Destitution a Menace

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QEH Working Paper Series – QEHWPS86

Page 1

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

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