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The Meaning of Poverty: Questions of Distribution and Power

  • Arthur MacEwan
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    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 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 and power relations that have generated and continue to generate poverty.

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    Paper provided by Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts at Amherst in its series Working Papers with number wp148.

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    Date of creation: 2007
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    Handle: RePEc:uma:periwp:wp148
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    1. Galor, Oded & Moav, Omer & Vollrath, Dietrich, 2003. "Land Inequality and the Origin of Divergence and Overtaking in the Growth Process: Theory and Evidence," CEPR Discussion Papers 3817, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    2. Alesina, Alberto F & Rodrik, Dani, 1991. "Distributive Politics and Economic Growth," CEPR Discussion Papers 565, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    3. Bowles, Samuel, 1978. "Capitalist development and educational structure," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 6(6), pages 783-796, June.
    4. Luiz de Mello, 1997. "Foreign direct investment in developing countries and growth: A selective survey," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 34(1), pages 1-34.
    5. Pan-Long Tsai, 1995. "Foreign direct investment and income inequality: Further evidence," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 23(3), pages 469-483, March.
    6. Gary S. Becker & Tomas J. Philipson & Rodrigo R. Soares, 2003. "The Quantity and Quality of Life and the Evolution of World Inequality," NBER Working Papers 9765, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Cornia, Giovanni Andrea, 1985. "Farm size, land yields and the agricultural production function: An analysis for fifteen developing countries," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 13(4), pages 513-534, April.
    8. Oded Galor & Omer Moav & Dietrich Vollrath, 2004. "Land Inequality and the Origin of Divergence and Overtaking in the Growth Process," GE, Growth, Math methods 0410004, EconWPA.
    9. Elizabeth Stanton, 2006. "Accounting for Inequality: A Proposed Revision of the Human Development Index," Working Papers wp119, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
    10. Miles Cahill, 2005. "Is the Human Development Index Redundant?," Eastern Economic Journal, Eastern Economic Association, vol. 31(1), pages 1-5, Winter.
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