October 20, 2008

Economics, Part IV: The Definition of Poverty

"Hunters and gatherers have by force of circumstances an objectively low standard of living. but taken as their objective, and given their adequate means of production, all the people's material wants usually can easily be satisfied (a common understanding of 'affluence'). ... The world's most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is an invention of civilization."

[Marshall Sahlins, in
Sharing Our Worlds]

So what do you think? Is poverty something our culture in particular imposes on others? Do we call Indians poor because they don't have refridgerators or microwaves? Is our standard of living an artificial construct that isn't necessarily what another culture might want or care about?

And more to the point, is it right to impose our view of poverty on others?


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