Notes and highlights for
Poverty as Ideology: Rescuing Social Justice from Global Development Agendas (International Studies in Poverty)
Fischer, Andrew Martin

1 Introduction: Poverty, Ideology and Development

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profiles of essential social needs – or what I refer to as compelling social needs – generally change, often quite radically, within such transformations. This is especially the case within contexts of urbanisation, but also with respect to increases in baseline norms such as literacy and schooling levels, or morbidity and

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mortality rates. 8

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This is not necessarily the same as an upward shift in subjective preferences, such as when people start to expect more as they become more affluent. Rather, it is a question of the minimum requirements for functioning in modern societies and economies, short of which the options are generally exclusion or exploitation (or both). While this third point is fundamental, it has been neglected in scholarship.

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the evolution of compelling social needs within development. Amartya Sen’s work has

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Sen’s theorisation of development, however, is not particularly helpful for understanding development as structural transformation,

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argued in Chapter 4.

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social needs

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what might be called the sufficiency of subsistence to scarcity amidst abundance.

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Townsend (1985) subsequently criticised Sen’s conception of an ‘absolutist core’ of poverty as perpetuating a narrow subsistence-standard

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if we accept an essential

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consumption needs,

2 Unpeeling the Politics of Poverty Measures

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the starting benchmarks were set at the (estimated) poverty levels prevailing in 1990, even though the goals were determined following the Millennium Declaration in 2000.

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according to CEPAL estimates (if we are to believe these data), 3 poverty rates in Latin America and the Caribbean rose from 40.5 per cent in 1980 to 48.4 per cent in 1990, and extreme poverty rates from 18.6 per cent to 22.6 per cent.

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close to half of the improvement in these poverty rates since 1990

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Such statistics must be taken with a grain of salt, insofar as the $ 1.25 PPP poverty line appears to approximate (if it approximates anything) a very minimal food-based definition of basic needs, e.g., a diet of 2100 calories of mostly cheap cereals. 7

3 Money-metric Measures of Poverty

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Without even advancing to the subsequent step of determining a poverty line, much information can be derived from this initial step of measuring income, expenditure or wealth. Indeed, the most useful information is arguably attained at this stage and the poverty line itself is a fairly arbitrary exercise, although one that receives most of the attention, as described further below. For instance, as noted above, information about inequality can be derived from these data. The structure of income distribution can also be observed through frequency distributions, which show how many people or what proportion of people are at each level of income. Such frequency distributions are much more informative than poverty rates given that they show the clustering of populations at various income levels as well as the polarisation of income distributions, among other information, such as in the excellent studies of both population and consumption density distributions based on

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The use of representative households or deciles must be interpreted with caution because they do not represent a consistent household or group over time due to churning in the population from survey to survey, whereby households change positions, some rising and others falling, with the net effect often being cancelled out.

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Pogge and Reddy (2002a, 2002b), who launched the original critique.

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The problem is not just with evaluating different purchasing powers for the same goods, but that the goods consumed by the poor in each context are different, relative to both other countries but also with respect to the local setting.

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wealthier people often pay more for their goods because they shop in wealthier areas,

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PPP conversions are

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based on

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standardised baskets.

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An important factor concerns the balance between cheaper and more expensive foods. Should the diet be balanced, including vegetables and other more expensive calories, or should it be largely made up of the cheapest calories, such as grains? To give an example, the absolute rural poverty line in China in the late 1990s was based on a diet that was 90-per cent grain (Hussain 2002). A large part of the revision to the line since then (e.g., from 865 to 2300 yuan) has not been based on cost-of-living increases (which account for a fraction of the revision) but on more realistic evaluations of appropriate diets that include other, more expensive calories, even while maintaining the 2100-calorie standard.

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Another fundamental question in such calculations is whether diets should be based on what people want to eat, or what is made available to them through subsidised provisioning systems – or even whether subsidised provisioning systems should provide better quality foods,

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What if prices are used for food we think the poor should eat, even though they eat other food?

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repressed consumption.

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surveys might hide prices that the poor are occasionally forced to face,

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That the poor might have faced greater cost-of-living increases than suggested by the general consumer prices indices is quite possible given the notable increases in inequality in many countries over the same period. 15

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fundamental Achilles Heel

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education and health costs

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mostly not included

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The exclusion of health and education costs from money-metric poverty lines is for technical reasons,

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across time when the costing and/ or supply of education or health care changes.

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deducting catastrophic out-of-pocket payments for health care

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It is in this sense that absolute money-metric poverty measures can be said to be biased against universalistic modes of social policy.

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because poverty lines are focused on crude calories and on actual consumption patterns among the poor, they overlook these shifts in the quality of diet.

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The shift towards an increasing cheapness of calories therefore has an effect of reducing the poverty line to a declining lowest common denominator.

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The falling terms of trade of such calories in particular means that calorie-based poverty lines are anchored on a foundation that is being compressed over time relative to other expenditures and consumption needs, especially in the context of urbanisation

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whereby the latter become more prominent. 19 This thereby introduces a further subtle but powerful source of underestimation in measures of ‘absolute’ near-starvation deprivation over time. In other words, productivity in the contemporary production of food, for instance, has increased to such an extent over the last century that substantial surpluses have been achieved even in the face of rising population. As a result, real food prices – or the terms of trade of food relative to other goods – are at close to an all-time low in historical terms, even despite the recent spike in food prices. For instance, Fuglie and Wang (2013) estimate that, on average, real food prices have fallen by 1 per cent a year between 1900 and 2010. Given rising productivity and the mass processing of cheap (and cheap-quality) foods, combined with increasingly integrated international markets, it is understandable how the condition of poverty has gradually changed over the last century from one of food scarcity and starvation to one in which calorie sufficiency is relatively easier to secure (although not necessarily nutrition sufficiency), while other compelling social needs take over in precedence, as discussed in the previous chapter.