Right from the 19th century, some researchers are trying to fix some yardstick for measuring poverty in precise terms. Ideally speaking such a yardstick would help us establish a fixed level of poverty, known as “poverty line” below which poverty begins and above which it ends. Such a yardstick is believed to be universal in character and would be applicable to all the societies. This concept of poverty is known as “absolute poverty”.
Absolute poverty is often known as “subsistence poverty” for it is based on assessments of minimum subsistence requirements or basic “physical needs” such as food, clothing, shelter, health requirements etc. Some concepts of absolute poverty would even include the idea of “basic cultural needs”.
This broadens the idea of basic human needs beyond the level of physical survival. Drewnowski and Scott include education, security, leisure and recreation in their category of “basic cultural needs “.
The concept of absolute poverty has been widely criticised. It is based on the assumption that there are minimum basic needs for all people in all societies. This is a difficult argument to defend even in regard to subsistence poverty measured in terms of food, clothing and shelter. Such needs vary both between and within societies.
It becomes still more difficult to defend the concept of absolute poverty when it is extended to include the idea of “basic cultural needs”. Such “needs” vary from time to time and place to place and any attempt to establish absolute fixed standards is bound to fail,
The difficulties involved in the application of the concept of “absolute poverty”, made some researchers to abandon the concept altogether. In place of absolute standards, they have developed the idea of relative standards that is, standards which are relative to particular time and place. In this way, the idea of absolute poverty has been replaced by the idea of relative poverty.
“Relative poverty is measured in terms of judgements by members of a particular society of what is considered as reasonable and acceptable standard of living and styles of life according to the conventions of the day.
Just as conventions change from time to time, and place to place, so will definitions of poverty. In a rapidly changing world, definitions of poverty based on relative standards will be constantly changing. Hence, Peter Townsend has suggested that any definition of poverty must be “related to the needs and demands of a changing society.”
Limitations of the Usage of this Concept:
Even the concept of relative poverty presents certain problems. It cannot be assumed that there are universally accepted standards of reasonable and acceptable life-styles. Within a particular society, ethnicity, class, religion, region, age and a variety of other factors can vary judgements of reasonable living standards.
The concept of relative poverty poses problems for the comparison of the poor in the same society overtime and between societies. For example, it becomes difficult to make a comparison of the poor in present – day and 19th century India; or of present-day India and European countries or those of African countries.