“shame.”19 The psychological – or the psychosocial – is no less real simply because it is not obviously connected to a biological need, as is a minimal caloric intake.20
Furthermore, as societies change, as economic growth takes place, all sorts of needs change. For example, as income rises in society, jobs tend to move out of and away from the home, generating a need for transport facilities. As another and related example, economic growth is generally accompanied by rising participation of women in the paid labor force, generating needs for services (or home capital equipment) to replace the work traditionally done in the home by women in most societies. Also, as the nature of work changes, education and training can no longer take place in and around the home (as it does in traditional agricultural societies), and thus there arises a need for schooling. New types of work associated with economic expansion also generate a need for dietary changes and stimulants. Pomeranz (2000, chapter 3) points out that during the 18th and 19th century the intensity of work in England greatly increased, providing a foundation for economic expansion, and this greater work intensity created a need for increased calories, supplied to a significant extent by sugar, and for a whole class of stimulants – tea, coffee, tobacco, and cocoa.21
Once it is recognized that needs are socially determined, contingent on social conditions and relative to norms of the society in general, then the role of income distribution as a factor defining poverty comes into focus. Poverty exists, as all seem to accept, when people’s needs are not met. In two societies where the absolute income of the bottom segment (say the bottom quintile) is the same, poverty will be greater in the society where income distribution is more unequal because in that society the bottom segment will be further from the norm and thus more lacking in that society’s socially determined needs. Economic growth in itself will tend to have a limited impact on poverty when inequality remains unchanged, for, insofar as society’s standards of needs rise along with the average level of income, those at the bottom will remain much in need.
Of course social norms or the standards by which we determine people’s needs are seldom clear, and the manner in which they are established is complex. For example, are standards set by what the median person or family has? Or are standards set by what the richest group is able to obtain? Is there one standard for a society or different standards
19 I do not wish to belittle the importance of hunger and starvation in today’s world. There were in 2001, according to the World Bank’s estimates, 1.1 billion people living on less than $1 per day (UN Millennium Project, 2005, Table 2.3) – a lot of people, most, if not all, of whom could be classed as hungry if not starving. My point, however, is not that absolute poverty (hunger and starvation) is unimportant or irrelevant, but that relative poverty is also a large part of the story in understanding poverty
20 While psychological or psychosocial needs are not obviously connected to biological conditions, there do appear to be connections. In particular, the stress and other negative psychosocial impacts of social inequality are significantly and positively associated with ill-health and mortality in an apparent causal relationship. (Wilkinson, 2005)
21 Poneranz adopts from Mintz (1985) the term “drug foods” to describe the increased role of these commodities in Europe.