Acton Institute Powerblog

There’s Poverty and then there’s Poverty

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As I have mentioned before, we must be extremely careful about our language when we debate one another on any issue. So often, an argument is won, lost, or irredeemably confused because of a definition. If truths can be unlocked in careful definition, so can lies be reified in careless ones.

A case in point: what we mean by ‘poverty.’ The BBC has a story exploring how the definition of this word has changed as social conditions improved in England. The gist of the article is that once the deep poverty of Victorian England became history, poverty aquired a new definition; the new definition emphasized not the inability of people to sustain themselves (as was once the measure) but how a given person’s income related to society at large.

This of course begs the question: in a society of immense wealth, are those people in poverty who can afford only a fraction of the luxuries that others can afford? Can we so easily hijack a word, complete with its connotations? If you think that words cannot be so easily hijacked, so easily skewed, or so simply misunderstood as to serious impact culture and life, I submit the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘human rights’ for your consideration.

David Michael Phelps