Poverty: Measuring Intangibles

Western culture retains the primeval theory that numbers bring concepts to reality; if it can be measured then it is real, and furthermore, it can be managed and controlled. This belief has made societies dependent on numbers, through which a virtual knowledge of the surrounding world is obtained. From caloric intake to blood test readings, aspects of health are ascertained with numbers. People have also learned to assess each other through numerical measurements, such as grade point average, intelligence quotient, and emotional intelligence testing.   Numbers also contribute to the way the population forms an opinion on organization viability, such as customer satisfaction ratings. Be that as it may, how are values of intangibles found? Researchers have attempted to narrow down criteria that are plausible enough to gauge poverty throughout the world, while reaching different conclusions and further disagreement. Measuring poverty remains an obsession, and governments are required to redefine what it means to be poor due to the relativity of this complex idiom. Poverty might be too complicated to be reduced to mere quantification, but perhaps it can be better grasped by understanding the concepts of necessity, social force, social exclusion, time period, and ethnicity in creating a definition.

Poverty is measured “based on a comparison of resources to needs” (Foster, 1998, p. 336). Income may work, as a unit of measure, where absolute poverty dictates the primacy of material needs. Yet, it is not a globally black or white matter, and therefore cannot be dealt with in absolutes. “A desperate absolute level of deprivation does exist under which families are definitely poor, discerning an appropriate standard above that level remains ambiguous” (Brady, 2003, p. 724). There is no perfect poverty line that divides the poor and the less poor, as there are sublevels within each category that would not be accounted for. To insinuate that the value of poverty is globally represented by an absolute measure would not only be inaccurate, but also pretentious. Even in the most absolute of definitions, a relativity factor prevails, which involves what an individual needs for day-to-day survival. The term ‘necessities’ itself varies from culture to culture in its definition, and moreover, from individual to individual. Water, food, and shelter could be considered essential necessities for the majority of humans, while healthcare and sanitation can fall into the grey area between necessity and luxury. Where is the line drawn between the two? Sanitation and healthcare are needed for survival, and unlike food, it is difficult to find the point at which one’s income is insufficient to purchase necessary medications and healthcare services, since it varies from one individual to another. Therefore, a measure of absolute poverty is difficult to construct.

Relativity is a contributing factor in defining poverty in the United States. Poverty in one part of the country is very different from poverty in another part of the country. In fact, each state, or even each neighborhood, has its own culture, lifestyle, and divergent cost of living. A couple living in Manhattan, New York, may consider themselves poor simply because they pay an extortionate rent, cannot afford purchasing a house or vehicle, and have trouble paying for taxi, subway, or bus fares. Yet, a similar couple living in Harlem, New York, may be much poorer. While the first may not even live below the poverty line, the second may struggle to make ends meet, although they pay rent in a much cheaper building. The indefinable term ‘poverty’ is not only situation-specific, but depends on several important factors that need to be accounted for as a whole – not as individual and unrelated elements. Hence, it is not necessary to compare vastly different countries, or states in the same country. A ‘poverty’ example in a same city setting can be taken into consideration, and may be sufficient to understand the relativity of this involved, yet commonly utilized term.

In the article “Rethinking the Sociological Measurement of Poverty” (2003), David Brady suggests that poverty should be examined as a sociological force, as well as a means to group people into categories. By analyzing poverty as a societal force, it seems clearer to view other sources of poverty besides the ‘poor’ themselves, and consequently attempt to mitigate it in the modern world. Whether poverty can be eradicated or not, requires a more intricate analysis. Poverty will remain a permanent feature, as long as it is relative, because it will always be linked to someone’s subjective measure or value. Furthermore, poverty will prevail in a capitalist society even when the definition is based on higher standards in some developing countries when compared to the rest of nations. Economists, such as Milton Friedman, believe that an indisputable proportion of unemployment is necessary in order to have a healthy economy (2008), and that poverty should be accepted as a collateral effect in the pursuit of free market economy. Yet, the concept of cyclical poverty, in which social mobility is nonexistent, needs to be addressed.

In his article, David Brady presents five pragmatic and plausible criteria for measuring poverty throughout the world. One standard proposes to “conceptualize poverty as social exclusion” (2003, p. 716) – a criterion that correlates with social mobility. When poverty is defined as social exclusion, then the attitude of the middle and upper class will be perceived as debilitating rather than beneficial in helping the financial situation of the less fortunate. For example, the Shudra – also known as the Untouchables – belong to the lowest group in the Indian caste system. Other casts shun this destitute minority because this mentality is deep-rooted in Indian culture. Social forces that perpetuate the Shudra’s unfortunate situation would not be taken into account if poverty were strictly defined based on financial income. “If an individual is socially excluded, that person has a limited capability to effectively participate in society. Capability refers to the ability to function effectively in society and have the freedom to participate fully and equally with the mainstream” (Brady, 2003, p. 725).

On the other hand, there are social classes living in poverty in other countries that are not prevented from upward social mobility. Unlike the Shudra in India – where the cast is culturally forced to marry within the same class, and career choices are equally restricted – in the United States, an individual is not prohibited from moving into a different class status if the means are found to achieve this verticality. While social exclusion is linked to poverty in other countries, in the United States, it cannot be conceptualized under that criterion. It may seem like the leading factor for social exclusion stateside on individuals, families or communities – whether it is due to poverty levels, race, income, religion, gender or cultural background – has not been fully determined. Although the degree to which an individual is being socially excluded is difficult to measure, perhaps a defining characteristic of the poor in the United States is a lack of social mobility.

The movement of middle or working class members into the upper class is not unheard of, but those in poverty rarely experience vertical social mobility. Ironically, the poor are said to resemble the rich in being more oriented towards the present, and less concerned about the future, when compared to their middle and working class counterparts. This is due to the fact that the poor are caught up in day-to-day survival that keeps them “planted in the present” (Conley, 2011, p. 569), and distracted from attempting to move into the middle class. Perhaps the lack of social mobility is influenced by the time that entities, which are able to affect change, spend in order to prove inequality – and its consequences – instead of focusing on opportunities. In the article “Don’t blame the billionaires”, Dalton Conley suggests, “It’s time for progressives to spend less time trying to prove the effects of inequality on health, growth, and politics and instead start focusing on opportunity for those shut out entirely” (2009, p. 38). This idea cannot be applied to those nations where social mobility is culturally hindered, but it is plausible for countries like the United States in which opportunities for betterment are given to the vast majority. However, the way people decide to handle these opportunities is a matter of choice.

When considering poverty from a sociological standpoint, the nature of poverty’s history and an individualistic approach are equally important. To extricate the two is fruitless, a concept that aligns with Brady’s criterion, “Measure comparative historical variation effectively” (2003, p. 716). The relativity of poverty can also be explained with the correlation to different time periods. “Relative measures usefully capture changes in necessities over time and place, which is particularly relevant to such nations” (Brady, 2003, p. 720). In the 1980’s, a family would not have been considered poor for not owning a personal computer or color television. However, the absence of technological device ownership, such as mobile phones, would be considered a disadvantage in today’s society. Whether an individual chooses to own a cellphone or not does not necessarily convey financial status. There is a difference between “adapting and surviving in difficult economic circumstances” or conversely, adapting to the mainstream (Conley, 2011, p. 585).

David Brady’s five criteria for gauging poverty throughout the world leave out the important factor of ethnicity, or race. Although it seems to be ignored by most, ethnicity plays a major role in the determination of poverty. The author of “Double Exposure”, Chester Hartman, studied the relationship between race and poverty, concluding that the two are “inextricably linked” (1997, p. 373). Brady ignored this detail in his guidelines. It would have been appropriate to include a point that specifically defined the method by which ethnicities should be taken into account in attempt to find a satisfactory definition of poverty. In furtherance, the number of providers in a family should be considered in relation to poverty. The structure of a family is parallel to hardship, and whether one or both parents belong to the working class could contribute to an important factor in describing social status. Consequently, Brady’s list of criteria leads to the right track, encompassing concepts that could serve to partially define poverty. Ultimately, he does not include some of the important social contractions and facts that influence, and add to poverty.

Despite the inadequacy as a measure of poverty, income remains a primary need of higher rank to many other things that can legitimately be argued as a component of human need. By understanding the concepts of necessity, social force, social exclusion, time period, and ethnicity, analysts will be able to comprehend why a minority in one state may be in poverty, while another minority in another state, with the same net worth, may not; as well as to identify why different ethnic groups may experience varying levels of poverty. This approach might not lead to the perfect description of poverty – and perhaps an accurate definition will never be found – but it will bring people much closer to a more adequate interpretation that is based on relativity; the perspective of each individual, and the changes in the surrounding platforms. For those fortunate enough to have been born in a country in which culture and government do not hinder upward social mobility, poverty may represent a choice, rather than a condition.


Brady, D. (2003). Rethinking the sociological measurement of poverty. Social Forces, 81(3), 715-752. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.nu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/229848786?accountid=25320

Conley, D. (2011). Stratification. You may ask yourself: an introduction to thinking like a sociologist (2nd ed., p. 569). New York: W.W. Norton & Co..

Conley, D. (2009, 12). Don’t blame the billionaires. The American Prospect, 20, 37-39. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.nu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/201156814?accountid=25320

Foster, J. E. (1998). Absolute versus relative poverty. The American Economic Review, 88(2), 335-341. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.nu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/233032654?accountid=25320

Hartman, C. W. (1997). Race, Poverty and Hunger. Double exposure: poverty & race in America (p. 373). Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.

“Milton Friedman.” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. 2008. Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved from the http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/Friedman.html


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