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A Quid A Day for NOSH? Luxury!

Maybe there are no free lunches – but sometimes there's free Worstall*

WiF It's that time of year as El Reg limbers up for the Quid A Day Nosh campaign and I'm here to point out that in context this is actually a pretty easy challenge.

It must be, in technical terms, if one billion mostly illiterate peasants manage it all year round every year. Which is rather the point of the challenge in fact, to point out quite what a difference real, absolute, poverty is from any possible point of reference to our modern lives. And even to get it this far they've had to make the challenge easier for us.

Because the usual definition of absolute poverty, the one the World Bank uses, the one the Millennium Development Goals use, is not £1 a day for food. It's $1.25 a day for everything. As your editor and mine today remarked when I discussed it with him, this is pretty hardcore.

The poor are not trying to feed themselves on $1.25 a day. They're trying to house, clothe, educate, heat and cook for themselves on $1.25 a day - and also save something for their old age. An old age which, obviously, far too few of them manage to reach.

Reg reader Spleen of this parish offers me a chance to make a further point:

Most people on a quid a day live in countries with a much, much lower cost of living. Is this not taken into account? If you're not going shopping in one of these countries then you should be scaling up the £1 according to Purchasing Power Parity. And while I'm being a heartless economist bastard, many people on less than a quid a day grow their own food or have a few chickens and goats. Don't forget to get some of those.

It's true that prices vary around the world. Lentils might be, just to invent a number, 2 cents a tonne in one place and £3 a kg in another for some bijou type and grade. So we must indeed adjust for PPP - and indeed we do. That $1.25 a day is after we have done this.

We really are saying that those billion or so of the absolutely poor out there are trying to live their entire lives on that buck and a quarter a day - as though they had to go into Tesco with that money and buy everything they needed. Further, this includes the value of any household production of food. This is not cash money we are counting: it's the value of consumption available to those in absolute poverty, however those things consumed are obtained.

This is of course the mistake that Zoe Williams made here. Stuart Broad (apparently England has more than one cricket captain these days, who knew?) tweeted that if you're earning minimum wage in the UK then you're in the top 10 per cent of all incomes worldwide. At which Guardianista Zoe huffed that, well, sure, but:

It is relatively easy to be in the richest 10 per cent on the minimum wage, if you’re happy to live in a very expensive place. The minimum wage in Gabon is £3,672, or less than a third of our £13,500. On the other hand, a suburban one-bedroom flat there is £63 a month, or less than an eighth the cost of the average suburban one-bedder in the UK (£541). A couple more data points (average public transport, 17p to £2.20) and the picture is pretty plain; someone on the minimum wage in the UK may technically be richer, but could buy a lot less and will ergo struggle a lot more. Money doesn’t mean anything out of context: its value is determined by what you can buy with it. Most people figure this out by the age of about seven.

It is because most people do indeed work this out by the age of seven that we do the PPP transformations. And the truth is that Mr Broad is and was correct after we do the transformation.

As the Roving Bandit pointed out:

Working full-time at the minimum wage earns £13,124 per year. Plug that into the Global Rich List calculator, which, by the way, uses "Purchasing Power Parity Dollars (PPP$) in order to take into account the difference in cost of living between countries", and you're in the top 5.84 per cent in the world. After accounting for cost of living differences.

[For the record Zoe Williams appears to be 42, and therefore should have grasped this 35 years ago. Another blow to the reputation of Oxford University. -Ed]

That old absolute poverty really is something very much beyond our ken. Again, this is really rather something of the point of the challenge. We find it difficult to eat on these numbers and that's not even the whole challenge.

This sort of poverty has also been the fate of mankind since the start up of agriculture. I've pointed to Angus Maddison's numbers before around here. They're GDP per capita not consumption, but if we slice off the top what the King nicked we get to about the same sort of numbers, $1 to $2 per day per head. They're in 1990s prices not today's, they are PPP adjusted. But the great majority of our forebears (except for anyone whose ancestors were landowning toffs, leapt directly from hunter gatherer to modern civilisation etc) lived this way for centuries and millennia. Until very recently GDP per capita didn't stray far, anywhere, from $600 a year or so - in those PPP adjusted 1990s dollars.

Fortunately, things are getting better:

According to the most recent estimates, in 2011, 17 per cent of people in the developing world lived at or below $1.25 a day. That’s down from 43 per cent in 1990 and 52 per cent in 1981. This means that, in 2011, just over one billion people lived on less than $1.25 a day, compared with 1.91 billion in 1990, and 1.93 billion in 1981.

It's this that makes me the right-wing free market and globalisation glorifying git that I am. This past generation has seen the biggest reduction in that absolute poverty in the history of our entire species, as a result of that free marketry and that globalisation. It works which is why I support it.

Of course we've still a way to go, like a billion people to go, which is why I'm so vehement in my support of such heinous rightwingery. And those poor folk don't have anywhere near that £1 a day that the Quid a Day posse will be attempting to nourish themselves on.

So how on Earth can anyone eat on the much lower sum that they do have? This leads us to the real secret of peasant cuisine. Coq au vin, for example, is not the secret peasant way of doing something with a stringy cockerel when there's nothing better to eat. Actually, it's a peasant's idea of a feast for the High and Holy Days (or when the cock starts covering his own chicks and the farmer down the road won't do a swap, the usual solution to that problem).

Real peasant food, most of the time, is large bowls of whatever is the culturally relevant stodge. No, there is nothing missing there. Large bowls of stodge, that's how most of humanity has eaten for most of history - when lucky enough not to be going hungry.

Lester last year had rice and chickpeas: the luxury being that he had rice and chickpeas. Really, it's 2,000 calories of rice with a few chickpeas for flavour: and just think how damn boring your diet is if you're using chickpeas for flavour.

What the stodge is changes with time and place. In 18th century England it was bread, 19th century Ireland potatoes (with skim milk as the cream made butter for the English market). South India today it's rice, North India bread again, North China gets wheat noodles, medieval England had the joy of pease pudding (essentially, porridge made from dried peas), sub-Saharan Africa today mealie meal (porridge from maize flour) Scotland oats (umm, porridge) and so on and on.

All of the dishes that we think of as being "peasant food" were either rare treats or flavourings added in tiny amounts in order to choke down enough of this glop to keep someone alive. A 1.5 kg lump of rice a day, that's a peasant diet; 2 kg with a few fish heads in the high times.

Hats off to those who are taking this challenge. Raising awareness is normally a vomit inducing phrase but here, about real poverty, it's admirable. As is raising money to help reduce it. For there really are a billion people out there trying to live all of life on that $1.25 a day, not just feed themselves on it. ®


*Tim has asked that his fee for this piece be donated to the Nosh Challenge Fund. So he did this one for no money – for free, in a way. -Ed

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