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The Following text has been used in class for a reading comprehension exercise,
and to stimulate discussion and writing.
What do you think?
DEFINITIONS OF DISTRESS
Who are you calling poor?
Poverty as a blot on society has been eclipsed by other priorities,
especially the need to determine a financially acceptable level of
social welfare cover. The swings in public opinion between concern and
indifference reflect an ongoing controversy about the nature of
poverty. The issue is a political football. And the argument cannot be
solved by a straightforward appeal to the "facts" because the
statistics are open to interpretation by those who set out to define
the characteristics of the poor.
by GODFRIED ENGBERSEN
Since the mid-1980s the growth of inequality throughout the world (1)
has been accompanied by the re-emergence of poverty in Western Europe
and the United States. The coexistence of public poverty and private
affluence in the West is nothing new and has given rise to heated
debate on several occasions in the post-war period. But only in the
1970s, 1980s and 1990s did the extent of the phenomenon become
apparent. With growing numbers in marginalised groups (now known as
the "excluded"), increasing job insecurity, the direct attack on the
welfare state and the difficulties involved in integrating ethnic
minorities, poverty has regularly captured public attention. But so
far such attention has been short-lived. Poverty as a blot on society
has been eclipsed by other priorities, especially the need to
determine a financially acceptable level of social welfare cover.
The swings in public opinion between concern and indifference reflect
an ongoing controversy about the nature of poverty. The issue is a
political football. And the argument cannot be solved by an appeal to
the "facts", because the disagreements concern both the relevance of
the statistics invoked and their interpretation.
Some people say that if low-income groups own consumer durables such
as cars, computers and video recorders, then they are not poor. Others
say it shows that modern poverty is not just a matter of material
needs, it is essentially one of social frustration. In the same way,
some people say that the high proportion of unemployed among the poor
is to do with the growing laziness of people on welfare benefits.
Others stress that fewer and fewer jobs are available. In other words,
how you choose and interpret the facts largely depends on your value
This can be seen in the linguistic wrangle about poverty. In addition
to the language of the poor themselves, at least four types of
discourse can be distinguished - bureaucratic, moralising, dramatic
and academic (2) - with their terminology resembling the Tower of
Babel. Adepts of emotional language complain about the heartless
jargon of the bureaucrats. The complex terminology of the social
scientists, with its multitude of definitions and approaches, is the
despair of politicians. Meanwhile those directly concerned fail to
recognise themselves in the welter of conflicting jargon. For the
poor, poverty is not a matter of definition. It is the harsh reality
of daily life.
Bureaucratic language concentrates on defining a poverty line. The
poor are those with incomes below a given level. In many European
countries the state sets a limit below which it grants assistance.
Here the terminology is abstract, technical, almost neutral.
Moralising language is very different. It makes a judgement about the
behaviour of the poor, depicting them either as irresponsible,
dangerous and lacking in motivation, or as unfortunate, innocent and
needy. Rooted in American traditions of social help, this language is
mainly concerned to distinguish between those who deserve charity and
those who do not. Its use has increased considerably over the last ten
In the 1980s and 1990s dramatic language has played a major role in
securing material aid for the poor and, more generally, in rousing
public opinion. Specific, expressive and emotional, it differs from
bureaucratic jargon in describing the daily problems of the poor - the
school transport they cannot afford, the humiliation of the dole
queue, the bitterness of those who suffer in silence. Dutch bishop
Martinus Muskens used this language when he asserted that a pauper
with no means of survival had the right to take a loaf of bread from a
shop. And the Dutch prime minister was speaking the same language when
he retorted: "In my family we had to watch every penny, but we were
too proud even to point to something that didn't belong to us."
In seeking to define a level of poverty, academic language is similar
to the language of the bureaucrats. But it is less categorical and
one-sided, employing alternative concepts like social exclusion and
underclass. It pays more attention to the causes of poverty but, in
Europe at least, it rarely looks at those causes together with the
poor themselves. It is mostly concerned with collective phenomena like
the growing job insecurity caused by the transition to a
post-industrial society, the weakening of social ties, demographic
trends such as the increasing proportion of elderly people and
immigrants, and the dismantling of the welfare state.
The language of the poor is the language in which those directly
concerned describe their situation. Their voices reach us indirectly,
through poverty campaigners or research that attempts to record their
actual words. A good example of this is Pierre Bourdieu's book La
Misère du Monde, in which he and his team reproduce interviews with
people in various vulnerable categories (3). But even there, the
choice and editing of the extracts is the work of outsiders.
The language of the poor is important in two ways. It provides us with
the insider's view of a social situation as actually experienced. Do
the poor still consider themselves members of society? Do they feel
superfluous or forgotten? Do they use the term poverty to describe
their situation? But it also enables us to assess their state of mind.
The image of the victim, which everyday language employs as if it were
self-evident, is in strong contrast to the fighting spirit of many
In public and political debate, all these languages conflict. The
clash between them reflects the roles of the varies parties concerned
- politicians, civil servants, academics, trade unionists - and the
positions they adopt, but it also reveals fundamentally different
views of poverty and approaches to the problem.
Everyone agrees that people facing hunger and starvation are poor. The
differences arise when the term is applied to modern forms of
inequality. This wider use gives rise to considerable confusion. Many
Europeans find it perfectly natural to refer to the Afro-American
inhabitants of North America's black ghettos as poor, just as they
would to the slum-dwellers of Surat, India's 12th largest city, where
there was an outbreak plague in 1994. But how far can the term be
applied to people in Europe? Does it apply to immigrants in France's
run-down suburbs, Poland's unmarried mothers, unemployed workers in
England's old industrial cities, or those on the dole in the
Netherlands' larger towns? After all, these groups differ greatly in
terms of income, social welfare cover and life expectancy.
The gradual transformation of the concept of poverty in the course of
this century provides some answers to these questions. Poverty is now
no longer understood as an absolute threat to physical existence
(subsistence poverty) but as the situation of people who do not
achieve the standard of living that is usual in their own society and
are therefore unable to participate in it. This does not make poverty
synonymous with social inequality. Poverty implies the existence of
social inequality but does not follow automatically from it. If we
define those in the bottom 10% or 20% income bracket as poor, then
there will always be poor people. But the bottom 10% or 20% in a very
rich country can be prosperous. The term does not only denote the
relative disadvantage of one group compared with others, it implies a
threshold. A household is considered poor when its income is below a
certain level and its members are thereby deprived of the material and
other conditions necessary for proper participation in the society in
which they live.
Obviously, the definition of that level and the relevant income
criteria vary from country to country. In some regions of the world,
good health, a sufficient quantity of food and adequate clothing are
enough for full social integration. But in a post-industrial society,
full participation in the life of the community requires more than
just food, clothing and shelter. It requires suitable education and
modern means of communication and information like television,
telephones and computers. Following Indian Nobel-prize-winning
economist Amartya Sen (4), we may conclude that the monetary criteria
for full participation in society vary with culture, region and period
- even if a recent UN report suggests that they will eventually become
universal as a result of globalisation (5).
On this reasoning, we can consider as poor a recipient of Dutch social
assistance (who has full access to all social welfare benefits), a
mother on welfare in Naples and a clandestine worker in Berlin (who
has no social protection). But we must also beware of overdoing the
use of the term poverty. If too many people in rich European countries
are considered poor, the term will lose all credibility. It should be
confined to citizens (and non-citizens) who have to live permanently
or for long periods on a minimum income and are excluded from major
social institutions such as the labour market and leisure activities.
Research into present-day poverty adopts countless different
approaches, many of which fail to do justice to its complexity. Such
is the case, for example, with the "basic necessities" approach used
to define poverty in the US, where households are considered poor if
their income does not cover the minimum expenditure required to
satisfy a number of basic needs. Some other income-based approaches
are relativistic: the dividing line is drawn somewhere between 50% and
60% of the average income for a given country. In addition, there are
definitions used by politicians, subjectivist approaches reflecting
public opinion, and approaches based on investigating how people
manage to survive without basic goods and services.
All these approaches are open to serious objections. For example, the
poverty level taken as a reference in the US is too low to allow full
participation in society. Conversely, the relativist approach can lead
to groups whose members live comfortably being classified as poor. The
drawback of the political approach is that whenever the baseline for
the minimum standard of living is raised, the numbers of the poor
increase as more households fall into the poverty category.
Subjectivist approaches also tend to produce high figures for the
numbers of poor, since they measure income satisfaction rather than
poverty itself. Finally, it is very hard to say what goods and
services are really necessary in a modern developed society. Not being
a member of a club and not owning a television set are not necessarily
the result of poverty.
Measuring poverty has been described as a Sisyphean task. The job of
the "poverty researcher" resembles that of the legendary king of
Corinth, who was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain, only to
have it roll down to the bottom every time he got it almost to the
top. The concept of poverty is bound to time and place. It has to be
perpetually rethought and updated.
The same can be said of the popular new concept of exclusion. The term
has appeared regularly in the political vocabulary of the official
bodies of the European Union since 1989 and is beginning to determine
the framework for scientific research into social inequality and
cohesion. It originated in the writings of French sociologists dealing
with marginal groups, in particular the homeless. But although its
meaning has been expanded considerably in the European context, the
official documents neither define exactly what is meant by "exclusion"
nor explain what its victims are "excluded" from.
No doubt the vagueness of the term accounts for its popularity. You
can read what you like into it. The French debate on exclusion is an
example. All the political parties are "agin it", but their reasons
differ, and so do the policies they propose. The vagueness of the term
also explains scepticism in some quarters about the phenomenon itself.
It is very tempting to replace a term like poverty, but new buzzwords
may conceal more than they reveal.
* Professor of sociology at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, and
chairman of the editorial board of the journal Arm Nederland, (Poverty
in the Netherlands), Amsterdam University Press.
(1) United Nations Development Programme: Human Development Report
(2) See John Friedman, "Rethinking poverty: empowerment and citizen
rights", International Social Science Journal, Unesco, Paris, No. 148,
(3) Pierre Bourdieu, La Misère du monde, Seuil, Paris, 1993.
(4) See Amartya Sen, Poor, Relatively Speaking, Economic and Social
Research Institute, Dublin, 1983.
(5) UNDP, op cit.
Translated by Barry Smerin
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1999 Le Monde diplomatique
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