Inequality, Vulnerability, and the Relative Condition of Modern Poverty

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This paper offers a conceptual and theoretical exploration of the interactions between inequality and vulnerability in contexts where absolute poverty is declining and yet where aspects of relative poverty become exacerbated through new forms of social need that are not necessarily captured by conventional approaches of absolute poverty measurement. Needs in this sense are to be understood as distinct from social norms in that they produce very real and hard constraints that can drive people into objective states of deprivation if not met, versus socially constructed or conditioned relative norms and subjective preferences, which can also have a compelling effect on people but not necessarily out of hard constraints of survival. Indeed, to a certain extent the gradual decline in global measures of absolute income poverty, if accurate, can be understood through the massive productivity increases in contemporary agriculture and manufacturing, to the extent that real food prices are at close to an all-time low in historical terms, even despite the recent spike in food prices. Combined with increasingly integrated international markets, it is understandable how the condition of poverty has gradually changed over the last century from one of food insufficiency to one in which calorie sufficiency is relatively easier to secure (although not necessarily nutrition sufficiency), while other compelling social needs take over in precedence (or else cause repressed food expenditure). Insofar as absolute poverty measures are generally designed to reflect food insufficiency, the long term secular decline in absolute poverty rates is reflective of this transformation in the condition of modern poverty. In order to move beyond such narrow conceptions of ‘achievement,’ as enshrined in the MDGs and perpetuated in the forthcoming SDGs, we need to think about inequality, poverty and vulnerability with a broader and more relative understanding of evolving social needs, particularly in contexts of social and economic transformation, conditioned by inequality and processes of social stratification. Such considerations in many cases lie beyond the space of absolute poverty, whether conceived in income or multidimensional terms, given that development transitions can often exacerbate vulnerability and compelling social needs throughout social hierarchies, thereby having very powerful effects on various dynamics of social stratification, grievance or conflict, even if not on poverty per se. This more relative approach to understanding poverty and vulnerability within development transformations sheds light on the vital role of redistribution in past and present development as a key mediating factor in cultivating resilience and positive synergies between evolving social needs and human and economic development.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jun 2014
Event14th EADI General Conference 'Responsible Development in a Polycentric World' - Bonn
Duration: 23 Jun 201426 Jun 2014


Conference14th EADI General Conference 'Responsible Development in a Polycentric World'

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