Tag Archives: wealth

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 globalrichlist.com.) 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.


Happy are the poor / middling / filthy rich* (*delete as appropriate)

28 Feb

Global happiness“Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, rather happy, not very happy or not happy at all?” That was the question put by the Ipsos research group to 18,687 adults in 24 countries during the first half of November last year as the culmination of a 5 year ongoing survey.

The results? Following publication in the first issue of What Makes You Happy magazine, two aspects have been highlighted in the inevitable flurry of internet reporting that has picked up on this.

Firstly, that the world is overall a happier place than before the current global financial crisis, up two percentage points on 2007. Secondly, that money doesn’t make people happy: the wealthier countries are not at the top.

If the first seems to have been a bit of a shock, the second should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Whilst it is an unfortunate fact of life that the lack of money can create misery, money itself does not buy happiness; it never has and never will. Only one in six Europeans claimed to be very happy, compared to half of the Indonesians interviewed. It seems that where happiness is perceived as a right — what I deserve simply by virtue of being alive — it becomes ever more elusive. Ad-fuelled consumerism serves merely to boost this disillusionment. Put at its simplest, where “things” are believed to make us happy, then the lack of these things, not enough things — or at least less than our neighbour has — or the fact that we still have last year’s thing, spells unhappiness. In Jesus’ own words, “Life is not measured by how much you own” (Luke 12:15, NLT); true life, at least.

The panorama in Indonesia, India, Mexico or Brazil seems to be somewhat different. Achievement is something to be pursued, not waited for idly, and the raw vitality needed to stay ahead whilst striving towards a bright future can bring great exhiliration. Education still has value, for it might just help you succeed in life. Compared with the tired old West, young professionals in these nations are like teenagers itching to take on the world. Success may still be measured in terms of material prosperity, but anticipation of future potential rather than frustration with present lack seems to be the order of the day.

Then what about the world being a happier place? Western countries have taken a severe bashing in the current financial climate, and, other than the top bankers with their now state-subsidised bonuses, there are clearly a lot of not-so-happy campers around; losing a house or a job is never going to bring a smile to anyone’s face. Whilst all this has had some knock-on effects around the world (obviously, if we are buying fewer televisions, China must be manufacturing less), non-Western nations have not generally been guilty of the unrestrained financial malpractice, unchecked government budget deficits or the inflated housing price bubble that have been at the root of the West’s woes. It is natural that now they have less to cry about.

But even so, is it fair to say that the world is a happier place? After all, this study looks at just 24 countries; that leaves 172 that were not included. We find no mention of Iraq or Afganistan, current centres of conflict, nor of any of the countries touched by the “Arab Spring” such as Egypt, Syria,Tunisia or Libya. The world’s poorest countries are also conspicuous by their absence. On a global level, it is hardly a representative sample.

Over and above that huge imbalance, the statistics and the methods by which these were obtained are, at best, highly questionable, to say nothing of the conclusions being offered. Take the concept of happiness itself — how is this perceived? Are the different countries talking about the same beast? Even if they are, the way the question is phrased renders it completely subjective, asking for a purely temporary perception of happiness. The accurate definition and measurement of happiness has successfully eluded serious psychological enquiry to date; this study is not destined to buck that trend. As a piece of “market research” it is received and reproduced surprisingly uncritically by such respected journals as The Economist, so much so that one is left wondering whether any of these have even read the original report or have all gleaned their information from a Reuters summary; publication in any academic media would soon attract a different kind of comment.

What kind of people answered the survey? As answers were collected using the “Ipsos Online Panel” — no other details are given — one can only surmise that at the very least they were computer literate, if not computer or smartphone owners themselves. Compared with the majority population struggling to take home a decent daily wage, if I were a Mexican in a position to answer this survey on my new tablet, I might well be inclined to describe myself as “very happy”.

Simple cultural differences also need to be given more weight. We Brits are famous the world over for a “‘stiff upper lip” and naturally tend to shy away from superlatives. It should come as no surprise, then, that month in, month out only 20-25% could describe themselves as “very happy” compared with twice that number of Mexicans or Brazilians, stereotypically known for more effusive displays of emotion than most of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects.

Is the recorded upwards trend in fact even significant? Statistically, there is little worth reporting. Minor fluctuations apart, what happened in China in 2007, for example, to account for a jump from 59% of happy people to 92% six months later, then back to 57% a further six months down the road? The survey itself reports that an “unweighted probability sample of this size and a 100% response rate would have an estimated margin of error of +/-3.1 percentage points for a sample of 1,000” (full survey available from Ipsos here); not only is the 2% increase less than the potential margin of error but they also fail to give their actual response rate. Even this is not giving the whole picture. In stating that with 22% “very happy” the world is 2% happier in 2011 than in 2007, they fail to mention that this is with respect to April 2007; in October 2007 there were also 22% who claimed to be “very happy”. In March and April 2010 there were 26%, and 25% through the rest of that year, so should that not in fact mean we are more miserable than a year ago?

SmileSo, is the world a happier place? I guess we are none the wiser. In the absence of anything more accurate, I will stick with a couple of biblical axioms.

Happiness starts on the inside, and is fundamentally a reflection of our “shalom”, peace with others, with ourselves, and with God. Happy, indeed, are the people whose God is the Lord (Ps.144:15).

And wealth? Destitute poverty erodes the soul. But beyond that, happiness cannot be rooted in riches. We need to find a way to make Paul’s words ours: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ,who gives me strength” (Phil.4:11-13, NLT).

And you know what? I think I can say that I am happy with this post, so had better get on and hit the “Publish” button :-)

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