Click to follow
The Independent Online
POVERTY has been a rich seam for analysts recently. Yet, as the Duke of Edinburgh's speech last week showed, there is no consensus as to what poverty is.

The Council of Europe's criterion is a wage of less than half the national average. That was the figure used by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in reporting a record 11 million people in the UK living below the poverty line in 1991.

What does this really mean? The rich, with no upper limit on their potential earnings, will always distort the average. In nearly all countries - and nearly all occupations - more people will earn below average than above it, and 50 per cent of the average can still be a decent wage. That must have been what Prince Philip was thinking when he said: 'In this country . . . poverty is no longer absolute'. Economists and sociologists often confuse us because, when they talk about increased poverty, they may mean increased inequality. The poor may be getting richer, but the rich are getting richer faster.

In fact, there is evidence that, over the past dozen years, the people at the bottom of the heap have become absolutely worse off - they have less spending power than in 1979. But the charity Actionaid is talking about something different when it forecasts a worldwide increase in absolute poverty to 1.5 billion by the year 2000. Its measure is based on access to safe water, basic education and health care. Even this is a form of relative poverty because none of these was widely available 200 years ago. Poverty is in the mind of the beholder. Inequality is poverty.