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Poor Like Whom?

by Theodore Dalrymple

Personal and literary reflections on the concept of poverty

When I was a student I lived in poverty, though I didn’t know it. The conditions in which I lived would now be regarded as abject and intolerable, good enough reason for emergency public assistance. The house in which I lived was unheated and so cold that in winter it seemed colder inside than out. I had to jump into bed quickly if I did not want to freeze, and, once I was in, I used to observe the cloud of vapor emerging from my mouth. Ice formed on the inside of the windows by morning.

I lived in bohemian squalor. Housework was not a priority of mine (it was beneath me) and when I had money I bought champagne and smoked salmon. The rest of the time I lived on bread or the like. Why did I not think of myself as poor?

There were three reasons. The first is that all my friends lived the same way. If this was hardship, it was hardship shared. The second is that I had a rich social and intellectual life, and it was fashionable to disdain material comfort. The third is that I knew I should not be living this way for the rest of my life. I had confidence, justified as it turned out, that a more prosperous future awaited me even if I did not actively seek wealth. Moreover, my parents would at all times have prevented me from actually starving.

Was I poor or not? Certainly I had little money and, if I had been 50 rather than 20, I think the answer would undoubtedly have been “Yes.” But, both from my standpoint when I was 20 and from my present standpoint in my 60s, I have difficulty in believing that I was ever really poor. I have always regarded poverty as a healthy man regards illness: something that happens to other people.

Reflecting on my own experience, therefore, I am skeptical when I read a headline such as this one, from CBS in July 2013: “80 Percent of U.S. Adults Face Near Poverty, Unemployment, Survey Finds.”

What can the word “poverty” possibly mean if used in this way, as it often is, defying common sense? If four out of five American adults “face near-poverty,” how are we to describe the situation of the adults of the Central African Republic? One hundred percent of them “face poverty” — is the United States “near” four-fifths of the way to the situation of the Central African Republic?

Poverty is one of the many subjects about which it is easier to convey emotion, or perhaps I should say to arouse sentimentality, than to speak the truth. Often, for example, we read that the inhabitants of such-and-such an impoverished country are living on an income equivalent to less than a dollar (or, with the erosion of the value of the dollar, $1.50 or $2) a day. That this must be meaningless nonsense is apparent only to people who have not been grossly overeducated. If you gave a person in New York City a dollar a day to live on and prevented him from obtaining anything of economic or survival value from any other source than his dollar, how long would he survive? Yet the problem of countries where the inhabitants allegedly live on less than a dollar a day, we are frequently told, is not that they fail to survive, but that they reproduce too fast — all on their miserable 80 cents a day. This is about as silly as saying that the United States must be six or eight times as powerful as China because its defense budget is six or eight times larger, when in fact a dollar spent in China on the military buys more firepower than it would buy in the U.S.

In thinking about poverty, we ought to avoid the Scylla of sentimentality and the Charybdis of callousness. Dr. Johnson, who had known the humiliations of poverty, was severe on the comfortable and well-fed who underestimated or discounted the sufferings of the poor. Among these was Soame Jenyns, an amiable, clubbable man who never had a day’s economic anxiety in his life and fancied himself a littérateur. In his Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, Jenyns wrote: “Poverty, or the want of riches, is generally compensated by having more hopes, and fewer fears, by a greater share of health, and a more exquisite relish of the smallest enjoyments, than those who possess them are usually blessed with.” To this rather unctuous passage, Doctor Johnson wrote in his famously ferocious review (from the effects of which Jenyns never really recovered):

Poverty is very gently paraphrased by want of riches. In that sense, almost every man may, in his own opinion, be poor. But there is another poverty, which is want of competence of all that can soften the miseries of life, of all that can diversify attention, or delight imagination. There is yet another poverty, which is want of necessaries, a species of poverty which no care of the publick, no charity of particulars, can preserve many from feeling openly, and many secretly. . . . The milder degrees of poverty are, sometimes, supported by hope; but the more severe often sink down in motionless despondence. Life must be seen, before it can be known. This author . . . , perhaps, never saw the miseries which he imagines thus easy to be borne. The poor, indeed, are insensible of many little vexations, which sometimes imbitter the possessions, and pollute the enjoyments, of the rich. They are not pained by casual incivility, or mortified by the mutilation of a compliment; but this happiness is like that of a malefactor, who ceases to feel the cords that bind him, when the pincers are tearing his flesh.

Doctor Johnson does not take Jenyns to task for the empirically false proposition that the rich suffer more illness than the poor (precisely the opposite is the case, of course, but at that time — 1757 — epidemiology was an undeveloped science); and I think Johnson was wrong to say that the poor are not pained by casual incivility, indeed it is their proneness to such that makes their condition especially hard to bear; but otherwise this passage contains all the difficulties we have in thinking about the nature and origins of poverty.

Is poverty relative or absolute? Does it, or should it, matter to the Baltimore slum-dweller that he is unimaginably rich by the standards of a Malian peasant, or indeed by those of his own grandparents? Is it not expecting too much of the contemporary impoverished to thank their lucky stars that their infant-mortality rate has declined by 95 percent since a century ago and their life expectancy has nearly doubled?

What precisely is a necessity and what a superfluity, at least when subsistence itself is guaranteed? The American way of measuring poverty is to count the number of people living below a basic income, independent of any government payments, that will secure them the socially accepted minimum of goods and services (if, that is, those in receipt of that income spend it right). It is therefore both an absolute and a relative measure; the sum is fixed in dollars, but the socially accepted minimum is a moving target, dependent on the supposed exigencies of modern life: for modern necessities create modern demands on income. I remember, for example, those ancient times when the portable telephone was the accessory of the rich and powerful rather than the sine qua non of social existence — to which, of course, everyone has an inalienable right.

In Europe, by contrast, poverty tends to be measured by a purely relative measure: that of members of households in receipt of an income less than 60 percent of the median household income. This means that inequality and poverty amount to the same thing, for, in a society of billionaires, a millionaire would be poor, irrespective of his actual standard of living. The ratio of Bill Gates’s wealth to mine is greater than that of mine to the wealth of a person in the poorest 1 percent of the British population; but it would be ludicrous to describe me as poor.

What are the things spoken of by Doctor Johnson that “soften the miseries of life, diversify the attention, or delight the imagination,” the absence of the economic opportunity to enjoy which is, according to him, one kind of poverty, probably now the most prevalent kind in the Western world?

The answer leads to an endless and insoluble dispute between psychology and sociology. What will delight the imagination depends entirely on the imagination to be delighted. The sociologist will say that the imagination is formed and determined by social conditions, the psychologist by personal characteristics, for example self-discipline. For myself, I am grateful that, for the most part, what delights my imagination is within my economic reach; and I consciously discipline my imagination. I wouldn’t mind a Vermeer, but I won’t make my lack of one a cause for unhappiness. In the end, I think that great economic thinker, Mr. Micawber, got it right: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

As for this principle, I am like Mrs. Micawber: I never will desert Mr. Micawber.

– Mr. Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Farewell Fear.

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