This post was sparked by a piece over at The Drum (ABC) by the CIS’s Matthew Taylor.
Taylor’s argument, which is repeated by many others of similar political disposition (such as Adam Creighton) is that relative poverty doesn’t matter, only ‘absolute’ poverty. If the poor are getting richer in real terms, then it doesn’t matter if the rich are getting richer at a faster rate.
Such absolutism on this important social issue is not helpful. This is easy to see with a very brief thought experiment. Imagine a world where half the population of 1 million people live on a loaf of bread and a cup of milk per week, live in leaky shacks, and have generally poor health and short life expectancy. The other half dine on a variety of meats, vegetables and fruits, and live in luxurious mansions.
The poverty line is drawn at 1 lot of bread and 1.5 cups of milk a week. Hence 50% of the people live in relative poverty.
Now imagine that over a period of time incomes rise for the wealthy half of the population. The best estimates put the increase in real incomes around 80% over a 10 year period.
The bottom half are then given an extra 500mL of milk per week and absolute poverty is eliminated.
Strange as it may seem, this is exactly the argument used by Taylor and Creighton (and I’m sure many others) about how absolute poverty is decreasing. They take a relative poverty measure at one arbitrary point in time, and as long as there is an absolute gain from that starting point, absolute poverty is being diminished, and they are happy.
They see no moral dilemma surrounding the distribution of resources in this imaginary society, either in the first instance, or after the income growth, so long as the incomes of the poorest increase over time. But the distribution of resources in society is always and everywhere a moral choice, and poverty is always and everywhere measured relative to standards of non-poverty.
It was a moral choice to construct institutions to allow the great divergence in wealth in our imaginary society, just as it is in reality. Clearly I have in mind something like slavery in my thought experiment. In the Taylor-Creighton world, the poverty caused by slavery would be of no consequence as long as the incomes of slaves increased at any rate greater than zero.
Now, they may appeal to moral arguments about human rights in the case of slavery – that the slaves had no opportunity to determine their own destiny. But the same argument equally applies to arguments surrounding poverty in general; those born into the poorest households had little choice about their own destiny either. Conversely, those born into the wealthiest households benefit from the most opportunities to choose their economic destiny.
As a society we make choices about which institutions to create and enforce in order to get the outcomes we desire. I’ve noted before the moral foundations underpinning these institutions before, specifically in the case of government-supported parental leave schemes. In this case the concept of poverty is always relative, and our policy approach to poverty is always morally grounded, whether people choose to see it this way or not.