While the media often write about poverty, reporters rarely draw a distinction between relative and absolute poverty. Absolute poverty is a measurement of whether a person or group of people has the resources to provide for the bare essentials of life: food, clean water, clothing shelter and medical care. Relative poverty measures how poor a person or group is compared to other people or groups.
Absolute Poverty Levels
Absolute poverty measurements attempt to calculate the bare minimum required to provide basic essentials in a particular area, such as the cost of food or rent necessary to feed a family. Those who cannot meet those minimums are considered to be living in poverty. These measurements vary widely depending on where a person lives for several reasons. For instance, a person living in a Mumbai apartment will likely pay more for shelter than a person living in a mud hut in sub-Saharan Africa.
Measuring Relative Poverty
Relative poverty measures the difference between a person's resources and the average cost of living requirements in an area. While absolute poverty usually does not change much, relative poverty changes in relation to the standard of living in an area. A person who lives in relative poverty in the United States is likely to be wealthy compared to a person with an average lifestyle in a third-world country. While a country can conceivably raise nearly all of its population out of absolute poverty, it cannot do so with relative poverty because relative poverty is measured as a bottom percentage of a population.
Poverty alleviation programs like food stamps may be used to decrease absolute poverty, adding to the overall resources of an entire population. Poverty alleviation programs are often used to address relative poverty as well. However, because of the way it is measured, relative poverty alleviation will never be achieved. Instead, these programs raise the average standard of living for everyone, bringing poorer members of a society closer to a middle-class lifestyle.
Determining Society's Poverty Levels
Measurement of a society's poverty levels is of necessity very arbitrary. Some governments consider the bottom 20 percent or 15 percent of a society to be the poverty level; others measure the minimum income level necessary for survival and base poverty level determinations on that. In most cases, poverty alleviation program resources are not counted as part of an individual's resources, which serves to make a person receiving government assistance seem more impoverished than they really are. Because it is so difficult to properly determine poverty and the variables are so easily abused, the measurement of poverty tends to be a volatile political tool in most nations.
Poverty and Location
Even in the same city, poverty levels may be radically different. In New York City, for example, it costs less to live in Brooklyn than in Manhattan. Relative costs of living for an American and an Indonesian are radically different. All these variables need to be taken into account for proper measurements of poverty to assure that any poverty alleviation programs are applied where they will be of most help.