Issues in the mesurement

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Issues in the Measurement of Poverty Amartya Sen The Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Vol. 81, No. 2, Measurement in Public Choice. (1979), pp. 285-307.
Stable URL: The Scandinavian Journal of Economics is currently published by The Scandinavian Journal of Economics.

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Amartya Sen
Nuffield College, Oxford, Englend

Abstract The paper is concerned with discussing some of the basic issues in the measurement of poverty. The measurement of poverty can be split into two distinct operations, viz. identificcstiolt (who are the poor?) and aggregation (how are the poverty characteristics ofdifferent people to be combined into an aggregate measure?).The nature of the exercise of poverty measurement is examined in Section I. Section I1 is devoted to the identification issue, including the fixation of a "poverty line". Section I11 goes into the aggregation problem. Some concluding remarks are made in the last section.

I. T h e Nature of Poverty Measurement
1.1. A Value Judgment? Theview that "poverty is a value judgment" has been presented forcefully by many authors. It seems natural to think of poverty as something that is disapproved of, the elimination of which is regarded as morally good. A consequence of this approach is to argue with Mollie Orshansky, an outstanding authority in the field, that "poverty, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder".l The exercise would,then, seem to be primarily a subjective one, unleashing one's morals on the statistics of deprivation. I would like to argue against this approach. There is a difference between saying that the exercise is itself a prescriptive one from saying that the exercise must take note of the prescriptions made by members of the community. To describe a prevailing prescription is an act of description, notprescription. It may be the case that poverty, as Eric Hobsbawn (1968) puts it, "is always defined according to the conventions of the society in which it occurs" (p. 398). But this does not make the exercise of poverty assessment in a given society a value judgment, or even a subjective exercise of some other kind. For the person studying and measuring poverty, the conventions of society arematters of fact (what are the contemporary standards?) and not issues of morality or

* The paper draws partly on the analysis t o be presented
and Famine, prepared for the


a forthcoming book, Poverty

ILO World Employment Programme. While that book is

chiefly concerned with the causation of stanration and famines, it begins by analysing the more general concept of poverty....
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