measuring poverty

I was told an interesting story the other day. A relative was outside their property and saw a cardboard collector on the street. This is in Argentina, where many people collect and sell cardboard by going through household rubbish, to make a living.

It was a hot day and the man looked tired. My relative asked the man if he would like a drink and something to eat, and on receiving a positive response went into the house and prepared a sandwich and cold drink. As the cardboard collector tucked into the free food, his mobile phone started to ring.

I’ll stop the story there. I heard the story third hand, but the basic response was one of shock, that someone who could afford a mobile phone would accept free food.

The situation made me think about poverty and judgement. From my point of view, someone who spends their days walking the streets, sifting through other people’s household rubbish to make not much money from cardboard, is living in poverty. Mobile phones are cheap, almost disposable, and can be used with little or no credit – they are not the status symbol of ten years ago, anywhere in the world, are they?

There is an attitude that people must look like [this] in order to ‘qualify’ for any kind of assistance. As individuals, we tend to judge when someone looks poor enough to deserve a sandwich, or anything else, and when they are simply being irresponsible with money. We measure poverty in others at a glance and judge their choices.

But how is poverty really measured?

In Europe, it’s relative to other citizens within your country.

Within the EU, relative poverty is measured by using relative-income poverty lines. This involves working out average or median equalized household incomes in a country. (EAPN)

In the USA, it’s based on the price of food.

The U.S. Census Bureau determines poverty status by comparing pre-tax cash income against a threshold that is set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963, updated annually for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, and adjusted for family size, composition, and age of householder. (IRP)

Every country has a different way of measure poverty, but there is an international poverty line, which has been set by the World Bank at $1.90 per day. So if you’re on $2 a day, you can breathe a sigh of relief.