How do we measure poverty?
Well, he put his point very well; so well that it trickled me – only me - to revisit the topic. Anyhow, he invited a discussion. However, I would like to tackle the issue from a different angle. I would like to ask; how do you measure poverty? How does one know they are poor?
The definition of ‘living on less than US$2 a day’ seems incomplete. Those living from their land without running water, electricity, cash-money and without all the other modern amenities the rich have, do not necessarily feel ‘poor’.
All our ancestors lived that way too and if they called themselves ‘poor’ because of it, I never heard it. The simple life could be and certainly was, in most cases, a very rewarding and rich life; a life our ancestors would not have exchanged voluntarily for the urban life, the paying but stressful job, the taxis, supermarkets and TVs, etc. – all the things so ‘dear’ to the city dwellers’ hearts today.
Feeling poor is being poor! And feeling poor may have different reasons. Going hungry day–in-day-out is certainly one of them. But if everyone around you - everyone living in Namibia - went hungry every day, would you then feel poor under such circumstances, especially if you knew nothing about a full belly; if you were unable to compare? You would feel bad and hungry, yes, but not poor.
Feeling poor will – let’s keep the matter simple - result from the comparison of your own living standards to that of another one in your own milieu. Your living environment and its differences would tell you the truth. The truth is - as most of the time - just a perception, but this I say as a ‘by the way’ only.
If your neighbour were able to eat three meals a day and the majority of your neighbours did it too, yet you can only afford to eat one decent meal a day - you would without a doubt, feel poor. Being unable to buy yourself the portion ‘pap en vleis’ at the street corner like your friends do would leave you with the feeling of being poorer than them. Being unable to buy the same quality clothes as your neighbours would give you the feeling of inferiority; of being poor.
Occurrences during wartimes when everyone lives in the same penury would hardly give you the same ugly feeling. This is because everyone in your neighbourhood is as poor as you are; there is no obvious difference, no inequality.
(One could of course go deeper into this theory but would it be necessary to do so? I think we all get it.) But let me add this example: In a neighbourhood where the houses are all of the same value of more than, say, N$2m, one would feel, if living in a half-million-dollar house, poor.
If you owned, living amongst wealthy farmers, just a smallholding, you would consider yourself as poor. That’s one of the reasons why municipalities in well-managed towns do not tolerate great discrepancies when judging building plans. The buildings in a given suburb should ‘fit’ into the picture of that suburb; the suburb should look ‘homogenous’.
The feeling of being poor has, of course, many more facets. And most are to be taken very seriously. That’s if we wanted to have and maintain sustainable peace in our community, our State and in our world. I would like to repeat, Mr T’s question of “What do you think?” and as Namibians, we should discuss this issue.
Many of us feel poor; so many of us do not have decent jobs and opportunities; so many of us are poor in a given society constitute, a seedbed for a revolution. Speaking about a situation like this could be the starting point to finding answers and solutions – and what do we need more and more urgently than a solution to this problem corrupting our society? But please, include in the discussion, the poor!
As long as there are huge discrepancies in the living standards of Namibians, no one living below the average (below the ‘bread-line’), can feel ‘being happy living outside the system as a poor person’. And because of the saying that ‘they are used to having little’, we do not see the problem as dangerous as it is. It would be a blunder not to change this attitude.
A society can handle a small minority of poor people, yes, but if the majority is poor; if the majority has no income or an income of, say less than 50% of the average income of all its citizens, then the situation cannot stay unresolved for much longer. Because then we would all be sitting (literally) on a powder keg ‘smoking’ our pipes. And that’s a position I see as really dangerous!