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One of the most complex and bitterly disputed questions of the 20th century is whether poverty is relative or absolute. But today we may be able to settle it, for the strange case of Mrs Jocelyn Wildenstein - being heard before a divorce court in New York this week - has provided what I regard as final proof that the relativists have been right all along.

Mrs Wildenstein, 52, is not, by the usual measurements of these things, poor. Quite the opposite, in fact. Her estranged husband, Alec, is the billionaire head of one of the biggest art dealerships in the world. Until recently the couple shared priceless masterpieces of world art, a large jet, a 66,000-acre ranch in Kenya (whence, apparently, Mrs Wildenstein hails), a Manhattan townhouse, and a French chateau.

Alas, they share them no longer. Ten days ago Mrs Wildenstein arrived at their New York home, travel-stained (she subsequently said) and in need of a bath after the long flight out of Africa. Kicking off her shoes and removing her ear-rings, she opened the door to the matrimonial bedroom - and surprised her 57-year-old spouse, in the arms of a woman 38 years his junior.

Not only was Mr Wildenstein surprised, he was also alarmed - for Jocelyn was not alone. Strangely - almost percipiently - she was accompanied by two "bodyguards", and when Mr Wildenstein produced a revolver (from where, I wonder?), he was swiftly disarmed. The authorities subsequently bound him over to keep the peace, which, in view of the circumstances - ie the eruption of two burly men and one screaming woman into the room where he was making love to a Lolita of the Lower East Side - may be regarded as ironic.

But what, you will probably be asking by now, has all this to do with deprivation? Well, according to attorneys for the wronged wife, Mr Wildenstein decided to revenge himself upon Jocelyn by cutting her off from his wealth. Her credit cards were annulled, the chauffeured limousine turned up at any door but hers and - worst of all - the chef and the butler abruptly ceased their cooking and their butling.

Now, if this were to happen to you or I, we would probably cope. Venturing into the kitchen we might make ourselves tea, even toast perhaps. Provided we were allowed to keep a house and a million dollars, we'd get by.

But Mrs Wildenstein cannot. She has, over the years, lost the knack, if ever she had it. Her sensitive face, lips perpetually smiling, skin stretched taut over prominent cheekbones, suggests that nature (or surgery) has marked her out as an essentially decorative person. She cannot make toast, nor boil a kettle. The cupboards and larders are mysteries to her, every bit as perplexing as the labyrinth of Minos. As her lawyer put it, her expensive townhouse is, for her, "a prison".

It is tempting to say "balls!" to Mrs Wildenstein. And I would, were it not for my recollection that such helplessness is not confined to the idle rich, but often shared by widowers of the older generation. These men, when their wives die, discover that they do not know where anything is, nor how any of the household appliances work. Practical men, often professional, they have simply not been prepared for domestic life. As a result, in the midst of plenty, they are indeed poor. And my argument is that in the same way, without her butler and her chef, Mrs Wildenstein is living very badly. Hers is a genuinely impoverished life.

The answer is not to bail her out. As Messrs Blair and Field have stated, to do this would be to encourage dependency, and Jocelyn needs to be helped to help herself. No, the unfortunate woman is in want of training. She will require courses that teach one how to make boiled-egg soldiers, to manage the washing-up and which impart basic shelf organisation.

The alternative is that she will join the ranks of the socially excluded and - eventually - become just another crime statistic. And we wouldn't want that on our consciences.