We in the west are so rich, in historical terms, that we are losing our grasp on what poverty really has been for the majority of humankind for the majority of our recorded history:
People generally just don’t get what poverty actually means. This is a charge often enough aimed at me and people like me, well off white guys who pontificate upon economics. But those making that charge often enough don’t actually understand what real poverty means. So, here’s a nice example of it. There’s a campaign in New York to insist that SNAP (ie, food stamps) should not be cut. Views on that can vary either way: I’m generally in favour of a larger welfare state than the one the US has at present so I’m probably against such a cut. But that’s a political point and not the one I’m interested in here. Rather, I want to point out just quite how rich someone getting food stamps is on any global or historical basis.
Yes, you did read that right: how rich someone getting food stamps is. As one example, the food stamp allocation in New York State appears to be $29 per person per week in a family receiving the full possible allocation. That, on its own, is a yearly income of $1,508 and that’s an amount that puts you, on its own, in the top 50% of all income recipients in the world. No, really, you can look that up with this little calculator. More than half of humanity is poorer than someone who only gets the New York food stamp allocation.
All of which gives us an interesting little look into the difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty. For, obviously, the people who are receiving food stamps in New York are those we consider to be poor in our own society. And in our own society, they are indeed poor, as Adam Smith pointed out with his linen shirt example. It’s not necessary for a working man to have a linen shirt, he’s not poor because he cannot afford one. But if you live in a society where you are considered to be poor if you cannot afford a linen shirt, and you cannot afford one, then in that society you are of course poor. This is relative poverty, more usefully known not as a measure of poverty but of inequality.