by Quinn

If I still sound a little hoarse it is because I spent much of Wednesday evening booing Joey; no, not the Ginsters Pasty sponsored Friends spin-off (which I have never seen) but Mr. Barton, footballer, currently of Manchester City.

Actually, I didn’t even do that, but many people did jeer him half-heartedly throughout City’s 3-0 P45-inspiring victory over Newcastle, until he was finally substituted to generous applause because of his pretty good performance that night. I didn’t see the point of booing him during the game; would you boo him if he was clean through on goal, or if he cleared the ball off the line, or was about to take a penalty? Apart from not helping the team, those who booed him through the match really were hostages to fortune.

The reason for City fans’ chagrin is that Barton has asked for a transfer because he wants more money than the club are prepared to pay him, a measly £28,000 per week according to reports. Of course, Joey has claimed he wants to leave for all sorts of other reasons, claiming the club lacks ambition, but in the end it comes down to the fact that he thinks that merely being offered more per week than the average worker earns in a year is “insulting”. This would be less galling if it wasn’t for the fact that were he not a half decent footballer you can imagine Joey would be grateful just to receive a fortnightly giro.

Is Joey pleading poverty? Not quite, but his antics have made me think about the term, or rather about two terms; absolute poverty and relative poverty. The former is a measure that defines those whose level of income has fallen below a definitive poverty line, the latter is usually used to refer to those who earn less than 60% of the median average income. There are arguments over which measure is the best one to use when discussing poverty.

Personally, I favour using absolute poverty; relative poverty seems to be a bit of a statistical conceit. I wince whenever I hear Labour politicians talk about having “taken a million children out of poverty since 1997” when you know they may just be talking about some statistical jiggery-pokery; but then again I wince when I hear Labour politicians talk most of the time anyway. If we are talking about actual poverty then I think we should look at how well off people really are, rather than just how they compare with the average. For example, the number of people in relative poverty will reduce if the poor’s income were to remain static while the median average income falls, which seems nonsensical to me; if this were to happen then you could cheer a cut in levels of poverty, when in fact to me the poor would still be just as poor as before while the average worker would actually be worse off, which seems little cause for celebration.

But there are some misunderstandings about relative poverty; one being that, as those who are poor are defined as earning 60% or less of median income, “there must always be some proportion in poverty”. It is surprising how often I have heard this statement, as if it is proof that relative income is a political tool to ensure there are always some poor to fight for; but even I, as a very poor mathematician, know that if everyone were to earn the same then as a result everyone would earns the median income, therefore everyone must earn more than 60% of the median wage (because everyone would be earning exactly 100% of the median income). If you can accept this as a possible, if unlikely, scenario, then you must accept that there may be numerous other occasions where relative poverty could be zero.

In fact, as my above example shows, relative poverty seems if anything to be more of a guide to inequality; and call me old fashioned but I still think that inequality is something to be concerned about. I may prefer absolute poverty as a definition of poverty, but I do think relative poverty is a useful statistic on its own terms; our relative incomes do affect our access to goods and services and our opportunities in life, we do judge how well off or otherwise we are by comparison with others rather than by an objective assessment of our material wealth. If anything I just think that “relative poverty” is a misleading term, perhaps “inequality index” would be better; either that or people make it crystal clear what they mean and which term they are using when they talk about poverty. The problem with two definitions of poverty, as with two or more definitions of anything, is that people will always choose the one that best supports their case.

But if you think that relative poverty doesn’t matter at all then just have a word with Joey Barton. Actually, if you see him, don’t bother having a word as I wouldn’t expect to get much sense; if you do see him, just give him a slap, and say it’s from me.