Much ado about poverty

Most people tend to calculate poverty in money terms, and that may be very misleading or devoid of real meaning

By DMITRY KOSYREV / Pic By BLOOMBERG

Natalya Sokolova — minister of labour of one of the provincial Russian administrations — became, for a short while, the most hated person in the country. It happened when several phrases taken out of her speech began to circulate in the merciless Internet.

Her words were, essentially, about the level of poverty — in her province and in general. The lady said it is absolutely possible to feed oneself on 3,500 rubles a month, which is around RM220.

Some phrases of that speech became memes. Like, “noodles cost the same everywhere”, “you’ll become slim, younger and better looking” and, finally, “I cannot experiment at it myself due to my status”.

After it became known to the public that Sokolova was getting a salary of around RM12,000, the scandal got really hot and she was fired immediately.

Plenty of Opposition-minded writers began their predictable chant that Russia has got itself a bloated elite that loves its status and despises the poor.

This story is not exactly about poverty as such, it’s rather about attitudes to it. Most people tend to calculate poverty in money terms, and that may be very misleading or devoid of real meaning.

There was a veritable verbal battle recently between Alexei Kudrin, head of the Control Chamber (a watchdog over budget spending) and yet another lady, Tatyana Golikova, vice prime minister in charge of social policy.

Kudrin lamented Russia’s high poverty level (13.2% of the populace in 2017). Golikova reminded him that there were 1.1 million of people who left the “poor” category in 2018, so the figure mentioned by him should have been 12.8%.

In addition, the “average”, “median” salary has risen by 10.3% in a year, amounting to RM2,400 or so.

Nobody around the country has been perturbed by all these twists and turns of the statistical battle, since none of its participants have advised anyone to eat less and get slim. Which means, probably, that it does not matter how much you spend on food, unless somebody who spends much more starts teaching you about healthy diets.

To my mind, the whole Sokolova scandal has been totally unfair and cruel to her. A look at the local Parliament debates, where she made her remarks, shows that the discussion was technical — it focused on the minimal income, after which a person is entitled to provincial-level subsidies. And it was not the lady in question who demonstrated a blissful lack of knowledge about the plight of the poor.

She knew it well. You could look at her CV and find out that in the times of the national disaster of the 1990s, she was a provincial school teacher — which meant that she was living in real poverty at that time, and knew very well the price of noodles.

So, it’s not the figures that matter, but maybe the desires of both the rich and poor to be respected.

There was a Russian research paper published recently that tells us a lot about people’s attitudes towards their position in society. It was prepared by the prestigious National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, which means that the paper is serious enough.

Simply speaking, it shows 67% of Russians think that they are more poor than they really are. The only other nation in the world that can be compared to us is Germany.

The method of the research was rather simple. The scholars divided all the population into 10 categories, from very poor to very rich, but did not give the numerical parameters to the respondents. All they had to do was to place themselves into one of these categories inside the society, as in “my income group must be #4, which makes me a very poor person”.

So, to repeat, two-thirds of Russians tend to think they are cash-strapped and oppressed, while in fact they are much closer to the middle class than they think. It means, among other things, that these two-thirds are jittery about their state of income and hate the guts of anyone who tells them there is nothing tragic about their earnings, and that maybe they just don’t know how to study the supermarket prices.

You may be interested to learn that it’s the educated class that tends more than any other to underestimate its riches, while the really, really poor people think that they are doing comparatively well.

All in all, what we have here is not just a lesson in treading softly when you discuss poverty levels. Rather, it’s a peek into public mentality regarding what people should be getting, and what they really get in this cruel world. Or, simply speaking, it reminds us that we are dealing with live people, and not with dead figures, in our social policy.

  • Dmitry Kosyrev is an author of 8 novels and a book of short stories, as well as a columnist for 2 Moscow publications. Orientalist by education (Moscow University), he has a special love for Malaysia. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.