determining how well or badly the State has discharged its responsibility toward mitigating the burden of deprivation on its people. These are questions that must be addressed with truth and courage. And if that is admitted, it would not be a good idea to confer exclusive power and authority on official experts to decide the answers to them. The types and dangers of the arbitrariness that can arise from such a concession will be discussed in concrete terms in the following two commentaries.

This article first appeared in the national daily newspaper The Tribune under the title ‘Controversy on Poverty Line’ on 7 August 2015. The author is indebted to the editor of The Tribune, Dr Harish Khare, for permission to reproduce the article here.

The next part will be posted on I4I on Thursday, 26 May 2016 and the third and last part will be posted on Friday, 27 May 2016.

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