The Devil’s in the Diction

In City Journal Dalrymple discusses three words whose use “encourage[s] lazy and often deeply biased thinking”: liberalism, austerity and (below) poverty…

The connotation of poverty is that of Dr. Johnson’s definition: the want of necessities. And no one will be found to defend hunger, lack of shelter from the elements, or nakedness. But the denotation of poverty nowadays is not the same as its connotation. Almost always, the denotation of poverty nowadays is the possession of an income below 60 percent of the median income, so that what is meant is not so much poverty as inequality. A society in which everyone had a guaranteed six-figure income could thus have a great deal of “poverty,” and an incomparably poorer country could have much less poverty, in the technical sense of the word. In recessions, poverty of this sort decreases not because anyone is richer—quite the contrary: because the higher incomes decline, while (at least where there is Social Security) the lowest do not. But no one is materially better off as a result. Of course, this leaves quite untouched the question as to whether equality of outcome is desirable, which is a separate issue.

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