Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation

By Amartya Sen | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Concepts of Poverty

2.1 REQUIREMENTS OF A CONCEPT OF POVERTY

On his deathbed in Calcutta, J. B. S. Haldane wrote a poem called 'Cancer's a funny thing'.1 Poverty is no less funny. Consider the following view of poverty:

People must not be allowed to become so poor that they offend or are hurtful to society. It is not so much the misery and plight of the poor but the discomfort and cost to the community which is crucial to this view of poverty. We have a problem of poverty to the extent that low income creates problems for those who are not poor.2

To live in poverty may be sad, but to 'offend or [be] hurtful to society', creating 'problems for those who are not poor' is, it would appear, the real tragedy. It isn't easy to push much further the reduction of human beings into 'means'.

The first requirement of the concept of poverty is of a criterion as to who should be the focus of our concern. The specification of certain 'consumption norms', or of a 'poverty line', may do part of the job: 'the poor' are those people whose consumption standards fall short of the norms, or whose incomes lie below that line. But this leads to a further question: is the concept of poverty to be related to the interests of. (1) only the poor, (2) only the non-poor, or (3) both the poor and the non-poor?

It seems a bit grotesque to hold that the concept of poverty should be concerned only with the non-poor, and I take the liberty of dropping (2) -- and the 'view' quoted in the first paragraph -- without further ado. Alternative (3) might, however, appear to be appealing, since it is broad-based and unrestrictive. There is little doubt that the penury of the poor does, in fact, affect the well-being of the rich. The real question is whether such effects should enter into the concept of poverty as

____________________
1
Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse, ed. P. Larkin, Oxford, 1973, p. 271.
2
Rein ( 1971), p. 46. I hasten to add that here Professor Rein is describing one of the three 'broad concepts' of poverty, viz. (1) 'subsistence', (2) 'inequality', and (3) 'externality'; the view quoted corresponds to 'externality'.

-9-

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