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Relative Vs Absolute Poverty 22 November 2006

Posted by David in Conservatives.

First of all, Chameleons On Bicycles is back, hooray!

Now to the serious business, the suggestion by Conservative policy guru Greg Clark MP that the party ditches its traditional and logical definition of poverty in absolute terms in turn for the leftist definition of ‘relative poverty’.

For non-wonks, I will explain. Absolute poverty uses absolute terms, i.e. you are poor if you cannot afford X, Y and Z each week. This has its origins in the reformers of Victorian times, when a shopping basket containing certain essential food was the measure (X, Y and Z). Relative poverty is measured against other people, i.e. you are poor if you earn less than a certain percentage of average earnings, in this case 60% of the median average I believe.

Mr Clark uses language from the Guardian’s High Priestess of Communism, Polly Toynbee, whom he praises regularly. To them the country is like a train of caravans across the wilderness; we are all moving forwards, but some faster than others, and thus we’re apparently pulling apart.

Switching to the relative poverty measure is madness for many reasons. Firstly, relative poverty is a measure that moves. The more people you help up, the higher the average and ‘poverty line’ goes. It is a constant battle. The measure was created by socialists to justify socialism and create victims for them to ‘help’.

Secondly, it’s based on envy. It assumes people would rather be average in Poland than at the bottom in the UK – the many migrants coming to the UK proving that claim wrong. So what if someone has more than you? Focus on what you have, not what others have!

Thirdly, it’s totally false. If The Queen, Bill Gates and the Sultan Of Brunei were in the same room, the relative measure of poverty would say that the Queen was below the poverty line! Same for Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, the Beckhams etc. There’s always people below average, that’s why it’s an average!

Fourthly, it has no relation to actual absolute poverty. It would say for instance that the Soviet Union and Mao’s China had little if any poverty, because there was little if any inequality between ordinary people. On the other hand, it says the UK, USA and West in general are rife with extreme poverty. It is therefore actually a measure of income dispersion and not of poverty, yet it claims to be poverty.

The big lie that came from the 1980s is that “the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer”. This is rubbish. As this BBC graph shows, the top 10%, average and bottom 10% ALL got wealthier through Thatcherism (even with incomes adjusted for inflation – “real terms”). The distance between these 3 percentiles enlarged, but is this a problem? No, only if you are a jealous, envy ridden moron.

incomes graph

It’s tragic the Tories are adopting the relative poverty tripe. All this talk of “the poor” is very patronising to low income earners anyway, it’s 2006 not a Charles Dickens novel! You get the feeling that they imagine evil top hat wearing capitalists to go round kicking people, unplugging Oliver’s SkyTV because he spent his cash at the bookies and on gin. Please Cameron’s Conservatives, wake up to the real world (or at least watch Wife Swap to get a better feel of it)!


1. Barbara - 14 February 2007

can you please give me a simplified definition of absolute and relative poverty… Thank u.

2. The Bicycling Chameleon - 14 February 2007

Hi Barbara,

Absolute poverty is measured by first defining what poverty is in real values. The Victorians used a shopping basket of essential goods (bread, milk etc). A person was deemed poor if they couldn’t afford it every week. It measures peoples actual/absolute poverty. I.e. you are poor because you cannot afford X.

Relative poverty is used today and is frankly mad. It measures poverty in relation to other people in that country. You are deemed poor if you earn less than half the average wage, regardless of your assets, standard of living or income. You are deemed poor relative to some others. The problem is, an average is in the middle, so some will always earn more and some earn less (i.e. A motorbike is relatively slow compared to Concorde. The Queen is relatively poor compared to Bill Gates. Or if the average wage was £10m a year, and I earnt £4.5m, I would be deemed ‘poor’.)

Relative poverty says there’s more poverty in the UK than North Korea! Obviously, it’s a crazy measure. It measures the variation in wages (income inequality) rather than actual quality of life. Because the UK is a successful capitalist country, people’s incomes are high but very greatly varied. North Korea has equality, so the measure says no relative poverty (everyone earns the same), but plenty of starvation.

I think relative poverty is crazy. I hope this helps. Let me know if not.

3. Joe - 15 February 2007

I suppose the problem is the whole relative thing. When you are poor in absolute terms, you don’t notice the wealth of others. If you move out of that position, you do.
For example- I’ll try to be careful here, this is NOT meant as an anti-asylum seeker point, so please visiting lunatics do not interpret it as such- A refugee from war torn Somalia comes to the West to escape Absolute poverty, amongst other things. A life on benefits and casual work is manna from heaven compared to life before.
Except when he comes here, noone lives like they did in the life he left behind. Now he sees what others have and now he wants it. However you look at it, ignoring the rights and wrongs of the matter, it does create a social problem.
Of course, it is true relative poverty is meaningless in the context of starvation and disease and so on.
But it is inevitably a cause of social tension, because people forget that they are not starving and have it easy compared to others in the world.
All they see is that their lives in the British Underclass, compared to the lives of the ‘celebs’ who grace our TV screens.
The logic of relative poverty might well be fallacious, the social tension is real. In that sense, it is something we should take some notice of- simply so as we can sleep safely in our beds.
That of course does not have to involve redistribution, in the traditional socialist sense. But there is an underclass in this country in our inner city areas that is quite scary and how we deal with that is going to be one of the main challenges of the future.

4. Russell - 11 December 2007

Thank you very much. I am enrolled in an education graduate degree and am being subjected to indoctrination by a poverty campaigner from an NGO, invited by the university. I was thinking many of the same things as you have outlined here but was beginning to think I was just full of it! It is good to hear someone reach the same conclusions independently. Relative poverty is nothing more than a front, on the one hand to advance socialist ideas and on the other hand to create a problem ex vacuo for people to be paid to fix. By definition, relative poverty is insoluble! A perpetual gravy train!

5. devil's advocate (C) - 9 April 2008

To some extent, you are right, you will never win the poverty battle if you only use relative poverty as a measurement. However, relative poverty does have real significance, and should not be ignored. By absolute standards, many poor people in America, are not at all poor by global definitions of poverty – they have a place to live, a car, food on the table, and even TVs, DVD players, and a cell phone. But if they can’t afford health insurance, car insurance, travel, and education and/or training, they are poor relative to the society they live in. Those things are essential in America so that a person can advance themselves, become aware of opportunities, and survive in times of disaster. So relative poverty is oppressive, no matter what the level of absolute poverty.

6. Andrea - 12 May 2008

I would really like to know the real background and the lifestyle of the person who wrote this article. Yes, it is right that there is a principal difference between absolute and relative poverty. But why should there be Beckham’s and other such people and on the other hand unprivileged people hardly surviving. There is perhaps a big proportion of people, and I see this a lot in the UK, who spend their money “on Gin” instead of something more productive, and perhaps on family time, a book or newspapers, rather than Sky TV. However, there are many people who work very hard and can not feel the equal opportunity laws nor can they get a normal decent salary. Universities are becoming businesses, primary schooling entrance requirements often discriminate based on who can pay the houses close to good schools, hiring is often corrupted and many people just do not seem to move forward as deserved. Well, perhaps becoming a pure predator is the way forward, is it???!!!!Perhaps the absolute poverty line needs to account for access to principal services such as health and education. Free health and free education is the same as 7 months of waiting for a life saving operation and catchment area based education…It is not as simple as the article tries to show. There are good and bad things about capitalism and teh same applies to socialism. Not all is black and white.

7. Jamie - 8 October 2008

I really agree with Adrea.

Firstly, who is ‘David’. Does David live below 60% of the median income, or any other definition of relative poverty line. If so, I admire him for sticking to his principles. I suspect not. Perhaps he could clarify.

Secondly, he is right, relative poverty will not go away. However, we have had several decades since Thatcher where the dominant political and economic approach has been to reward those who take unjustified risks with other peoples money and to underpay those who have no rights to defend themelves with. Two examples:

1. the credit crunch
2. the fact that cleaners in the House of Commons do not even earn a living wage (just over £7 an hour).

Policies which seek to redress this inequality, which is partially what the focus on relative poverty aims to do, aim to ensure that society is fairer, not communist, fairer. The practical applications of communism are and were just as ridden with rich political and social elites as the western economies are today.

Coming back to my point. I suspect David is ‘alright Jack’, and therefore has the time and inclination to object to policies and organisations that seek to make life a little less hard for others.

8. Andrew S - 21 October 2008

Take care with your arguments Andrea and Jamie as you are committing a basic logical fallacy known as Ad Hominem, defined as:

An ad hominem argument, also known as argumentum ad hominem (Latin: “argument to the man”, “argument against the man”) consists of replying to an argument or factual claim by attacking or appealing to a characteristic or belief of the person making the argument or claim, rather than by addressing the substance of the argument or producing evidence against the claim. The process of proving or disproving the claim is thereby subverted, and the argumentum ad hominem works to change the subject.

You’re trying to change the subject. You have no real recourse to attack the interesting, if controversial, underlying logic of David’s assertions other than sentimentalism and personal attacks. It’s tiresome and boring sophistry.

9. Sophie. - 9 January 2009

I am at school and at the moment in one of my subjuects we are studying absolute and relative poverty. i didnt really no anything about it at first, but i have some reaserch to do and im obviously doing itnow. i have found this website and read the comments and they have all really helped me understand what it is all about and i would love to be able to learn more and to do something about it!
thankyou for all those comments.

10. piya - 1 June 2009

I think the concept of relative poverty is more practical than absolute poverty over time.
With the pace of time, new innovation take place, new product will emerge in the market. So, our average lifestyle is changing constantly over time. In this context, absolute poverty measured with fixed basket of goods may not logically valid over longer time period. However, we should not generalize the relative measure of poverty. The meaning should be restricted to some context. it should not be measured against the mean income but it would be wise to measure level of poverty against the mean physical goods or consumer goods in the market over time.

11. Thomas Bailey - 21 July 2009

A better definition of poverty could depend on the environment. In densly populated areas, people could easily be carless and not suffer, due to easy access to transit and within easy walking distance to jobs, grocery stores, and other needed services. Such a definition of poverty would be the inability to buy adequate food, medical care, housing, clothing, and other necessities. Housing is the most expensive item, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area/Santa Clara Valley. Piya’s explanation is very good. What were expensive luxuries in the early 1900’s became necessities by the 1950’s. What were wild fantasies in the 1950’s and 1960’s are common in 2000.

12. thandi dhliwayo - 9 October 2009

how best can l ever explain the differences between absolute poverty and relative poverty?l know how different they are but when l write these differences down does it mean l have to write that those in relative poverty do work but those in absolute poverty do not work.please assist me on how best to tackle this question,l have no idea

13. mercury in swine flu jabs kills - 27 November 2009

africa poverty an death is to be sustained not cured in the rockefellas view an the world elite 40.000 dead africans on a regular bassis is great for there plans to reduce the worlds population By %50%
david rockefella the masons an the worlds leading elites dont want to save people they want to bump off as many of us as posible

the rich ruling elites have been doing this for years an its been working
because most people are so alseep to the big bankers plans
they have got away with it

these are not conspircy theroys im a realist watch david rockefella speech on reducing the worlds population
he is the most powerfull banker/man in the world an he wants covert methods of reduction to be increased as they have been able to poison us for over 20 years already who can stop them?

only us not buying ourselfs an our children these poisned
cancer ridden sweets drinks breads an msg soyas

14. Kotrina - 17 October 2010

I am looking for the meaning of relative and absolute poverty, not people’s techno-polluted minds that they say in here. Absolute poverty can not be defined by other gibberish words. please simplify the language that you are using.

Otherwise you are creating your own poverty sentiments which will get us the new entrants into varsity to get scared.


15. Robz - 9 December 2011

i was going thru all the searches and different articles to knw the difference btn Absolute and relative poverty but all use terms which aren’t able to teach to me clearly these concepts.
..i am happy to have found this discussion and really understood.

thanks guys

16. george - 25 July 2012

the terms are so politically charged (using immigrants to argue poverty levels while ignoring policies that destroyed markets plugging people into situations to take desparate measures). government policies such as housing subsidies use outdated economic formulas and like minimum wage is equivalent to a fedual system. cost of living continues to go up and wages do not keep pace. the system blurs the line between absolute and relative poverty within a capitalist framework. the formulas are in place to regulate the poor (Piven) if nothing else. anyone who posted here is capable of expanding on that argument. relative poverty exists the term makes sense. its the formulas and language thats convoluted. there are
many families in the west who go to bed hungry. okay
they had access to some chips or pack of candy. okay
they make a choice between buying meat or buying oil
to heat there homes. and may outlive there savings or delepted 401ks. this is what is realative today. the working poor did not just vanish.

the concept is useful and the formulas need to be revised. The poverty level for a family of four or one should be much higher than what it is. YES! But with people living from pay check to pay check thinking they are middle class would be a cultrual shock for most. There is an immoral disincentive to work since earning 1 cent beyond the the current means of formulated poverty level means losing all benefits. And you are considered a communist if you fight for afforable housing…not a cubby hole for over $3,000.

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