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The Meaning of Poverty: Questions of Distribution and Power

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  • Arthur Macewan

Abstract

Focusing on the low-income parts of the world and reviewing the different ways we can define poverty, I first argue that what people generally mean by poverty – or, more broadly, by economic well-being – cannot be adequately captured by a single, absolute measure such as income level or a more complex aggregate such as the Human Development Index. Not only do these measures fail to account for the complexity of human material needs, but they also fail to recognize the importance of distributional issues. The failure to incorporate a consideration of distribution in defining poverty (or, more generally, economic well-being) is conceptually problematic, if not simply wrong. This failure also creates serious practical problems for campaigns against poverty, at best limiting their impact and at worst dooming them to failure. The United Nations Millennium Goals program is a case in point. If poverty is viewed simply in absolute terms rather than including a consideration of distributional issues, the social structures that generate poverty tend to be ignored. Policy is then viewed as a technical issue and often focuses on particular programs that are directed to helping the poor improve their absolute situation: new seed varieties to raise income, mosquito nets treated with insecticide to improve health, more schools to raise the level of education. These sorts of policies, when they are actually implemented successfully, can have positive impacts. Yet they leave unexamined and unaddressed the social structures, the power relations, that have generated and continue to generate poverty.

Suggested Citation

  • Arthur Macewan, "undated". "The Meaning of Poverty: Questions of Distribution and Power," Working Papers 9, University of Massachusetts Boston, Economics Department.
  • Handle: RePEc:mab:wpaper:9
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    File URL: http://repec.umb.edu/RePEc/files/macewan-poverty.doc
    File Function: Revised version, 2007 Classification-I32; O11; O15; O20
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    4. Eric Bartelsman & John Haltiwanger & Stefano Scarpetta, 2009. "Measuring and Analyzing Cross-country Differences in Firm Dynamics," NBER Chapters,in: Producer Dynamics: New Evidence from Micro Data, pages 15-76 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Arjun Jayadev & Samuel Bowles, 2004. "Guard Labor: An Essay in Honor of Pranab Bardhan," Working Papers wp90, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
    6. Gordon, David M, 1990. "Who Bosses Whom? The Intensity of Supervision and the Discipline of Labor," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 80(2), pages 28-32, May.
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