Those of us who read The Guardian – hey, we’ve got to know what they’re thinking because they might always do something else truly stupid – will know that the United Nations has sent over a Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, to investigate extreme poverty here in the United Kingdom. Something which should be easy enough as the UK doesn’t have any extreme poverty. Absolutely nothing at all to equate with anything the United Nations might be able to observe as a global or historical level of poverty.
For that global definition of poverty – from the World Bank – is living on less than $1.90 a day. It’s important to understand what this number means. It’s not a cash income of $1.90 a day. We’ve actually had someone in the US write a whole book about how it is, or can be equated with, and it ain’t.
It’s also not something we can dismiss because lentils are 2 cents a tonne in Appallingstan and thus it’s not like the same poverty we’ve got you capitalist pigdog.
That $1.90 a day is at purchasing power parity prices. So, it’s the same as US supermarket prices. OK, about as well as any economic calculation can make them. It’s current, US, prices. We’ve already adjusted for the difference in prices across geography, for prices across time. The reason we use this number, or something very close to it, is that this is the modal human experience over time.
Take a slightly different tack. Angus Madison’s figures are for GDP per capita over time, by country. Gross Domestic Product per person and income are not the same thing but they’re obviously closely related. Income per person cannot be higher across the population that GDP per person. And GDP per capita has run from perhaps $400 a year in the really, really, bad times up to $1,000 say. A decent enough rough average being $600 per person per year, the upper limit of possible consumption. That’s true of the Babylonian Empire, Roman, Mughal and, in fact, everywhere up to about 1750.
It doesn’t go lower than that because if it does then everyone dies. It doesn’t climb much above that because we had Malthusian growth. People get richer, more children survive, we en up with just more people living at the old standard. 1750, the Industrial Revolution, that was the turning point for the emergence from this reality.
OK. $600 a year, $2 a day, we can see we’re at about the same numbers. They’ve actually closer than they look because the $2 is in a slightly more inflated dollar (umm, 2010?) than the $600 (umm, 1992?).
OK. And again, it’s not cash income. This is the value of what can be consumed that day. This includes any household production – so that maize the peasant is growing on her 1/2 acre. It’s also the value of everything consumed that day. Whatever the daily value of that shirt is, that hovel. Plus medical care, heating, educating the kids, saving for the pension you’ll die before getting and all.
It’s a couple of bucks per person in the household, at today’s American supermarket pries, to buy all of life. That’s absolute or extreme poverty.
There is none of this in the UK. Simply none at all, it does not exist.
So, things should be pretty easy for our UN bod, eh? Except that’s not what is being said. An example:
Previous destinations for Philip Alston, the United Nations rapporteur on the issue, have included Ghana, Saudi Arabia, China and Mauritania. But now his lens is trained on Britain, the fifth richest country in the world, and he listened as Hunter explained an absurdity of the government’s much-criticised universal credit welfare programme.
Users have to go online to keep their financial lifeline open, but computers need electricity – and with universal credit leaving a £465 monthly budget to stretch across the three people in Michael’s family (about £5 each a day), they can barely afford it with the meter ticking.
The electricity consumption of a computer? For the amount of time it takes to log on? Come on people, they’re not being serious. But look at that number. £5 per person per fay. Call that $7.50. We’re rather above our extreme poverty number, aren’t we. And again, note that we’ve already adjusted for price differences across geography.
Now look again. That £5 a day is after medical care, education, saving for the (state) pension, after housing even. That £5 a day is for the food, utilities, clothing and leisure budgets. This isn’t, in fact, anything like poverty at all. This is, by our global standards, a thoroughly middle class income in fact. Actually, that £5 a day, even if it were your total income, would put you in the top 40% of all humans today.
This might be many things, including not how we’d like to live, but it’s not extreme poverty, is it?
Still, there is good news here:
Last year his no-holds-barred UN report into the impact of Trump-era policies on the US brought a stinging reaction from the White House. The odds are that Alston will say the UK is far from doing enough to meet its obligations. In 1976 the UK ratified the UN covenant on economic, social and cultural rights agreeing that policy changes in times of economic crisis must not be discriminatory, must mitigate, not increase, inequalities and that disadvantaged people must not be disproportionately affected.
Usefully, inequality has fallen:
So, that’s good then. Inequality fell in the recession, as it normally does fall in recessions. And we’ve no extreme poverty at all in the UK. Should make Alston’s report pretty simple. Except, of course, that’s not what he’s going to report, is it?