A C Grayling: What is poverty?

The existence of absolute poverty today points to the indifference of many in the rich world
November 19, 2013

Boarded up terraced houses, Salford, Manchester© Photofusion/UIG via Getty Images

Free download: Poverty in the UK: Can it be eradicated—expert essays with contributions from Roger Scruton, Rowan Williams, Bonnie Greer and AC Grayling

In this essay, the philosopher AC Grayling disentangles the many meanings of poverty, paying particular attention to the distinction between the "absolute" and "relative" construals of the term. Both kinds of poverty should concern us, Grayling argues. They both involve "suffering, the loss of human potential, and barriers to opportunity". Poverty, therefore, is a moral matter.

There are many kinds of poverty, and although some of them are related to the standard economic form—which in its simplest terms can be defined as a debilitating insufficiency of resources—not all of them are the result of lack of money. Even rich people can be poor: in time, in the quality of their relationships and in meaningful connection with the society around them. Doubtless there will be those who regard those forms of poverty as very bearable in the presence of wealth. But among other things this point relates to the saying of Lao Zi, that “he is rich who has enough”—the implication being that the person content with little is better off than the person who has much but is discontented.

There is an allied point. People who have great stores of wealth but never use it, who never spend a cent of the millions they have in the bank, are functionally no different from people who have no wealth at all. A person who has far less in money terms but spends it on things worthwhile and enjoyable, is far richer than the miser. Here the relative notions of wealth and poverty apply to the felt quality of life, to experience and happiness; and it is a commonplace to say that wealth by itself is no guarantor of happiness. Having is not as good a marker of wealth as how it is used, even if the quantity available for that use is much less than the quantity possessed. This implies that the true measure of wealth is how much you spend, not how much you have or earn.

These points should not however be taken to mask the much more serious problem of real material poverty. This is poverty as the lack of sufficient resources for meeting life’s basic needs without serious struggle, let alone for gaining access to the social and psychological goods that bring quality to life. The two halves of the preceding sentence relate to the difference between absolute and relative poverty. The former implies a state where people have scarcely enough to survive at all, and live on the very margin of existence. The latter implies circumstances where people have significantly less than is needed for maintaining a standard of living regarded as normal or average in their society.

From an objective and summary point of view, both kinds of poverty matter equally. This is because they both involve suffering, the loss of human potential, and barriers to opportunity. They also both raise questions of justice, either in how it came to be that some are poor while others are not, or in how it continues to be that some remain poor while others are not. In cases where poverty exists as the result of injustices in the distribution of opportunities to rise out of poverty, one result can be, and often is, unrest: history is full of examples. This last is the reason why poverty is not only bad for the poor themselves.

On every count one can see why it is an urgent matter that poverty should be overcome. At the level of the most basic sentiments of humanity, no-one should find it acceptable that there are other human beings on the planet who lack any subset—still less all!—of the following: food, water, shelter, elementary hygiene facilities, access to medical attention and security of person.

But this talks only of mere existence. It should be equally unacceptable that there are people without the means to help themselves: a plot of land, seed, tools, clean water within reasonable fetching distance. And these things are valueless unless their possessors are secure in making use of them and the results of their use.

People in relative poverty are likely to have these basics or their equivalent, but they are poor because they live in circumstances where their resources are insufficient for them to take part fully in the life of their society. Relative poverty entails functional exclusion—that is, being shut out from access to the goods and amenities characteristic of a society where there is wealth to spare for culture, sports, education, travel, comfortable living, three meals daily on the table, and the like. For someone in absolute poverty, a television set might seem an irrelevance; someone in a wealthy society who is measurably poor relative to others and therefore, among other things, cannot afford a television set, is thereby disadvantaged by lack of access to the information, entertainment and connectedness that owning a television set brings.

In relative poverty, suffering is less likely to be physical but is typically psychological and social. It is well recognised that the newly unemployed suffer a loss of self-esteem and depression because having a job is valorising, as well as being a source of companionship and a way of engaging with the world. Being cut off from opportunities for valorisation and companionship is not the result of unemployment alone, however. Not being able to attend a football match or to spend regular evenings at the pub with acquaintances, not to be able to afford a simple night out at the theatre or a restaurant, are likewise exclusions from amenities that have the same effect. So too are wearing shabby clothes, being unable to afford a haircut; so too is noticing the invidious distinction between oneself and the majority.

Dr Johnson wrote, “Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed.” Both absolute and relative poverty represent a loss of human potential, in the specific sense of a loss of the contribution that people can make if given a chance to apply themselves in some sphere. In the case of someone starving in a refugee camp during an African drought, the point is obvious enough. But relative poverty can mean that an individual is unable to afford suitable clothes for an interview, or the train fare to where the interview is held. Of course in more advanced countries efforts are made to help people in these circumstances with subsidies as part of welfare; but the point generalises. Talk of “cycles of deprivation” is shorthand for an account of how the narrowness of opportunity for the relatively poor can persist down generations, perhaps getting worse with attrition of educational aspirations, and with them knowledge of what opportunities are on offer in life and work.

The question of justice in relation to poverty is a serious one, and has great political significance. Historically, power and privilege have existed in part because access to escape routes from poverty have been purposefully denied to majorities. There has long been active and often conscious exclusion of majorities from wealth, all the way from slavery through serfdom and feudal villeinage to the construction of less blatant economic and social institutions that perpetuate inequalities in access to the mechanisms of wealth-generation. And this has too often meant deliberately keeping some people not just from the chance of wealth, but actually poor.

It was against these arrangements that movements of the dispossessed organised themselves. The Labour movement in early 20th-century Britain was harshly caricatured by George Saintsbury as asserting that “no-one shall have what I have not; everything I have someone else will pay for,” but by inversion his satire reflects the perceived reality of institutional economic injustice: “no-one else shall have what I have; what I have, I have at others’ expense.”

While societies continue to give inbuilt advantages to those who are already wealthy so that the tendency is always for the gap between rich and poor to widen—unless measures are taken to lift the poor by various means including redistribution of wealth through taxation—the different question of why absolute poverty continues to exist in a world vastly richer than it was even half a century ago, can only be answered by pointing at the self-interest and indifference of far too many in the rich world.

The argument has been unanswerably made by the philosopher Peter Singer in his book The Life You Can Save. You naturally value your own life more than the life of a stranger in another country. Could you say how many times more valuable you think your own life is? Singer tells the story of a man called Zell Kravinsky who, not content with giving away most of the fortune he made in real estate, not content even with devoting all his time to charitable work, felt he should donate one of his kidneys too. Moreover he did so to a hospital serving low-income African Americans. Kidney donation carries a 1 in 4,000 chance of complications; Kravinsky‘s argument was that if you withhold a kidney from someone who is otherwise sure to die, you value your life as 4,000 times more important than his.

The implication drawn by Kravinsky from this arithmetic—namely, that it is wrong to value your own life so much more than someone else’s—will not be accepted by everyone; after all, we each have a legitimate interest in our own well-being, and we have responsibilities to those who are immediately connected with us, responsibilities that trump those to others. But there is nevertheless a strong admonition in the anecdote: far too few people do anything like enough in concrete terms to help reduce world poverty and the ills that accompany it. Singer’s book has a thoroughly practical purpose: to persuade people that it is wrong not to give charitably—wrong, note; we all know that it is good to give, but his point is that it is positively wrong not to—and that we should therefore take our obligations to the poor seriously.

Singer begins with the familiar point that if any of us saw a child drowning, we would plunge in to save it, not minding such incidentals as, for example, whether we were wearing new clothes. Now consider the fact that a thousand children die every hour because of poverty—and that the principle behind saving a drowning child one can see with one’s own eyes, and saving an unknown child on the other side of the world, is the same.

Singer sets out this point systematically thus: suffering caused by deprivation is bad; if it is in one’s power to prevent bad things happening, without sacrificing anything important to oneself, one should do so; charitable giving can help prevent bad things; therefore it is wrong not to give charitably. This argument is both valid and sound. It is logically compelling. So the question is: why do people not give, or not give enough? And if one is persuaded by Singer’s case, how much should one give?

The answers to the first question are familiar. People might wonder how much of what they give will go on administrative costs instead of helping the poor. They are only moved by suffering they can directly see. They are concerned about those near them, not people far away. They feel that what little they can do makes too little difference in the face of a gigantic problem. They feel that everyone else, or governments, should be shouldering the burden too, and if not, then why should they do it alone.

A little reflection shows that these are mainly rationalisations in favour of doing nothing or little. The truth is that most people in the richer countries of the world can easily afford to give 5 per cent of their gross income (and if significantly richer, then more: billionaires can give as much as 30 per cent without even noticing the difference), and that doing so would at least halve world poverty in less than a decade.

There are of course those—no doubt many—who will think, “I made my money so with a clear conscience I’m going to spend it on myself.” In response Singer points out that if we have money to spend on ourselves it is because we live in places where making money is possible. By contrast, millions work exceedingly hard, far harder than we do, to scrape a pittance for themselves and their families from unforgiving dry earth or in the midst of strife and conflict—sometimes failing, perhaps often failing, because of how things are in their parts of the world. Once one realises this, self-regarding justifications lose their savour. It is a simple but deeply humane point that if it is in our power to alleviate poverty without sacrificing anything important to ourselves, we should do it. An added point is that by giving a little of our substance, an amount we can well manage without, we make ourselves richer in other ways; even if by just feeling that one is making a contribution to a very great good.

As all this implies, poverty is a moral matter. It is also a prudential one; for poverty not only causes suffering and deprives the world of much talent and endeavor, but it can and too often does constitute a threat to the talent and endeavour that has been able to express itself successfully. This is especially so wherever poverty has injustice among its causes.

It is true that the individual who, having little but desiring no more than that little, can therefore be said to have everything. This was Epictetus’s teaching. The ancient Stoics preached self-sufficiency of mind along with economy in desires for possessions. It is a fine teaching, and the natural world would not be in such jeopardy if everyone were a Stoic. But the finest of such teachings is no remedy for poverty. Both poverty as a state of material existence, and poverty as a state of mind, are too harmful to their victims and to the aggregate of good in the world to be shrugged off with a misapplication of the remark that “the poor are always with us”. As Singer’s argument shows, there is a simple and clear remedy for the first kind of poverty; our hope has to be that remedying it will help remedy the second.

Political Visions is a partnership between Prospect and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. In a collection of essays by some of the UK’s leading thinkers from economics, politics, philosophy, medicine and the charity sector, we address how poverty can be eradicated in the UK. Bringing together voices from across the political spectrum, it offers a range of opinions on what poverty is, the relationship between state and market, and how a better understanding of its catalysts can help to create consensus in achieving a low-poverty UK.