Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary opening statement at his 1964 trial in Pretoria includes this on poverty:
"The government answers its critics by saying that Africans in South Africa are better off than the inhabitants of the other countries in Africa. I do not know whether this statement is true. But even if it is true, as far as the African people are concerned it is irrelevant. Our complaint is not that we are poor by comparison with people in other countries, but that we are poor by comparison with the white people in our own country, and that we are prevented by legislation from altering this imbalance."
In other words, for Mandela and his allies, what’s commonly called “relative poverty” mattered, and the most important comparison was not with some other group of disadvantaged people in other countries, but with the advantaged people in their own country.
This is different than the official American definition of poverty, which, because it has never been updated for changes in living standards, measures whether Americans today are poor by comparison with people living in poverty 50 years ago, effectively in another country. It is also different than the Heritage Foundation’s definition of poverty, which is somewhat unclear, but seems to have something to do with asking low-income Americans whether they have cable, and comparing the size of their homes with those of people living in France.
Heritage also claims the new Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) is a relative one that will boost the poverty thresholds “faster than inflation year after year … [and] rise automatically in direct proportion to any rise in the actual living standards of the average Americans.” It would be a good thing if we had a relative poverty measure that was directly responsive to the actual living standards of average Americans, but alas, the SPM is not that measure. A paper by Liana Fox and others presented at this year’s APPAM conference shows the SPM poverty threshold did increase at a faster rate than inflation during the 2000s (due to an increase in housing costs), but not during the 1980s and 1990s. Not exactly Heritage's claimed "year after year" increase.
Mandela wasn’t alone in his understanding of poverty. As civil rights historian Thomas F. Jackson has written, by 1966, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"...no longer regarded poverty as the denial of minimal subsistence needs … [and instead argued that the poverty line should be] set as a percentage of median income, hence adjusting poverty standards to the rising "average standard of living of all America." "We are dealing with issues of inequality, of relative standing." King insisted. Such a redefinition would have raised the poverty line and drawn attention to the needs of millions of working poor people the War on Poverty ignored."
Mandela and King were ahead of their times on many things, including understanding and defining poverty.