Understanding Poverty: Comparing the “Basic Needs” and the “Capability” Approaches

The One-dimensional Poverty Concept is Inadequate

OCC INDIA, Garment Girl's Hostel, home for girl's.The concept of poverty needs a clear and practical definition; it is very much an ill-defined concept. It often finds company with the terms such as deprivation, disempowerment, lack of development, lack of well-being, poor quality of life, human suffering, and so on. But what exactly it means to be poor?

The traditional concept of poverty recognizes that the poor lack sufficient money, so it tries to measure poverty in terms of shortage of income. Taking forward the logic, the efforts for poverty removal then revolve around eliminating unemployment which is connected with the economic processes. It is a one-dimensional approach focused on income or lack of it.

The poverty researchers, in their efforts to quantify poverty, came up with the clearly tangible idea of headcounts of the poor so that some number can be attached with poverty. This gave birth to the concept of monetary poverty lines – people with income below the poverty line came to be labeled poor. Modern research demands concepts that can be converted into explicitly measurable parameters. That certainly lead to simplification of the concept on the paper, but the complexity of human life stays as it is. However, a lot of people would automatically connect poverty with lowness of income. In fact, they see people’s well-being only in income terms.

If we try to follow the same logic, we can also come up with other one-dimensional ideas of poverty. The poor also lack good health, so how about some benchmark (say nutrition shortage) of health and then see people’s well-being only in terms of food, nutrition or some health parameter.

They also lack education so another benchmark of poverty can be education level. They also lack proper shelter, sanitation, clean water etc. In fact, each of these can provide a benchmark, although they might not be as clear-cut as some income poverty line.

The truth is, the poor live deprived of most of these essentials of life at the same time. So, no single dimensional parameter can ever satisfactorily describe the state of poverty. Human well-being is a complex issue and is affected by many factors – both material and non-material. In fact, people’s well being depends upon a plethora of factors that can be psychological, social, cultural, political and environmental. Any oversimplified measure can provide convenience but can’t ever present the complete picture. It helps to the keep this fact in mind.

The one-dimensional income poverty measure has been the favorite of policymakers to judge the impact of various policies on the lower section of the society in a general way. The World Bank still follows the $1.25-a-day “extreme poverty” line; it used to be $1-a-day until 2008. Needless to say it will remain favorite of those who see “money” as the central theme of human life. However, money or income alone can’t be a good proxy of people’s well being which depends upon inputs from several dimensions.

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