The Maxim Institute thinktank have a new paper out on how to measure poverty – and it endorses the idea that people need to be able to participate in society, not just survive, if they are to be deemed to have escaped poverty.
This is significant because ‘participation’ can be such a dividing line in politics. For those on the left, the 1980s Royal Commission finding that everyone should be able to ‘participate and belong’ in society has been a touchstone. If you can’t actually enjoy the things that others enjoy – such as being able to offer hospitality to guests, buy presents for birthdays, or have new clothes occasionally – then you are still in poverty
Those on the right have tended to favour a more basic definition – that people simply need the bare necessities, such as food and shelter, in order not to be poor. Society doesn’t have a responsibility to provide anything more than that to those who are struggling. And on first sight, the Maxim definition looks to be in this tradition, arguing that
Poverty should be defined as a situation where a person or family lacks the material resources to meet their minimal needs as recognised by most New Zealanders.
But they go on to explain that “minimal needs” are determined
…by what most New Zealanders consider necessary for a minimal acceptable standard of living to participate in society: a range of items or activities that no one should go without. These needs may be social or material and go beyond what’s required for mere survival.
That’s heartening, because if Maxim, generally regarded as being on the centre-right, have come up with this kind of definition, it raises the chances of cross-party agreement that everyone, regardless of income, should be able to participate in society.
Maxim also argues that to better define poverty, the public should be invited to say what ‘basket’ of goods and services people would have to be able to afford in order to participate in society. I’m ambivalent about this. While I generally favour maximum democracy, I’m not sure that the public at large, especially its more comfortable and more out-of-touch members, has a good handle on what people need at the lower end of the spectrum.
Also, previous New Zealand focus group work from the 1990s shows that the amount of income people need to participate is about the same as the main internationally standard definition of poverty, which is 60% of the average household’s income. So there’s a good chance that any public survey would just confirm that finding, thus reinventing the wheel.
On the other hand, something that the public had signed up to would have more buy-in than something determined by government, so one can see Maxim’s point.
Either way, though, Maxim’s work is a promising development, and a sign that the conversations around poverty and inequality are really taking root.