Defining Needs I: Defining Poverty

So the first definition that needs to be dealt with (and the one that started me on this trail) is "poverty" (which I'm taking to be the noun form of the adjective "poor", without significantly changing the meaning). So it's not entirely easy to explain my thought process as I fell asleep last night, but it started at this post over at Alanna Shaikh's Blood and Milk blog, specifically the last comment (as of this writing) about the "conundrum"--giving Knicks jerseys to kids at refugee camps can be exploitative and degrading, but so can telling "poverty tourists" (which, already, I'd put right up there with the Smithsonian's placement of an exhibit on "African culture" in the natural history museum) not to share food or even eat in front of residents during their tours. So, basically, distributing excess can be/is problematic as can be/is not distributing it (even though you're trying to avoid the first problem--and round and round we go).

Stepping back, you can see this is all based on a certain definition of poverty as a lack of resources (whoah that was a jump, but stay with me here). We (you know the "we", us rich, usually white, often male people who are almost invariably healthy citizens of countries in the global north) shy away from both of these issues because it makes us uncomfortable (or, maybe not uncomfortable enough) that we're forced to dehumanize other humans in order to address their needs (as we perceive them) for more resources--they lack things, we should therefore give them things, but that causes problems, and therefore we feel bad either way. Still with me?

So yeah, I think the "poverty is a lack of resources" or even "poverty is a lack of access to resources" definition is somewhat problematic. I generally prefer a definition (that I by the way did not come up with, but cannot for the life of me remember who did, so I can't be a good person and correctly cite this) that states "poverty is a lack of freedom". "Freedom?!" you say, "But, doesn't that mean youre some sort of crazy Bush-y neo-imperialist neo-con?!" My response there would have to be a polite "No, and I'm not even a libertarian".

So what's up with that? Basically, poverty often (always is such an ugly word) stems from a lack of freedoms--freedom to live somewhere in peace, and freedom to move in search of greener pastures; freedom to eat a healthy diet, or access basic (or even not-so-basic) medical care; freedom to send your kids to school, and to work in a dignified and economically-rewarding way; generally the freedom to live or die where, when and under those conditions as you see fit. Lack of freedom is both a symptom and a cause of what we call poverty, or I think it can be stated that lack of freedom begets more lack of freedom, in a self-perpetuating cycle, and in many ways can be seen to be synonymous with poverty. Handily, lack of resources is one (but certainly not the only) cause of poverty, which means yes, at least not all is lost with a lot of current development-think. However, other possible causes of poverty (via lack of freedom) are (in NO PARTICULAR ORDER):
  • Being a woman
  • Being not-white
  • Being born on the wrong side of an imaginary line
  • Speaking the wrong language
  • Believing the wrong creation myth
  • Juxtaposing your sexuality, external genitalia, manner of dress and/or manner of expression in a way that other find unappealing
  • Otherwise being defined as "not normal"
  • Et cetera, et cetera, et depressing cetera...
The best thing this definition gives us (again, us rich/white/healthy/male/northern folks) is that we now have a way of addressing poverty without eternally fretting over whether to give or not to give. Of course you assist financially where that's one of the limiting reagents in producing more freedom, but there are other things that need to be addressed as well, some individually, some locally, some nationally, and some globally. Of course, did you ever think this was going to be easy?


Related Posts:

Burn it to the Ground; or, Defining Needs: The Miniseries


2 Responses to "Defining Needs I: Defining Poverty"

placenta sandwich said... 6:40 PM

Another bullet point: disability?

Generally, I like the conception of poverty as lack of freedom. It's a thoughtful way to get beyond "lack of resources", which can simultaneously take up your whole view of The Problem any way you slice it and yet doesn't seem to get Solved by "add more resources and stir." It also neatly brings together the many things we know can work against poverty that do not directly attack "resource" levels -- like ending child marriage or offering safe family planning (and safe maternity too) or expanding educational opportunities, and also promoting political equality in the social aspects you listed -- things that increase freedom as we usually conceive of it, even when we're not thinking about poverty. I think I was going to add something here, but someone just distracted with blather about "Twilight." I'm sure it was a gem of intellect though.

An unrelated thought, which may not lead anywhere: I've seen people ask, "What happens when you identify 'rights' that then cannot be provided-for by governments?" (Are there cases where the state cannot, as opposed to will not, provide health, economic security?) In the first place I wonder, should that question carry any weight? But if it does, by extension I also wonder, do "freedoms" carry the same political responsibility as "rights"? And can it be said that a non-state actor can infringe on a freedom or right, and if so how much should the state do about it?

Leah said... 12:20 PM

I believe I remember Amartya Sen writing about freedom and poverty in this way. Could that be where you heard it? Regardless, I think poverty-as-lack-of-freedom is a very powerful and helpful way to think about these issues.