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Focusing on the low-income parts of the world and reviewing the different ways we can define poverty, I first argue that what people generally mean by poverty – or, more broadly, by economic well-being – cannot be adequately captured by a single, absolute measure such as income level or a more complex aggregate such as the Human Development Index. Not only do these measures fail to account for the complexity of human material needs, but they also fail to recognize the importance of distributional issues. The failure to incorporate a consideration of distribution in defining poverty (or, more generally, economic well-being) is conceptually problematic, if not simply wrong. This failure also creates serious practical problems for campaigns against poverty, at best limiting their impact and at worst dooming them to failure. The United Nations Millennium Goals program is a case in point. If poverty is viewed simply in absolute terms rather than including a consideration of distributional issues, the social structures that generate poverty tend to be ignored. Policy is then viewed as a technical issue and often focuses on particular programs that are directed to helping the poor improve their absolute situation: new seed varieties to raise income, mosquito nets treated with insecticide to improve health, more schools to raise the level of education. These sorts of policies, when they are actually implemented successfully, can have positive impacts. Yet they leave unexamined and unaddressed the social structures, the power relations, that have generated and continue to generate poverty.


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