goods and services than the lowest income decile groups in virtually all current-day countries. Likewise, in terms of schooling and health care, these peoples are no better off than the bottom groups in current-day countries. Yet, according to Sahlins’ argument, within the context of their own societies they are not poor. Among relatively egalitarian, “primitive” societies, poverty is non-existent. It is only when we incorporate these peoples (conceptually if not practically) into a larger society, national or global, that they fall into poverty.17
Consideration of the historical experience of virtually any high-income country further underscores the contingent – or relative – meaning of poverty. In the United States, for example, at the end of the 18th century when the country became independent, by current day estimates GNP per capita was $750 in 1990 prices, very close to $2 per day. (Atack and Passell, 1994, Table 1.2) Yet no one views U.S. society at that time as having been one of massive poverty, as the $2 per day measure would imply. Certainly there were people living in poverty at that time in the United States, but their poverty was determined by the standards of that period; it was their position relative to others – the middle income groups or perhaps the rich – that defined their poverty. The example suggests that there are no poor unless there are also rich, or that some people are poor only insofar as some others are rich.
These issues have been recognized by Sen (1983), but in a way that distinguishes between poverty in terms of capabilities and poverty in terms of resources. For Sen argues that poverty is an absolute concept in terms of people’s capabilities, but at the same time in different social circumstances – different societies – different resources or commodities are needed for people to achieve their capabilities. Referring to Smith’s linen shirt example, Sen points out that the capability to appear in public without shame is an absolute capability, but the resources needed to fulfill this capability are relative, determined by the standards of the particular society. “At the risk of oversimplification, I would like to say that poverty is an absolute notion in the space of capabilities but very often it will take a relative form in the space of commodities…” (p 161)18
The phenomenon by which people’s commodity-needs are determined in a relative sense, contingent on the society in which they live, is in part psychological. As Marx says, we measure our needs “by society,” which is to say we perceive our needs by what we see around us, what others in our society have, and what has been socially determined to be the norm. To say that our needs are psychological is not to say they are less real. Once beyond hunger and starvation, how people perceive their needs (and how others perceive their needs) is what defines their position, their poverty, and certainly their
17 I was led to the Sahlins quotation from its use by Wilkinson (2005, p. 67). Shalins’ conception of poverty as a social status calls into question, to a degree, Sen’s argument that there is an “absolutist core” in the idea of poverty. If a whole society is going hungry, Sahlins would presumably argue that this situation is not accurately described as poverty. With all members of the society in the same position, there could be no separate social status of “poverty.”
18 But note what Sen says, quoted above, in the same article about hunger and starvation, an absolutist core of poverty, overriding the relative concept in the commodity space.