To explain the UN Rapporteur on UK Extreme Poverty

An excellent spot by Rod Liddle here. Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, has just had a whirlwind tour of the UK where he’s listened to people complaining. He then applied his understanding of the meaning of poverty to these and wrote his report - the UK is very bad at dealing with poverty.

The problem is the definition of poverty being used. We might think of poverty as the World Bank does - less than $1.90 a day. Alston doesn’t, he thinks of it as less than 60% of median household income in that society. The two methods provide entirely different results:

Mauritania is the obvious answer. Its government has been commended by the UN special rapporteur on poverty, Philip Alston, an Australian human rights lawyer. Alston praised President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz for having made “significant progress” in tackling poverty, although he added much work was still to be done. So, well done Mo. Some 42% of this hellhole’s population live in absolute poverty, the average yearly wage being less than £1,000. Life expectancy is 20 years below our own and Mo, when not alleviating poverty, presides over a state that murders its political opponents or subjects them to torture. But hell, if it’s a beacon of light for Alston, that’s good enough for me.

Alston’s measure is not one of poverty, it’s one of inequality. So, if you’ve a society without that much inequality, where all are desperately poor, living under a shared burnoose and eating sand, then that’s a place with little poverty. If you have society with more inequality, but the standard of living of the poorest in it is far above the average in that poor place*, then you’ve more poverty.

Well, quite, go figure, but our real problem is that it’s that relative poverty which is our own official definition of poverty. It’s, to put this delicately, an idiot manner of defining things.

*Just a few years back, about a decade, it was true that the average living standard of the bottom 10% of Americans was higher than the average living standard of the top 10% of Indians. Inequality within a society might not matter all that much compared to that statistic. A decade of India’s high GDP growth has made it untrue now but it’s still a fascinating number.