Destitution a Menace

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QEH Working Paper Series – QEHWPS86

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Working Paper Number 86
A Note On Destitution
Barbara Harriss-White*

Paper for the Dissemination Workshop of the NCAER/QEH/DfID Project on Poverty : Alternative Realities, NCAER, New Delhi, April, 2002
In this paper the economic, social and political dimensions of destitution are analysed. Economic destitution is seen as a contradiction in terms since destitute people survive without assets and income. Social destitution is a process of expulsion and of the denial of dependent status. The state plays an active political role in creating and perpetuating destitution. Next, destitution is mapped onto other paradigms of poverty. Finally responses outside and inside political economy are outlined. Case material is drawn from India.

June 2002

* Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford

QEH Working Paper Series – QEHWPS86

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‘Political economy does not recognise the unoccupied worker.. The beggar, the unemployed, the starving [and] the destitute are figures which exist not for it, but only for the eyes of doctors, judges, gravediggers and beadles. Nebulous.. figures which do not belong within the province of political economy’ (Marx)

The poorest of the poor are sometimes referred to as destitute. How are we to understand the condition of destitution, to map it against other dimensions of poverty, to make it less nebulous and admit it to political economy? This note is a first attempt. 1 Since destitution is an economic, social and political phenomenon, each aspect will be examined in turn. Economic aspects of destitution

It is useful to begin with insights from development economics. Here, destitution is a twofold kind of deprivation in the ‘space’ of income or monetary poverty. It involves the absence of any control over assets and the loss of access to income from one’s own labour. As a state, it is a contradiction in terms because the complete absence of assets and income spells death. There would be no such thing as long-term destitution. The specification of medium- or long-term destitution then has to involve a value judgement of what might constitute a ‘nearly complete absence’. One accepted measure is ‘a quarter of median rural income’,2 but in fact this threshold is quite arbitrary. It is a convenience for statistical treatment.

These economic definitions allude to a process of loss, one which deprives a person of control over assets and income. While loss of assets leads to loss of income from rent or production, loss of income may also be a labour-market phenomenon resulting from the denial or the unavailability of wage work. What deprives people of their control over assets and labour? Economists have focussed on hysteresis phenomena - sequences of events in which losses of certain crucial assets are triggered which act as a ratchet and trigger other losses in turn, after which things can never return to what they were before. Such events include accidents, profligacy (addictions) and ‘natural’ disasters as well as health deprivation in the ‘space’ of capabilities; they are accompanied by debt. People are pitched into increasingly continuous periods with increasingly less assets. The detail of this process of destitution, which is also known as ‘coping’ or ‘survival’ is known to vary depending on the quality, lumpiness and complementarity of assets, the timing and the terms of trade of their dispossession, their gendered ownership and their implications for a person’s capabilities. A 1

The primary field material introduced in this note was obtained from one field visit to a settlement of beggars in rural Chhattisgarh State and a second to a variety of kinds of homeless people on the streets of New Delhi at night organised by ActionAid, India, in January 2002. See B. Harriss-White, 2002, Report of a Visit to see the Work of ActionAid in India, Action Aid, London


T. Hyat, 1999, ‘Appendix: Definition of Destitution’ unpublished...
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