In a recent post on the blog, we presented Martin Ravallion‘s discussion of absolute and relative poverty. In a nutshell, an absolute poverty measurement counts an individual as poor if her consumption lies below some level of deprivation associated with what is viewed as “basic needs”. On the other hand, relative poverty measurements consider that an individual is poor if she is sufficiently disadvantaged as compared with other individuals in her country or region.
There exists a vivid debate between advocates of absolute and relative conceptions of poverty. Which notion of poverty should prevail — if any — is still an open question among researchers. Now, choosing between absolute and relative poverty notably involves value judgments about what a decent life is, and scholar should certainly not monopolize the debate. At the political level, this choice requires a healthy democratic debate. As any decision process requiring a public deliberation, it would benefit from knowing what people actually think about the issue, and what determines their viewpoints.
Luca Corazzini , Lucio Esposito and Francesca Majorano shed light on this issue in their paper “Exploring the absolutist vs relativist perception of poverty using a cross-country questionnaire survey”. The authors asked two questions, to almost 2000 undergraduate students all over the world (Bolivia, Brazil, Italy, Kenya, Laos, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK), in order to elicit their stance on the debate between absolute and relative poverty. You can find these two questions in footnote  and give your own opinion. Here are the key results they obtain.
- Relativist concern matter to people conceptions of poverty. 50% of the students displayed relativist concerns in answering the first question. They were 57% to indicate concerns for relative income in answering the second question.
- Most conceptions of poverty are mixed. Only the second question allowed for mixed answer, i.e. answer of the type “both relative and absolute predicament matter for poverty”. In this second question, the most preferred answer (39%) was a mix one, stating that both basic needs satisfaction and not having as much as most people in society were relevant for poverty.
- A priority to absolute poverty? Beyond being a mix answer, the most preferred answer to the second question (39%) also stated that “the inability to satisfy the basic needs is more important in any case.” Even among those who care for relative income, there is a vast majority (62%) agreeing that absolute poverty is more important than relative poverty in order to qualify someone as poor.
- There are clear cross-country discrepancies. Student from High-Income Countries are less likely to have a purely absolutist understanding of poverty. They are predominant among those who answer that both absolute and relative predicament matter while absolute poverty is more important.
- Beyond country of study, many variables influence the likeliness of answers (religious background, degree of inequality,…). Among those variables, having experienced material deprivation reduces the chances of adopting a relativist viewpoint on poverty.
Results from pools should arguably not be binding for political decisions. Yet, such results should inform the political debate on which poverty measurement to adopt. As far as research is concerned, they can help identifying socially relevant research directions. In this case, the pools from Corazzini , Esposito and Majorano seem to call for the development of mix poverty measurements, including both absolute and relative concerns, while allowing to prioritize absolute ones.