Defining poverty to end it

The latest progress report on poverty uses multiple measures. Yet it also points to the need for better definitions of well-being.

Residents stand in line to get free milk distributed by the government to needy families in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Despite progress against poverty in the past three decades, experts still struggle to define it and measure it. Is it earning less than $2 a day? Is it scoring low on a happiness index? Is it deprivation in “capabilities” to function in society?

In the latest report on global poverty from the United Nations Development Program, scholars tried a new, less simplistic tack. They used 10 measures, such as insufficient nutrition and unsafe drinking water, to gauge progress. Across 101 countries, they found 23% of people are still considered poor on this “multidimensional poverty index” (MPI). Yet in a closer look at 10 middle- and low-income countries such as India and Congo, they found encouraging news: The bottom 40% had moved up quickly in recent years. 

Some 270 million people had escaped poverty on this latest type of indicator. Those furthest behind are moving up the fastest.

The new data also reveals that two-thirds of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries while half are children under 18. In addition, poverty has no or little association with levels of economic inequality.

This more granular information will help refocus anti-poverty approaches such as foreign aid programs. It comes as world leaders will gather this September to assess progress toward meeting the U.N.’s sustainable development goals.

Yet the debate continues over what poverty is. New definitions and measures are still in the works. Some scholars, for example, note the MPI is strictly focused on material measures. What about nonmaterial factors that are more difficult to measure?

The late economist Richard Fogel, who won the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, found that progress against poverty usually came after an upwelling of religious fervor that put a focus on spiritual values, such as a sense of purpose, strong family ties, an ethic of benevolence, and a thirst for understanding. This helps explain why many wealthy societies have poverty.

“In rich nations, the principal characteristic of those afflicted by chronic poverty is their spiritual estrangement from mainstream society,” Mr. Fogel wrote. The main task is to erase the spiritual divide.

New measures of well-being are certainly needed, especially if they help produce results in eradicating poverty. Progress against poverty requires progress in understanding what the poor themselves perceive as quality of life. Sometimes it is more than clean water, a safe home, or a good education.

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