I was drawn to a paper from the World Bank by its title: “A comprehensive analysis of poverty in India“. In recent years the World Bank has published some remarkably rich, subtle, multidimensional, participative studies of poverty. This isn’t one of those.
The authors define poverty in terms of a minimum basket of goods; although there are nominally two poverty lines, they are both subsistence measures, largely based on a minimaum calorific intake. They write:
the poverty line should be set at a level that allows us to track the progress made in helping the truly destitute or those living in abject poverty, often referred to as extreme poverty.
Back to Bowley, it seems; it’s as if the last eighty years of poverty research never happened. The authors explain:
To appreciate further the folly of setting too high a poverty line for purposes of identifying the poor, recall that the national average poverty line was 22.2 rupees per person per day in rural areas and 28.26 rupees in urban areas in 2009-10. … raising these lines to just 33.3 and 45.4 rupees, respectively, would place 70% of the rural and 50% of the urban population in poverty in 2009-10. … Will the fate of the destitute not be compromised if the meager tax revenues available for redistribution were thinly spread on this much larger population?
Peter Townsend used to complain, long and loud, that subsistence measures were liable to be used to justify limiting support. (It’s a caution that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, currently investigating destitution, might do well to note. ) The idea that extending and generalising support undermines the position of the poor is plainly wrong. Many of the gains that have been made in antipoverty programmes in recent years have been through austere universal measures, such as Essential Health Packages, and the extension of social protection and assistance in a range of transitional economies. We might ask, on the contrary, whether there is any prospect of people receiving the help they need if the only benefits are focused on a limited, marginal population.