We need to talk about poverty

Seosamh Mac Cárthaigh
Seosamh Mac Cárthaigh

Seosamh Mac Cárthaigh discusses the background to his article on ‘Need and poverty’ which is about to be published in the next issue of Policy & Politics.

How much poverty is found in a society depends on how poverty is defined and measured. In an obvious sense, the definition of poverty must come first. If we do not have a clear understanding of what it means to say that people are poor, we are unlikely to be able to devise measures which yield meaningful estimates of the number of people who can be so described.

Unhappily, the meaning of poverty is often taken for granted in scholarly research on the topic. It is not uncommon for estimates of poverty to be presented without any supporting discussion of how those estimates are to be interpreted. Where issues of interpretation are addressed, the discussion is frequently limited to a few paragraphs or even sentences. While studies usually offer some description of the measures used, they generally have little to say about why those measures were chosen in the first place or about what they are intended to capture.

Those few poverty studies which do attempt to address conceptual issues tend to rely on concepts and categories which are inadequate or misleading. Discussants often fail to locate their work within the wider literature or to situate their concerns within a broader framework. Studies are frequently content to point out features of the conceptual landscape without offering a map which would allow researchers to negotiate that terrain. In sum, there is scope for further work on the problem of how best to conceptualise poverty.

Any attempt to develop a framework for thinking and talking about poverty must start somewhere. One possibility is to begin with the idea that poverty involves unmet need. While this is not the only possible starting point, it is a natural one: the notion of need is central to talk about poverty and any adequate account of poverty must at least be able to accommodate the idea that the poor do not have what they need.

My article on ‘Need and poverty’ in the current issue of Policy & Politics sketches an account of need and follows through some of the implications of that account for talk about poverty and deprivation. It is not intended as the last word on the topic. There is room for debate about the implications of the idea that poverty involves unmet need and room for argument, too, about how the notion of need is best understood. The nature of the relationship between poverty and (other kinds of unmet) need is worth teasing out, however. And, whatever argument there may be about the adequacy of a need-based framework for thinking and talking about poverty, some such framework is sorely needed. Before we can establish how much poverty there is, we must first clarify what it means to say that people are poor.

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