poverty, whether an absolute or relative concept is more meaningful, Amartya Sen (1983, p. 159) remarks: “There is, I would argue, an irreducible absolutist core in the idea of poverty. One element of that absolutist core is obvious enough, though the modern literature on the subject often does its best to ignore it. If there is starvation and hunger, then – no matter what the relative picture looks like – there clearly is poverty. In this sense the relative picture – if relevant – has to take a back seat behind the possibly dominating absolutist consideration.” Yet an exclusive focus on absolute poverty, which omits direct and explicit consideration of the distribution of income, has problems. Indeed, it is very misleading to define poverty simply by the absolute standard.
Poverty is a highly contingent socially constructed phenomenon, and the meaning of the term varies across societies and over time. This contingency is implicit in standard formal definitions of the term. Consider, for example, the definition offered in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: “Poverty: 1 a : the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.”16 The crucial term here is “socially acceptable.” What is it that determines the “socially acceptable”? That is, what is it that determines our standard for defining poverty? A standard is needed in order to define poverty, and the standard, once we move beyond starvation and hunger, is necessarily relative.
Adam Smith’s statement, quoted above, regarding the “shame” of a person appearing in public without a linen shirt, recognizes the relative aspect of the poverty concept. At other times and in other societies, poverty would be signified by more or by less or by something entirely different than whether or not one possessed a linen shirt. The linen shirt standard reflected conditions of material well-being in Europe during Adam Smith’s time, but at other times and other places the standard would be different.
Karl Marx, on the other end of the ideological spectrum, expressed the same basic idea. In his 1847 essay, Wage Labor and Capital, discussing how we determine people’s economic well-being, he writes: “A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling. But if a palace arises beside the little house, the little house shrinks into a hut….Our needs and enjoyments spring from society; we measure them, therefore, by society and not by the objects of their satisfaction. Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature.” (undated, , pp. 268-69)
A more contemporary similar statement of the issue is provided by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1974, p. 37): “The world’s most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation among people. Poverty is a social status.” Sahlins’ statement carries with it the radical implication that “absolute poverty,” absolute in terms of a lack of goods and services, really has no meaning. “The world’s most primitive people” – Sahlins appears to have in mind the Bushmen of the Kalahari or the Alaskan Eskimos (presumably of an earlier era) – certainly have no more