Below the Poverty Line in a Developed Country
We typically associate the word ‘poverty’ with parts of Africa, Asia and South America and yet poverty exists all over the world. What’s more, we are seeing an increasing number of individuals and children living in poverty in developed countries. The International Poverty Line is set by the World Bank and was increased to $1.90 per day in 2015. In most developed countries, you would be unable to survive on this. But earning $2 per day in the US, Australia or the UK, technically above the International Poverty Line, does not mean you are not living in poverty. Instead, we should consider the Relative Poverty Line, different for each country and giving a far more accurate picture of what it means to live in poverty anywhere in the world.
Poverty is relative, calculated in accordance with the average income within each country or region. While in developing nations poverty is identified as people struggling to scrape together enough money for one meal each day, the definition of poverty is actually much broader. It goes beyond being able to afford to eat, although this is, of course, a symptom of poverty, but also encompasses your quality of life. You may be able to afford to eat every day but if you can’t do much more than that, you’re still living in poverty according to the guidelines. People in poverty exist, rather than live, and struggle to participate in socially inclusive activities and access equal opportunities. Poverty in a developed country is not only about being unable to feed your family, although some do struggle to do this. Instead, we compare ourselves to those around us and when we are unable to afford the same lifestyle as our neighbour, we consider ourselves impoverished.
The OECD and the European Union categorise households whose total income is 60% of the median household income of the entire country to be living below the poverty line. Many people have criticised the use of the word ‘poverty’ here and argue that inequality may be a more accurate term. When comparing individuals living in poverty in Australia compared to those in Sub-Saharan Africa, the contrast is so stark the term does seem a little out of place. Nevertheless, for now, any household whose total income does not allow them to live the lifestyle considered customary in their country is living below the poverty line.
In 2012, the International Labour Organization announced that an estimated 300,000 people were living in poverty in developed countries. A large number of these people are refugees, forced to flee their homes in Syria and other war-torn places and arriving in countries where the cost of living is much higher and without the ability to secure lucrative work. UNICEF released a report recently which claims 20 percent of children living in developed countries now live in poverty.
Some studies consider students as living below the poverty line. Perhaps I didn’t splash out for the most expensive extra virgin olive oil when I was studying but each term Student Loans deposits enough to live by if you’re good with money management. Admittedly, you are getting into debt every day you spend at university but the idea is, in theory, that you’ll get a job good enough to pay off that loan once you leave. Since working for my charity in Cambodia I felt far more impoverished, ironically. I wasn’t comparing myself to the children I helped; compared to them I lived like a queen. But in comparison to my expat friends who taught in international schools, I was in abject poverty. Their salary was easily four or five times my own which made going out at the weekend and eating nice meals something I had to consciously save up to do; the very definition of living in poverty according to the EU and the OECD. But during the week I saw children come to school with no shoes and walk several miles home to a hut which housed their entire family so …
The point is, poverty is not only relative but subjective. Humans are constantly comparing themselves to one another and when we do that, we begin to consider what we do and don’t have in relation to our neighbours. For some individuals, the differences within their immediate social circle may seem unbearable. But what about casting a wider net? If you’re upset you can’t afford the new iPhone when all your friends have it, stop and think for a moment about a single mother in Bangaldesh who must send her children out to beg in order to find enough money to eat. Or next time your banker turns you down for a mortgage, consider the father in Rwanda who has spent years finding materials to build a hut for his family to live in.
Poverty as it is defined may be increasing in the developed country and I am not denying that some families and individuals struggle to get by. I am in no way belittling their problems. Nor am I scoffing at people who look longingly at the iPhone 7. Hey, I bought one myself. But I do agree that the word poverty seems a little … extreme. While there are undoubtedly people who are living in poverty and children suffering from malnutrition in developed countries is a significant problem, the majority of people who live ‘below the poverty line’ in developed countries are suffering from inequality not poverty. We need to fight back against the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, demand fairer wages, secure jobs and better benefits. Everyone has the right not only to exist but to live. Worrying about money, about where your next meal will come from is no way to spend your life. The poverty line in developed countries symbolises, for the most part, not starvation but the capacity to live life to the fullest, to enjoy life, to go beyond existing and start living. And you can only do that with a disposable income…