Friday, January 27, 2006

Reflections on Relative Poverty

The Economist compares the lives of a mountain man in eastern Kentucky and a surgeon in Africa that are both living on around $600 a month.

Why juxtapose the lives of a poor man in a rich country and a relatively well-off man in a poor one? The exercise is useful for two reasons. First, it puts the rich world's wealth into context. A Congolese doctor, a man most other Congolese would consider wealthy, is worse off materially than most poor people in America. That, in itself, is striking.

The second purpose of the exercise is to shed light on some ticklish questions. What is the relationship between wealth and happiness? And what is the significance of relative poverty? Mr Banks makes $521 a month in a country where median male earnings are $3,400 a month. Dr Kabamba earns $600 a month in a country where most people grow their own food and hardly ever see a bank note. The two men's experiences could hardly be less similar. But which of the two would one expect to be happier?

What do Dr Kabamba's wages buy? He has a four-bedroom house with a kitchen and living room, which would be ample if there weren't 12 people under his roof. His home would be deemed unacceptably overcrowded in America. Even among the 37m Americans officially classed as poor, only 6% live in homes with more occupants than rooms.

Having seen how doctors live elsewhere, Dr Kabamba would quite like running water and a regular power supply. His family fetches water in jars and the electricity comes on maybe twice a week. Air-conditioning would be nice, but “that's only for VIPs,” says Dr Kabamba. In America, three-quarters of poor households have air-conditioning. A typical poor household in America has two televisions, cable or satellite reception and a VCR or a DVD player.

Dr Kabamba earns enough to feed his children, but not as well as he would like. The family eats meat about twice a month; Dr Kabamba calls it “a great luxury”. In America, poor children eat more meat than the well-to-do. In fact, they get twice as much protein as their government says is good for them, which is why the Wal-Mart near Mr Banks sells such enormous jeans.

“Poverty” describes two quite different phenomena: utter penury, of the sort experienced by the billion or so souls who subsist on $1 a day or less; and the situation of people in rich countries who are less well off than their compatriots.
The whole article is solid, a worthy read.


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