Blessed are the poor…

24 May

The day before yesterday I found out that my children live below the poverty line. And their parents too for that matter, but the news report focused on children. Let me qualify that before anyone gets too worried. They actually meant “relative poverty”, not “extreme poverty”, even though that’s not what was said. Simple “poverty” must make for better news.

A report published by UNICEF, based on figures released by the Spanish statistics agency, highlights the growing number of children in Spain who live in families whose income places them in a situation of risk; the number has grown by 10% in the last two years, with 2.2 million children, that is 26.2% of those under 18, now living in families whose income places them below the poverty line. Over half of these live in families that are classified as “extreme poverty”, placing Spain third in the list out of the 27 member states of the European Union; only Rumania and Bulgaria have worse figures.

The financial crisis is real, and is being felt by many, particularly those families with both adults out of work. Of this there is no doubt. It can be seen all over Spain. Many have suffered in the aftermath of the crazy house-price bubble and banking debacle – and it is far from over yet. But a quarter of kids living in poverty? Sometimes I wonder what planet we in the West think we are on.

Yes, back to statistics. Yippee… But the use (or misuse) of statistics lies behind so much of what we do today, we do need to understand more than the newspaper headlines. Just what is this all about.

The key is the phrase “relative poverty”. Relative to what? Certainly not relative to global income or per capita GDP. Around half the world lives below the internationally defined poverty line of $2 a day (why don’t you try it?), but that is not what is being talked about here. Relative poverty is relative to the average national household income. (In reality it is relative to household “consumer unit” income, but I will save you the details.) To live in relative poverty is to have less than 60% of this figure.

Now this is quite curious. It means that the richer a country gets, the higher the poverty line is set. People may be quite wealthy in absolute terms, but still fall below the poverty threshold. In fact, “poverty” actually becomes impossible to eradicate – in a free economy, that is; in a “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” planned economy, a whole different dynamic operates. In Spain, the percentage of “poor” changes very little year by year, hovering around the 20% mark; it is just the figure at which one becomes poor that changes. I am sure this is not what Jesus was referring to when he said, “You will always have the poor with you” (Mk.14:7), but it seems he was right!

[Another interesting detail – interesting for me at least, though please feel free to skip this paragraph if you do not feel the same way :-). It is alright to talk about “average household income”, but precisely which average – mean, mode or median? As you are aware, the results we want to show often determine which we choose to use… The poverty line used to be calculated at 50% of mean household income. Mean income, which is obtained by adding up everyone’s income and then dividing by the number of people, is perhaps the most natural to use. But it was felt that in an egalitarian society, to do this would be to give greater value to one than to another. So, the median is used instead. Essentially this means lining everyone up in a (virtual) long line and finding the middle point. The only problem with that is that median income is always lower than mean income. (Makes sense, if you think about it: there are lots of people who earn little, but not very many who earn loads.) That means there are fewer poor people, and that won’t do. So the figure was raised to 60% of median household income instead.]

Just how much is 60% of the current median household income? Well, at €7,533.30 per consumer unit, that amounts to €15,820 for a family with two children under 14, or in our case, €18,833.25 per year. In Spain, our family could have €1,500 a month, the equivalent of $15 a day per person, putting us in the top 15% in the world, and yet still find ourselves below the poverty line. (See where you fit in the global poverty stakes at Yes, I do declare, we are officially “poor”.

What does this mean? Well, as the term suggests it’s all relative. On the news report they highlighted the fact that “poor children” are unable to do everything their friends do, or own the same things. So no, our children do not engage in “retail therapy” in the same way that others do. They “only” have a Wii, no PlayStation or Xbox. We have not bought our kids an iPhone each, but they do both have smartphones with an internet contract and have saved up for their own iPods. Nor do we spend €100 on a pair of trainers, though they are free to do that from their clothes allowance if they prefer one pair of shoes to two pairs of jeans, three tops, a couple of t-shirts and last year’s model of designer shoes they can get from the outlet shops all for the same price.

More than that, we have tried to point them in the direction of understanding global poverty, our huge relative wealth, and the responsibility we carry as Christians towards the poor. We might fret at not being able to buy another €11.99 piece of clothing this month, but maybe we should give more thought to the worker in the Phnom Penh garment factory who takes home a mere $60 a month, if that. The consequences of the crisis and speculation in the food stuff market may well have made our weekly shop dearer, but when food accounts for 50%, 70%, or even 90% of your expenditure, food price rises become critical. (Note that the figures in this chart are averages – if Kenyans spend an average of 45% of income on food, there are many who will spend much more than this. And Kenya is by no means the poorest of the poor.)

I do not doubt UNICEF’s sincerity in highlighting an alarming trend in the economic face of Spain or the reality of financial difficulty encountered by many. But this navel-gazing approach to poverty is not destined to help readdress the huge global imbalances that perpetuate poverty, nor bring the investment that is needed to continue agricultural innovation, build education and primary health care, alleviate malaria and AIDS or eradicate water-borne diseases, all killers of the most poor.

Yes, we are in a global financial crisis. Yes, the markets are in disarray. But in the West we have never had it so good. If it is true that I am poor, verily, verily, blessed are the poor.

One Response to “Blessed are the poor…”

  1. eatingwithsinners May 25, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    PS. I have just found this site – – that is attempting to raise awareness about extreme poverty by getting people to live on £1 / $1.50 a day (for food). We have just missed the 5 days set aside for this in May, but hey, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you did it in June :-)

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