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How Poverty is Constructed
By Kasia Kubin
Page 1|2

I recently attended a public talk by Mary Douglas, an eminent anthropologist unique in her field not least because her work tends to address issues of social importance. Her talk was on poverty and she began with a provocative proposition about the history of ideas and social movements: in the 19th century, the most heated and mass issue of concern was slavery; in the 20th century, because of a new emphasis on human rights, the most important issue was genocide and particularly the holocaust; and for the 21st century, she suggested, the issue of greatest urgency will have been poverty. 

There are two ways in which the mobilizations against slavery and in response to genocide were similar: 1) they put into question commonly accepted ideas about the way the world functioned; and 2) they posed a challenge for people to provide rational explanations for why slavery and genocide are wrong. These two characteristics of the movements are clearly deeply interconnected. Slavery, for example, was a practice predicated on a “scientifically” justified system of knowledge, which made it difficult for people to explain why it should stop. Because the system of the time was so widely internalized as normal, people were unable to conceptualize the world differently, and thus to propose and institute changes. Articulating slavery as a problem and ending it was difficult precisely because it required a line of reason that surpassed the information and knowledge available at the time.

 The movements that challenged slavery and genocide forced the world to fundamentally change its understanding of reality: white people are not inherently superior by virtue of their skin tone; genocide is not a domestic issue, but a human rights violation that requires international intervention with or without the consent of the country in which it took place. Poverty is similarly normalized in our modern world experience: imagine in 100 years from now, people will look back on us stunned that we so easily spent energy and time talking about how much poverty there is, about how to alleviate it, and where it comes from, even as its existence and its severity was beyond a doubt. In order to overcome this modern mentality that desensitizes people to the reality of poverty, it is vital to understand where ideas about poverty come from. 

Who is poor?
People’s conceptions of who is poor are important because, by implication these assumptions also suggest who deserves to be well off. Poverty is often associated with negative qualities that justify ignoring poor people: poor people in rich countries are seen as violent or lazy. Such images help to isolate poor people from the rest of society by provoking further negative stereotypes: it is best to stay away from violent areas of inner cities, or to discourage laziness by refusing strong welfare policies so that unemployment, for example, is as uncomfortable as possible. 

Similarly, people in developing countries are often associated with backwards practices, what is euphemistically called “traditional culture.” Although “traditional culture” may be acknowledged as interesting and valuable in terms of cultural diversity, when it comes down to economic growth, it is seen as incompatible with development and thus with wealth. But this notion of “traditional culture” is nothing more than a constructed stereotype that lumps everything south of the equator together, as if everyone from Vietnam, to the Congo, to Mexico shared a common “traditional culture.” Most importantly, however, this idea becomes a convenient excuse for “underdevelopment” because “traditional culture” is perceived as diametrically opposed to what is modern and Western. So, having a communal society (whatever that really means) is interesting and valuable, but it is incompatible with the entrepreneurialism required in a competitive capitalist market.

Such assumptions about what poor people are like helps explain where people think poverty comes from: poverty becomes a function of backwards traditions or faults of character, not of systemic exclusion and marginalization. The poor are seen as people who do not fit in; they fail to adapt and therefore rightly suffer the consequences. Conversely, those who are well off are not trapped by old, traditional values and have succeeded in tapping into what the world today has to offer. In such a way, these stereotypes work to justify poverty and to desensitize people to its acute reality. The paradox is that development or “escaping” poverty becomes a question of changing mentality, behavior, and culture, not of changing the unjust system. 

Where the numbers come from?
One of the major ways in which the idea of poverty is constructed is through the attempts to quantify it. The problem begins with the fact that the World Bank is currently the near exclusive provider of data on poverty. Who has not heard of the Bank’s $1.00/day International Poverty Line, which defines poverty in terms of income (the poor are those who live on less than $1.00/day). But even though most development agencies and organizations rely on the Bank’s information, the method it uses to collect data is dramatically flawed. Here’s a brief summary of where this International Poverty Line comes from…you can judge for yourself how accurate poverty statistics are as a consequence:

The Bank determines its International Poverty Line by converting country-specific (for example Mexico’s) national poverty lines for a specific year, into dollars through the purchasing power parity (PPP) conversion factor (a more specific version of the standard market conversion rate). The Bank then averages all the country-specific poverty lines expressed in dollars (Ghana’s+Bolivia’s+Malaysia’s etc.), and converts that average back into each country’s currency using the PPP conversion factor. The international poverty line for subsequent years is updated by using the consumer price index of each country and adjusting for inflation. 

Clearly, through the number of calculations and conversions, as well as the use of PPP which is itself a constructed conversion rate, this methodology provides a very artificial definition of poverty. Additionally, the possible margin of error in these calculations puts the quality of poverty data into question. Though people on the right and the left of the political spectrum claim to have the answer to many issues of poverty, the reality is that most of their proposals are just short of pure speculation, either because they rely on such faulty data or because they put their faith in economic policies (such as IMF’s economic liberalization) that are little more than experiments. However frustrating and discouraging information about data may be, quantifying poverty is not entirely a bad idea.

Where do we go from here? [page 2] >>



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