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Measuring the world’s poor who 'live below the poverty line'

By Ben Coleridge - posted Friday, 27 May 2011

The recent Live Below the Line campaign has raised important questions about how best to educate the public about extreme poverty. The campaign involved thousands of people spending AUS$2 a day on food for five days in an effort to raise awareness about the stresses of extreme poverty while raising funds for the sponsor organisations. As the Live Below the Line website announces, the campaign aimed to help people “better understand the daily challenges faced by those trapped in the cycle of extreme poverty” and to build “a movement of passionate people willing and able to make a meaningful difference to those who need it most.”

Two dollars is the amount at which the World Bank has set the poverty line or threshold (adjusted for inflation) below which people are classified as living in ‘extreme poverty.’ For the last week, the blogosphere, Facebook and Twitter have been flooded with enthusiastic updates from the campaign’s participants as they bought bulk and went hungry. The Live Below the Line effort has raised over $1 million for its sponsor organisations and involved thousands of people, but it has also attracted criticism.

Critics have argued that Live Below the Line is an exercise in “pretending to be poor” and that it does not actually contribute towards alleviating poverty in any of the stricken communities around the world. The rebuttal offered by the campaign has been that raising awareness is a vital part of working against global poverty and that Live Below the Line has been successful in doing that.


But the question is, by reducing public advocacy to focus on that number of $2 a day, do we obscure the complexities of poverty and the measures needed to alleviate it? And, more importantly, is drawing ‘poverty lines’ and focusing on people’s incomes an adequate way of defining poverty?

Using poverty lines or thresholds to gauge poverty and focusing on people’s incomes arguably does not capture the complexity of poverty. To begin with, income on its own is an inadequate measurement of poverty. People’s capacity to translate income into wellbeing differs according to cultural, social and political contexts. While people’s incomes might set them above the determined ‘poverty line’, without access to a functioning justice system for example, their capacity to translate income into real opportunity is severely reduced. This is a reality faced by millions, including in countries where incomes are steadily growing, such as in India where there are on average only 11 judges for every one million people. Thus, the poverty line arbitrarily excludes those who are marginally better off in terms of income, but who, for a variety of reasons, are still suffering from severe lack of opportunity or basic goods.

Similarly, the intra-household distribution of the wellbeing derived from income is something that poverty lines and other social tools cannot measure. In a patriarchal society, for example, female members of a household may not receive the same degree of wellbeing - as food or nutrition - from the household income as do male members. This is a phenomenon which the poverty line ignores.  By lumping the poor of the world together into one great group below the ‘line’ obscures some of the most marginalised of the world’s poor.

And there are other complexities at work which the narrow income focused approach of campaigns like Live Below the Line tends to shroud (even when in the small print some of the complexities may be alluded to). A recent study has indicated that most people living on $2 per day spend only about half of their daily income on food. Using an 18-country data set, the study found that for those who were extremely poor living in rural areas food represented 36 to 79 per cent of consumption. The rest of their income was spent on other goods. Researchers found that in a society with rising incomes, undernourishment can actually increase rather than decrease as people spend a smaller proportion of their income on nutritious food and more on ‘luxury’ goods such as tobacco or even DVDs. And this is surely fair enough: if you are living in a grey world eking out an existence by a flimsy margin, when you get the chance, why not brighten it with some entertainment, with something that will connect you to the rest of the modern world, out of which poverty has shut you? What this survey makes clear is that underneath that bland figure of $2 is a whole world of needs, choices, aspirations and imbalances.

Instead of measuring poverty by incomes and broadcasting the campaign to end poverty in terms of poverty lines and that figure of $2 a day, a more usefully educative approach might be sought. Such an approach has been pioneered by the economist-philosopher Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. The approach is referred to as the ‘capability approach.’ This approach measures wellbeing and poverty according to ‘social realisations’ rather than statistics like income or per capita GDP. After all those measurements are only tools for achieving wellbeing, not ends in themselves. The capability approach focuses on people’s capacity to realise those things they have reason to value. Focusing on capabilities, instead of income, allows for the whole galaxy of factors, cultural dynamics and intra-household distributional patterns that complicate measurements of poverty.

This approach is necessarily sophisticated because the factors that contribute to poverty are only growing more complex. The world is reaching a crisis point. Every day, the world population grows by 216,000 people. Every year farmers have 83 million more mouths to feed while water resources are diminishing and arable land in China and Africa is falling prey to desertification. The price of food is now subject to shocks to which it was previously immune, tied as it is now to the price of oil.


In this context, there is a limit to the usefulness of staging public relations exercises of the sort carried out over the past week. While Live Below the Line did raise funds for its sponsor’s work, and did draw attention to a wider world of need, like many such campaigns it also contributed to eliding the facts of poverty. By reducing the public conversation about poverty to that income centred $2 a day mantra, we can evade the real difficulties and challenges which those numbers obscure. There is no room in such a complex world as ours for a simplified understanding of poverty. Over the coming decades, nothing will be simple. 

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About the Author

Ben Coleridge is an honours student at the University of Melbourne who writes regularly on social justice and international affairs. He can be followed on Twitter: @Ben_Coleridge.

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