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poverty, geography of

  Poverty is a condition experienced by many people who have a shortage of financial and other resources, and it means that they are likely to face difficulties in obtaining and maintaining sufficient nutrition, adequate accommodation and long-term good health. While attempts are sometimes made to define absolute levels of poverty linked into the basic bodily requirements of all human beings, most social scientists prefer a relative concept which assesses the extent of \'poverty\' present within a given society relative to its prevailing norms and expectations: thus, \'it is apparent that the poverty of an Indian peasant who may today die of starvation is a qualitatively different state from that which afflicts those who may be called poor in European countries or in North America\' (Wedderburn, 1974, p. 1). One implication is that poverty should be thought of geographically, with understandings, definitions and measurements of the phenomenon being allowed to vary depending on the particular parts of the world under study. Such a realization has rarely been explicit in the literature, though, and for the most part the geographical aspect of poverty research has involved taking specific indicators of poverty (e.g. the percentage of households earning below a specified income) and mapping these out across spatial units such as nation-states, planning regions or electoral wards.

Geographers have long been interested in such an approach to poverty, as is evident from this observation by Brunhes (1920, p. 576): \'A study of poverty should mean not simply statistics but an attempt at precise localisation. Since to fix the topographical distribution of poverty is a means of knowing it more exactly, it is doubtless also a means of relieving it and curing it in a less abstract and more efficacious manner.\' Some earlier geographers addressed the associations of given regions with dimensions of poverty, as in Fleure\'s (1919) references to \'regions of hunger\', \'regions of debilitation\' and \'regions of lasting difficulty\', while others — ones involved in establishing the foundations of social geography — paid considerable attention to areal variations in \'social aspects of life\' including relative levels of wealth, welfare and housing quality. Watson\'s study of Hamilton, Ontario warrants mention in this respect, since he used a variety of sources to demonstrate \'a remarkable concentration of unemployment, neglect, desertion and delinquency in [what he termed] the city\'s shatter zones\' (Watson, 1951, p. 495), and also began to unpick the various processes leading to the appearance of poverty in certain areas of the city rather than in others. In addition, he stressed the contrast between wealthy areas and poor areas, and talked of the \'social Himalayas\' perceived locally to exist between populations resident in adjacent wealthy and poor areas.

Watson\'s work encapsulates much that was subsequently to be expanded upon by geographers interested in poverty, particularly in the post-1970 emergence of versions of human geography hostile to the seeming lack of social concern displayed by practitioners of spatial science. At the heart of welfare geography was a wish to expose the spatial correlates of social inequalities, although studies in this vein often adapted the standard empirical and statistical techniques of spatial science (e.g. Coates and Rawstron\'s 1971 mapping of direct and indirect measures of income across the regions and cities of Britain). Other welfare geographers, meanwhile, began to think more conceptually about the connections between welfare, (in)justice, poverty and place (e.g. Smith, 1979, 1994). Similarly, central to radical geography was a clearly stated concern for the geography of poverty, as was apparent from an early Antipode special issue (1970) tackling geographical aspects of American poverty. Unsurprisingly, as radical geography became increasingly identified with Marxist geography, significant advances were made in deploying Marxist political-economic analyses of poverty to illuminate its varying spatial manifestations at all scales from the global to the local. This orientation was explicit in Peet\'s (1975, p. 564) attempt to synthesize \'the Marxist principle that inequality and poverty are inevitably produced by capitalist societies\' with \'the social-geographic idea that inequality may be passed on from one generation to the next via the environment of opportunities and services into which each individual is implanted at birth\'. Writing more recently, and yet in many respects echoing Peet\'s line, Kodras (1997, p. 69) portrays poverty as \'a component of [the] interactive linkage between political-economic change and alterations in the social order of places\'. Within Marxist political-economic scholarship the explanation of poverty has remained a prominent concern, and many key debates here — about spatial aspects of the labour process, the labour market and the labour theory of value; about the workings of land and housing markets in relation to urban rent surfaces; about the necessarily uneven development of capitalism — have all had important ramifications for how best to understand the production of poverty\'s complex geographies.

During the 1990s it has sometimes been complained that poverty has disappeared from the agendas of geographers inspired by more fashionable trends within social theory and cultural studies (see postmodernism; post-structuralism; deconstruction). The claim is that questions of \'Identity\' now prevail over ones to do with \'inequality\', and that poverty as more a structural category than a politicized identity ceases to come under scrutiny. Indeed, Leyshon (1995) made this point when reflecting on the absence of an entry on \'poverty\' from the third edition of the Dictionary of Human Geography, while Yapa\'s (1996) attempt to offer a postmodern theorization of how discourse constitutes the object of poverty met with the hostile response that his \'postmodern discursive approach (and solution) to poverty amounts to little more than an open surrender to … moral bankruptcy, social irresponsibility and political expediency\' (Shrestha, 1997, p. 715). This view arguably misses the subtlety of Yapa\'s position, failing to appreciate that excavating the discursive construction of a \'poverty problem\' does not deny the material processes productive of grounded hardship for particular peoples and places. Rather, Yapa\'s approach seeks to expose the implicatedness here of certain \'poverty discourses\', as tied up with certain development and modernization discourses, which often obscure the grounded hardships, diagnose them inappropriately and inform either inaction or unhelpful responses (see also Yapa, 1997, 1998).

More generally, there are signs that poverty has returned to greater prominence on the geographical agenda. Yapa\'s work is testimony to this, but so too are the following: surveys documenting basic empirical geographies of poverty, inequality and social division (Green, 1994; Philo, 1995); statements about how such documentation provides a powerful tool for critiquing interpretations which simplistically blame individuals and \'sub-cultures\' for allowing themselves to slide into poverty (Philo, 1995; Kodras, 1997); inquiries into not just the urban but also the rural dimensions of poverty, tracing out the hidden geographies of poverty in localities whose \'idyllic\' images commonly deflect such attention (Cloke, 1997); examinations of the connections between the underclass, homelessness, service-dependent populations and impoverished urban places (Dear and Wolch, 1987); studies into the processes of \'financial exclusion\' being endured by, and in part productive of, many poor parts of western cities (Leyshon and Thrift, 1995); studies into not only the structural causes of \'poor places\' but also the ways in which such places are lived and experienced on a daily basis by local people (Rollinson, 1990); and studies into the situated gender and race dimensions of poverty (Jones and Kodras, 1990; and, although not by an academic geographer, see Campbell\'s 1993 provocative account of differential responses by women and men to the poverty of Britain\'s \'dangerous places\'). This is just a sample of ongoing research, the cumulative effect of which suggests that geographers have not abandoned a commitment to studying poverty, even if deploying a wider range of conceptual lenses to do so than previously. In addition, this work continues to echo Brunhes (1920) in its conviction that geographical research on poverty can and should contribute valuably to the formulation of anti-poverty strategies involving state interventions, voluntary activities and \'grassroots\' community initiatives (e.g. several chapters in Philo, 1995). (CP)

References Antipode 1970: Special theme issue on \'The geography of American poverty\'. Antipode 2(2). Brunhes, J. 1920: Human geography: an attempt at a positive classification — principles and examples. London: George G. Harrap. Campbell, B. 1993: Goliath: Britain\'s dangerous places. London: Methuen. Cloke, P. 1997: Poor country: marginalisation, poverty and rurality. In P. Cloke and J. Little, eds, Contested countryside cultures: otherness, marginalisation and rurality. London: Routledge, 252-71. Coates, B.E. and Rawstron, E.M. 1971: Regional variations in Britain: studies in economic and social geography. London: B.T. Batsford; Dear, M. and Wolch, J. 1987: Landscapes of despair: from deinstitutionalisation to homelessness. Oxford: Polity Press. Fleure, H.J. 1919: Human regions. Scottish Geographical Magazine 35: 94-105. Green, A.E. 1994: The geography of poverty and wealth. Coventry: University of Warwick, Institute for Employment Research. Jones, J.P. and Kodras, J.E. 1990: Restructured regions and families: the feminisation of poverty in the United States. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 80: 163-83. Kodras, J.E. 1997: The changing map of American poverty in an era of economic restructuring and political realignment. Economic Geography 73: 67-95. Leyshon, A. 1995: Missing words: whatever happened to the geography of poverty? Environment and Planning 27: 1021-8. Leyshon, A. and Thrift, N.J. 1995: Geographies of financial exclusion: financial abandonment in Britain and the United States. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 20: 312-41. Peet, R. 1975: Inequality and poverty: a Marxist-geographic theory. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 65: 564-71. Philo, C., ed., 1995: Off the map: the social geography of poverty in the UK. London: Child Poverty Action Group. Rollinson, P.A. 1990: The everyday geography of poor elderly residents in Chicago. Geograpiska Annaler 72B: 47-57. Smith, D.M. 1979: Where the grass is greener: living in an unequal world. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin; Smith, D.M. 1994: Geography and social justice. Oxford: Blackwell. Watson, J.W. 1951: The sociological aspects of geography. In G. Taylor, ed., Geography in the twentieth century: a study of growth, fields, techniques, aims and trends. London: Methuen. Wedderburn, D. 1974: Introduction. In D. Wedderburn, ed., Poverty, inequality and class structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-12. Yapa, L. 1996: What causes poverty? A postmodern view. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86: 707-28. Shrestha, N. 1997: A postmodern view or denial of historical integrity? The poverty of Yapa\'s view of poverty. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87: 709-16. and Yapa, L. 1997: Reply: why discourse matters, materially. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87: 717-22. Yapa, L. 1998: The poverty discourse and the poor in Sri Lanka. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 23: 95-115.

Suggested Reading Campbell (1993). Kodras (1997). Philo (1995). Yapa (1996, 1998).



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