Last week the Chinese government raised its rural poverty line from 1,274 yuan per year to 2,300 yuan per year, equivalent to somewhere between 1.33 and 1.83 USD per day. There is no urban poverty line in China; instead each city sets its own living standard thresholds to determine eligibility for various subsidies.
This puts the Chinese poverty line closer to the proverbial dollar-a-day (1.25 USD in 2005 purchasing power parities) poverty line calculated by the World Bank and used throughout the international development community.
This comes a few weeks after the Indian government attempted to lower its poverty lines to 32 rupees (0.64 USD) in urban areas and 26 rupees (0.52 USD) in rural areas.
These movements both reveal and conceal at the same time two of the forgotten facts of international poverty: that there are people in this world struggling on so little that even a dollar a day would be luxury in comparison, and that there are people earning significantly greater than a dollar a day who remain extremely economically vulnerable.
Unlike in Western societies, transsexuality need not be rationalised as a congenital condition to be socially accepted; it is simply that Fairy would prefer to be a woman as he grows up...
The dollar-a-day benchmark is so lodged in the global consciousness that one might easily develop the sense that the 1.4 billion people it refers to are all earning roughly, if slightly below, thirty dollars per month. Yet these include millions earning less than fifty, twenty, ten cents per day. If we struggle to comprehend life on seven dollars per week, how should we fathom six dollars per month?
Three households, three degrees of poverty
In the Philippine province Bulacan on the northern outskirts of Manila are the Towerville and Santa Maria Resettlement Projects, residential subdivisions built by the government to house squatters displaced by the redevelopment of the Northrail line. Each comprising accommodation for some 2000 families in single-storey one-room rowhouses, Towerville and Santa Maria are typical of government housing projects throughout the Philippines, and indeed throughout many lower middle income countries.
Each house comprises a twenty square metre room walled in rendered concrete block, with an uninsulated corrugated steel roof, a bathroom comprising a toilet bowl and a single tap, and an external benchtop area for outdoor cooking.
Some houses have been funded with an additional subsidy from Gawad Kalinga, an NGO that encourages the middle classes of the Philippines to give aid to the poor within its borders. Stupidly these additional funds are spent not on improving the quality of construction — for example by insulating the roof to prevent children suffering heat stroke, or by vermin-proofing the eaves — but on brightly coloured external paintwork to render the streetscapes more photogenic to the middle class families who give. Sure, it helps raise money, but if the money never goes toward substantive improvements what difference has been made?
In Santa Maria, an elderly man has made his home photogenic inside and out using his own resources, and this is more something to be proud of. He has added a timber porch, glazed tiling, an internal kitchen, a mezzanine sleeping platform and a small grotto for the Virgin Mary. While he was a squatter on railway lands, he also worked as a railroad engineer. His forced removal to the subdivision coincided with his retirement, at which point he started collecting a pension which supports him and his wife at about five US dollars each per day. Since he doesn't have to commute into Manila for work like many of his new neighbours, this gives them a reasonable disposable income with which to eat comfortably and improve their house, though it does not insulate them from the financial shocks that age and illness may bring.
In Towerville, Butch is a community leader, one of several informal representatives who liaise with the settlement project office and help oversee the welfare of local residents. Economically he is typical of the community; through his small grocery stall in the centre of the settlement he pulls together about 7,000 pesos per month for his household of five, roughly equivalent to one dollar per person per day.
The stall is a timber and steel shack on a dirt embankment opposite the school. Lacking the means for refrigeration, Butch instead suspends an array of small fans over the meat and fish on display to swot away flies. He and his nieces and nephews rebag cooking oil, vinegar, rice, soy sauce, etc., into small one-peso sachets, sold individually for other residents who can only afford to buy their foodstuffs one serving at a time. Most such stalls collapse under bad financial management after a few months, but Butch's stall is thriving.
I am at first confused as to which family members I am meeting, since the woman explaining this diet looks like a grandmother. Through successive childbirths and self-sacrifice, she has wasted herself away, and now looks twenty years older than she is.
Butch and his partner have made enough basic improvements to their allocated house to be comfortable, including a concrete porch enclosed in security bars, a few internal wall linings and a skim coat and paint for the concrete floor. On the evening I visit them he has rounded up a small keg of beer and 'all the gays in the village' (to manhandle a phrase from Little England), who squeal with delight whenever I camp it up.
An eighteen year old insists I call him Fairy, and explains how he has just started taking hormones to become a woman. Unlike in Western societies, transsexuality need not be rationalised as a congenital condition to be socially accepted; it is simply that Fairy would prefer to be a woman as he grows up, even if Butch and his partner have tried to convince him it's unnecessary.
Just like many Asian women, the thought of their skin tanning and darkening in the tropical sun horrifies these men, and they each walk under a parasol as we make our rounds the next day. We wend along a stream which divides the subdivision from a forested acreage owned by Manny Villar, multimillionaire senator and third-place in the 2010 presidential election. Villar turns a blind eye to the poorer families who go into his land to burn trees down into charcoal for sale in the town. Crossing our path are children as young as seven, carrying heavy sacks of charcoal on their heads. One sack topples onto the streambank; Butch gathers it up and places it lovingly back on the child's head, sending him off with a pat on the shoulders as if he were heading off to school.
Near the stream is a family who were relocated from a road-widening project. Unlike the Northrail redevelopment, where 380,000 residents have had to be resettled in purpose-built houses, a road widening attracts far less media scrutiny, and far less funding allocation for displaced families. This family was simply provided with the use of a government pick-up truck for an afternoon, with the instruction to dismantle their roadside shack, load the materials onto the flatbed and rebuild the shack on their allotted site in the subdivision.
The father lost his job when they were moved here, because he couldn't maintain the commute to central Manila, which can take up to three hours by public transport. The couple live with three of their eleven children on whatever funds one of their adult daughters can bring to them from Manila. This amounts to between 500 and 1,000 pesos per month between the five of them, or between eight and 15 US cents per person per day. They are not so great an exception; according to a 2009 socioeconomic survey of the settlement there are 33 families in Towerville trying to survive on just as little income.
How does such a family eat? 'Rice and flavouring', is the response. What does this mean? Their daily sustenance consists of boiled rice, to which they add another ingredient, which changes from day to day. Some days it might be one of the oil or soy sauce sachets like the kind that Butch sells for one peso, it might be coffee grounds added to the water, or small shrimp or other bugs collected from the stream.
I am at first confused as to which family members I am meeting, since the woman explaining this diet looks like a grandmother. Through successive childbirths and self-sacrifice, she has wasted herself away, and now looks twenty years older than she is. Her husband looks far fitter, as do her smiling sons, and I wonder seriously about the state of relations between them, and their other adult children in central Manila.
What I am left in no doubt about is the value they place on education. Inside their shack the back wall is covered with official school photographs of all their children.
Responding to gradations of poverty
How should one react to these three family portraits? With pity? With outrage? In London I occasionaly talk with overworked bankers who look with a nostalgic eye upon poor families in developing countries, see their smiling faces and warmly decorated shacks and ask, 'why do they need development? Aren't we just imposing our bourgeois values upon them? Sometimes I think they're happier than us and we should let them be.' Such a view can also be found on the opposite end of the political spectrum, in certain forms of Marxist activism which decry the excesses of the 'overdeveloped' world.
Butch and the retiree are indeed happy, houseproud, supportive of their families, mindful of their community, sensible with their finances. Perhaps we do define poverty according to what we believe are necessities in life rather than what those in poverty perceive their needs to be. Perhaps we should make distinctions between those who are simply poor, and those who live in abject misery? Perhaps the poverty lines should be lowered as India's government proposed, so that happy folk like Butch aren't stigmatised as 'poor' while desperate families like those living along the stream are singled out for intervention?
Yet I want to argue a different case. Obviously I reject the sentiment that someone living on five dollars a day, or even one dollar a day, needs no help if they are happy. The human spirit is such that it can find happiness in the meagrest of livelihoods, thus it is an unreliable measure of human want. As a corollary, I'm not sure that we should say we should help someone living on eight cents a day because they are 'miserable' - I would say that their material income level is reason enough.
Setting national or international poverty lines can give governments the means to 'cook the books' on poverty numbers. Poverty reduction policies can be made to target only those just below a poverty line, aiming to nudge them just above, calling that a reduction in poverty despite no substantive welfare gain occurring.
I suggest that what we need to understand, at least qualitatively, is that there are several gradations of poverty, all of whose members require and deserve various forms of assistance. Even the retiree, receiving fifteen times more for himself and his wife than the family by the stream, is extremely vulnerable, as I fear he will discover as soon as either of them contract an illness worthy of hospitalisation. He is, after all, earning less than one-hundredth of the UK national average.
The problem with gaining a full appreciation of poor families such as these three is that it humanises them, which makes it harder to pity them. Pity, then, is incompatible with the knowledge it requires to finally solve poverty; we who want to help must develop other motivations for our efforts.
Ultimately, the wealthy and the middle classes should help the poor, not strictly because they are 'poor', whatever image that conjures in anyone's mind, but because all of us should have the right to, among other things, a sustainable middle class life and the possibility of becoming wealthy, and all of us should help each other in our attempts to move up the ladder, whichever rung we are on for the time being. Man, woman, old, young, gay, straight, poor, rich, happy or miserable, we help each other because we choose to recognise our common humanity.