Jamie Whyte claims that poverty statistics based on relative measures of poverty are misleading. I explain why his argument is unpersuasive.

Former ACT party leader Jamie Whyte recently wrote that:

There is no poverty in New Zealand. Misery, depravity, hopelessness, yes; but no poverty.

The poorest in New Zealand are the unemployed. They receive free medical care, free education for their children and enough cash to pay for basic food, clothing and (subsidised) housing. Most have televisions, refrigerators and ovens. Many even own cars. That isn't poverty.

Why then do we keep hearing that more than 20 per cent of New Zealand children live in poverty? Those who tell us this do not mean by "poverty" what most people do. They have a statistical definition…

Poverty statistics based on this measure are misleading anyone who believes them.

The sentence that I have put in italics plays a vital and somewhat overlooked role in Whyte’s argument. I will set out Whyte’s argument and some of the responses to it, and then give my comments.

Whyte’s argument

Whyte argues that:

1. By “poverty”, most people mean X.

2. When people claim that more than 20 per cent of New Zealand children live in poverty, they do so on the basis that “poverty” means Y.

3. Definition X and definition Y are different. Meeting definition X is not a good predictor of meeting definition Y.

The conclusion that Whyte appears to draw is:

4. The practice of making the claims described at 2. is misleading. It seeks to engage the sympathy of the public towards poverty (in the sense of X) by using the word “poverty” to make claims which are true if poverty means Y but inaccurate if poverty has the meaning most members of the public give it (ie X).

The purpose of misleading the public in such a way is presumably to gain support for policies that reduce poverty (in the sense of Y) but do not really help with poverty (in the sense of X). These sorts of policies generally turn out to be the sorts of things that the ACT party is not so keen on. For example, Susan St John suggests that we should be spending an extra $1 billion per annum on Working for Families payments. Or, Jess Berenton-Shaw argues that “cash transfers with no strings attached are the best bet for reducing family poverty.”

Responses to Whyte’s article

Dave Armstrong writes in the Dominion Post that:

[I]t's been a pleasant surprise to see some journalists discussing poverty, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as the "condition of having little or no wealth or few material possessions".

Organisations around the world define poverty differently, often to do with relative incomes within a society. Using these or the Oxford definition, poverty definitely exists here. Meanwhile, the poverty deniers, of whom New Zealand seems to have an increasing number, maintain that there is no real poverty in New Zealand, especially compared to places like India.

Danyl McLauchlan blogs in the Dim-Post that:

David Farrar also talks about this all the time. ‘Why is poverty relative? Why not have an absolute measure of poverty?’ Well, the reason is that poverty is an intrinsically relative measure. It’s like ‘warmth’ or ‘tallness’. Yeah, you can say that if you compare New Zealand poverty to Indonesian poverty, say, then there is no poverty in New Zealand. But you could also just as validly compare us to the residents of Mayfair or the Île Saint-Louis or East Hampton, compared to whom pretty much all of us live in abject poverty. Because those are both stupid things to do we don’t actually do that and there’s an official measure of poverty which has broad political consensus.

Deborah Hill Cone writes in the Herald that:

Dr Whyte claims there is no poverty in New Zealand because the measure we use to judge poverty is relative: you are deemed to live in poverty if your household's income is less than 50 per cent of the national median.

This is a disingenuous argument. We are all wealthy compared to homeless people in the slums of Sao Paulo and all paupers compared to mansion dwellers in the Hamptons. Poverty is relative to the lives of others in our community. 

None of these responses quite engage with Whyte’s claim about what most people think poverty means. Armstrong refers to the Oxford English Dictionary and notes that organisations around the world define the term in different ways. McLauchlan and Cone both state that poverty is an intrinsically relative measure. McLauchlan also says that there’s an official measure which has broad political consensus. None of these responses rule out the possibility that there’s a common everyday meaning of “poverty” that regular people use, which is substantially different from that used by academics or politicians talking about “poverty.”

My response to Whyte’s argument

1. By “poverty”, most people mean X

I have said that the responses I have noted do not rule out the possibility that there is an everyday definition of poverty. However, I do not think that Whyte does a particularly good job of convincing us that there is one. Whyte hasn’t given us any particular reason to believe that there is a common everyday definition of poverty. He mostly tells us what poverty isn’t.

I would think that if you are trying to make a case about the meaning of a word, there are two things which you should try and do. First of all, you need to actually set out your definition of the word. Whyte doesn’t do this. He does state that “[a]ny sensible definition of poverty must be relative” and that “poverty is a matter of consumption”. That’s about it. Second, if you are making a specific claim about how people use the word (as Whyte is doing), you need to provide some evidence of that usage.

Regarding Whyte’s definition of poverty, I assume he has a definition in mind along the lines of that offered by David Farrar in his blog post on Whyte’s article:

[T]he best definition of poverty in NZ is whether people are in material hardship, as measured by whether they can afford things such as shoes for their kids.

This is an “absolute poverty” approach to defining poverty, which assesses whether or not someone is in poverty by where they fall relative to the absolute basic needs to participate in society. This is in contrast to “relative poverty” which assesses whether or not someone is in poverty by where they fall relative to other people in society.

Turning to the second thing - whether or not most people mean “material hardship” or something along those lines when they say “poverty”, I do not know. Whyte has certainly not given us much evidence about that. I suspect that perhaps what Whyte is going on is that when he, and the people he knows, say “poverty”, they do not mean relative poverty. That is evidence for what people generally mean by poverty to the extent that Whyte and the people he knows are representative of people generally.

As I have said, I do not know if most people share the same definition of “poverty” and, if so, what that definition is. I suspect that there is no generally accepted definition, at least not in the way that Whyte seems to think there is. At the end of the day, though, the onus is on Whyte to make out this claim, since it is vital to his argument, and he has not done so. Because he has not given us a good reason to accept the first premise of his argument, I could say that Whyte’s argument fails before it gets off the ground and leave it at that. However, I will go on and consider the rest of his points, supposing that (i) most people share a definition of poverty and (ii) that definition is an absolute poverty/material hardship measure along the lines of the one proposed by Farrar.

2. When people claim that more than 20 per cent of New Zealand children live in poverty, they do so on the basis that “poverty” means Y

This is fair enough – when people make such claims they do so on the basis that “poverty” means some relative measure of poverty.

3. Definition Y and definition X are different. Meeting definition Y is not a good predictor of meeting definition X

Material hardship and relative poverty are clearly different measures in the sense that they look at different things. However, it is arguable that there is a strong correlation between the two. McLauchlan states that:

If these guys [Whyte and Farrar] can get that consensus changed so that only people whose living standards are comparable with homeless people living in the slums of Jakarta then yeah, great, there will be no ‘poverty’ in New Zealand any more. But there will be a big group of people who used to be classified as living in poverty, who have poor health and poor educational outcomes and higher rates of crime and unemployment and plenty of other metrics that strongly correlate with our current definition of poverty.

Whyte argues that relative poverty measures are silly because doubling everyone’s income would have no effect on the amount of poverty in New Zealand. That might be true in the abstract, but I think we can safely rule out incomes doubling in the near future. If our starting point is the actual New Zealand that we live in, relative poverty can be said to have a reasonably strong correlation with material hardship. It also happens to be more straight-forward to measure: it’s a lot easier to get information on household incomes than survey everyone on shoe-buying. If there is a strong correlation, then claims about poverty in New Zealand based on relative poverty are not especially misleading.

4. The practice of making the claims described at 2. is misleading.

Even if we accept premises 1-3, the conclusion does not necessarily follow. The public are only going to be misled by claims about “poverty” (in the sense of relative poverty) if they misunderstand them as being claims about material hardship.

Different people can use the same words to mean different things. The same person can even use the same word to mean different things at different times.  Fortunately, this does not make communication impossible, because we use context to work out which meaning a speaker was intending to give to a particular word.

The public are quite capable of understanding that a speaker might use a word to mean one thing, even though people normally mean something else by that word. The claim that more than 20 per cent of children in New Zealand are in poverty would only be misleading if the public do not realise that “poverty” is not referring to absolute poverty. Perhaps there are some people for whom this is a surprise. However, there has been substantial ongoing dialogue in poverty in New Zealand for some time, and I think it would be difficult to have avoided the fact that some people mean relative poverty when they say “poverty”. From there, it is generally not difficult to work out what a particular speaker is meaning especially if, like Susan St John, they refer explicitly to the measure they are using. As a result, Whyte has failed to make the case that the public are being misled about poverty. Whyte himself cannot claim to be misled, because he knows the meaning that statements on poverty are intended to convey. And he has failed to identify anyone else who is being misled.

Conclusion

Whyte argues that poverty statistics based on relative poverty are “misleading anyone who believes them.” He fails to justify this claim. First of all, he does not substantiate his claim that most people think “poverty” refers to absolute poverty. Even if people did adopt such a meaning, it is not clear that this makes the poverty statistics based on relative poverty misleading. Relative poverty measures in New Zealand may be a reasonable proxy for the kind of material hardship that Whyte thinks people think counts as poverty in New Zealand. Finally, members of the public are likely to be aware that there are different measures of “poverty“ and to be able to work out what measure a particular speaker is meaning.

Comments (11)

by Fentex on January 14, 2016
Fentex

When I read Danyl's response I was unimpressed because all he did was assert relative measurement was correct, without arguing why it is correct.

Whyte argues that poverty statistics based on relative poverty are “misleading anyone who believes them.” He fails to justify this claim. First of all, he does not substantiate his claim that most people think “poverty” refers to absolute poverty.

He makes an assumption, isn't the correct way to disabuse people of any possible error to establish what people think "poverty" means?

Relative poverty measures in New Zealand may be a reasonable proxy for the kind of material hardship that Whyte thinks people think counts as poverty in New Zealand.

"may be a reasonable proxy" is not the assertion Whyte was responding to. He was responding to public assertions in speeches and publications about poverty in New Zealand - not nuanced discussions of proxy measures that carefully established everyone agreed about a measure of relative wealth no matter what name it was given.

I happen to both disagree and agree with him - in that I agree that most New Zealanders believe the world "poverty" describes a state of material hardship. I disagree with him in that I'm confident I'd disagree about what our policies ought be about it and whether measuring relative wealth was useful to them.

Finally, members of the public are likely to be aware that there are different measures of “poverty“ and to be able to work out what measure a particular speaker is meaning.

I don't believe this for a second for exactly the reason this post was made - to try and clarify a matter by asserting meanings people disagree with.

I think "Poverty" was chosen as the word for the measure in question precisely because it evokes concern and sympathy, and for political purposes served by such evocation and that is the end it is put to in public pronouncements and policy statements.

And I am not so far very impressed with anyone's efforts to assert it's the right word for this particular measure of relative wealth in the face of an argument it's a deliberate effort to conflate one thing (relative wealth) with another (material hardship).

The best I've seen is the effort to assert the measure of relative wealth is useful, but that's not much of an argument to assert it ought be called poverty rather than, perhaps "deficient means" or "meagre means". If it's meant to be a comprehensible technical measure why not use a distinctive technical label?

Because it's intended to be an evocative label. And most arguments I've seen trying to deny that are unconvincing, nobody is arguing the measure is an accurate measure of poverty as people tend to understand the word but instead are trying to insist people adopt a new understanding of poverty.

I don't think that's an argument that can be won and pursuing it only denigrates any use the measure may be put to because it cedes ground to those opposed to it's use.


by Alan Johnstone on January 14, 2016
Alan Johnstone

Dr Whyte seems to thin that third world poverty is the only real type.

Here's an anecdote, I have a very minor involvement in kids cricket, recently i was talking to a lady and her son about it. The kid had some real talent, fast hands, good eye for a ball.

I suggested he should play, she seemed enthusiastic until she asked me what it cost, all up with club fees, uniform etc you're looking around $500 for a kid to play junior cricket. I could tell it was a total no go situation. Just far too expensive.

Is this kid in a situation of poverty where he doesn't the opportunities that his peers do? I think so.

Whatever happened to the New Zealand dream of a fair go for all?

by Max Ritchie on January 15, 2016
Max Ritchie

The problem seems to me to be the terminology. Poverty means different things to different folks. I know what poverty is (we're all experts) and it's probably not what Susan St John or Jamie Whyte thinks it is. I have a friend who coped perfectly well on the DPB. She did not regard herself as poverty stricken, raised three children and refused help from her friends. But she leads an abstemious life by choice. Wouldn't suit most of us. I suggest that the terminology is changed. Instead of poverty, relative deprivation, and don't use an arbitrary 50% figure. Find out what relative deprivation actually consists of and then society might (and should) choose to do something about it. Lots of children went happily to school minus shoes in the not-so-good old days, but today that would not be popular. Blanket terms do not help this debate. A Living Wage for a Lower Hutt vicar with a family to support would be quite different from that for a single person in Timaru. Determining what actually constitutes a case for action and support and describing it accurately would be a significant step forward. Otherwise we're going to continue to talk past each other.

by Fentex on January 15, 2016
Fentex

Lots of children went happily to school minus shoes in the not-so-good old days, but today that would not be popular.

That is another thing which annoyed me when it was bandied about - that many children didn't have extras pairs of shoes.

I didn't have extra pairs of shoes when I was young either and by no measure at all could my family have been considered impoverished or deprived. As I grew it would have been a waste to buy extra shoes I'd grow out of quickly.

This sort of thing annoys me because as a policy the expression of these things in effort to criticise the government  seem to insult the careful budgeting and decisions of the very people intended to be represented. It often strikes me that rather than highlight differences of opinion about policy it alienates people it seeks support from by suggesting their choices are bad.

by onsos on January 15, 2016
onsos

I always thought that poverty was about the struggle. You know, that story about how the prime minister or somebody grew up in poverty, but because of the hard work and diligence of their parent they didn’t do without. 

by Stewart Hawkins on January 15, 2016
Stewart Hawkins

My main concern here is not the failure to understand "poverty" but Simon Connell's inability to be succinct.

by Ross on January 15, 2016
Ross

Determining what actually constitutes a case for action and support and describing it accurately would be a significant step forward.

But that would require looking at every case of potential poverty. Not likely. However, Brian Easton did a case study on here some time ago and suggested his client needed an additional $140 per week to participate in and belong to the wider community. The problem is that the current Government, and those before it, don't seem to be very concerned with helping such people.

Arguing about what constitutes poverty is missing the point - there are those who simply don't want to help others worse off than themselves.

by Lee Churchman on January 15, 2016
Lee Churchman

Ask anyone (a) whether being rich is the opposite of being poor, and they will answer in the affirmative. Ask whether they agree that (b) absolute poverty is the condition of not having enough to stay alive/keep in reasonable health and they will likely also answer in the affirmative. It's easy to see that the relative "poor" in (a) doesn't mean the same as the non-relative (b) because no sense can be made of the notion of "absolute wealth" as its opposite. Anyone who believes that wealth is the opposite of poverty uses sense (a) and that's most English speakers.

Even though there are various ways of conceptualising relative poverty, no sensible person believes it's not deleterious to the welfare of most of those who experience it – in group status matters for most of us to some degree - being the poor kid in class sucks for various reasons. Whether it is unjust is a different matter. 

Whyte's article seems to me to be an attempt at misdirection. So what if poverty is an equivocal? What of it?

by Fentex on January 17, 2016
Fentex

Whyte's article seems to me to be an attempt at misdirection. So what if poverty is an equivocal? What of it?

In this case the "what of it" is Whyte has ammunition to dismiss policies designed to address the distressed situation of people and harm inequality does to society because a term chosen for it's evocative nature (Poverty) can be argued as miss-applied and thereby bring the reason it's evoked into disrepute.

And complaining about semantics and oblique details of definition does nothing to prevent his success.

by Megan Pledger on January 18, 2016
Megan Pledger

I think of the poor woman who used all her money staying in a motel, got turfed out when could no longer pay, who then lived rough in the Auckland Domain until she was murdered.   I think of blanket man who lived on the streets of Wellington.  I think of the men who lived in tents in my neighbourhood for four months last summer before they got moved on. That is poverty that Jamie Whyte doesn't want to acknowledge exists in our society.

~~~

It's interesting that the definition of poverty is 1) an OR not an AND and 2) it's about wealth not income.  

From memory Jamie Whyte said something about people couldn't be in poverty if they had fridges - but by the defitinion if they have no wealth than having a fridge or any other big ticket item doesn't rule out poverty - and having big ticket items are not that hard to acquire in NZ - rich people put them on trademe or give them to the second hand shop all the time - the best bid I could get on a very decent tv was $10 on trademe.  It's the consumables that people in poverty in NZ have trouble with - food, electricity, services (sports clubs, swimming lessons, education etc) - the stuff they have to pay the same prices for as rich people (mostly) and have to pay for over and over again.  It's paying for these week in-week out that leaves people no means to accumulate the wealth that is neccessary to the definition above.

 

 

 

 

 

by Colin Cross on January 30, 2016
Colin Cross

Anti poverty campaigners lose sympathy with the public by using subjective measures that can be easily discounted. Relative poverty will always exist  but as most people observe absolute poverty has reduced in a material sense

Structural and institutional poverty does seem to have increased as the opportunity for many children to participate in many activities has reduced.

This can easily be resolved with greater community co operation and less dependence on government agencies which often alienate the very people they claim they are trying to assist

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