Does relative poverty matter? If differences in income just mean that some people have bigger, shinier barbeques then probably not. Big shiny propane guzzling barbeques are nice but, as Clive Hamilton says, living without one doesn’t amount to hardship. To many people it seems obvious that real poverty is about physical suffering — things like malnutrition, disease and death. However, recent research on the neural basis of suffering might make us think twice.
Relative poverty isn’t just about big shiny barbecue deprivation. Long before bottled gas and wok burners, economist Adam Smith was writing about the emotional impact of having visibly less than others:
The poor man… is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of the sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow–feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers. He is mortified upon both accounts; for though to be overlooked, and to be disapproved of, are things entirely different, yet as obscurity covers us from the daylight of honour and approbation, to feel that we are taken no notice of, necessarily damps the most agreeable hope, and disappoints the most ardent desire, of human nature (TMS).
As historian Gertrude Himmelfarb noted , "That poverty is a relative concept is hardly a new discovery". When Smith wrote about ‘necessaries’ he understood "not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without" (WN). In Smith’s England that meant a linen shirt and leather shoes. In a less affluent time or place these might have been considered luxuries.
The seemingly obvious distinction between absolute and relative poverty relies on the idea that physical suffering is somehow more real than social suffering. Surely the pain you feel when you shiver with cold or spend days without food isn’t a result of how you interpret your situation. Cold and starvation are physical and undeniably real. But when you complain about being ignored or looked down on, supporters of the absolute concept of poverty will say that you have a psychological problem — "Sticks and stones might break my bones" they say, "but words (or cold shoulders) will never hurt me."
The trouble is, there may not be much of a difference between the experience of physical and social suffering. In a 2003 paper in Science, psychologists Naomi Eisenberger, Matthew Lieberman and Kip Williams report an experiment where they simulated the experience of social exclusion while scanning their subjects’ brains. They found evidence that "the experience and regulation of of social and physical pain share a common neuroanatomical basis." Both physical and social pain involved activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).
This part of the brain seems to be involved in the emotionally distressing aspects of pain. In a 2004 paper Eisenberger and Lieberman wrote:
For decades, neurosurgeons have performed cingulotomies, a circumscribed lesioning of the ACC, to treat intractable chronic pain. Patients who have undergone cingulotomies for chronic pain report that they are still able to feel the pain but that it no longer bothers them, highlighting the ACC’s role in the distressing, rather than the sensory, component of physical pain (pdf).
So while physical pain might feel different to social pain, the emotional suffering it produces is experienced in a similar way. Eisenberger and Lieberman argue that there are good reasons for this:
Increasingly, evidence is pointing to the importance of social connections not only for our happiness and well-being but for our survival as well… we are beginning to appreciate that the need for social connection is so essential to survival, at least in mammalian species, that being left out or disconnected from the social group is processed by the brain in a manner similar to physical pain. Just as physical pain has evolved to alert us that something has gone wrong with our bodies, social pain is a similarly potent signal that alerts us when something has gone wrong with our social connections to others, an equally important threat to the survival of our species (pdf).
Unlike many of today’s free market enthusiasts, Adam Smith understood why poverty can still matter in a affluent society. The beliefs others have about the causes of poverty can lead to a loss of status and social exclusion. Understanding why poverty matters is important because it helps us decide what to do about it. On their own, differences in income are not a problem. But when a widening income distribution goes hand in hand with the belief that poor individuals are morally inferior, then the problem can get far worse. Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction in which some free market think tanks want to take us.