Thursday, March 16, 2006

Poverty, happiness, and the first world

The Economist compares a black African man with a white American man with a comparable income:
Why juxtapose the lives of a poor man in a rich country and a relatively well-off man in a poor one? The exercise is useful for two reasons. First, it puts the rich world's wealth into context. A Congolese doctor, a man most other Congolese would consider wealthy, is worse off materially than most poor people in America. That, in itself, is striking.

The second purpose of the exercise is to shed light on some ticklish questions. What is the relationship between wealth and happiness? And what is the significance of relative poverty? Mr Banks makes $521 a month in a country where median male earnings are $3,400 a month. Dr Kabamba earns $600 a month in a country where most people grow their own food and hardly ever see a bank note. The two men's experiences could hardly be less similar. But which of the two would one expect to be happier?
It is hard to gauge the pain of relative poverty because no one knows how to measure happiness. Simply asking people “Are you happy?” only gets you so far. The answers people give depend in part on cultural factors. Few English or Japanese will offer anything more ecstatic than a “mustn't grumble”, but that does not necessarily mean they are glummer than say, Americans, 86% of whom told Gallup this year that they were “completely” or “somewhat satisfied” with their jobs.

Indirect evidence of unhappiness is equally hard to gather, since so many potential proxies, such as drug abuse and wife-beating, are hushed up. Nonetheless, for what it is worth, when your correspondent asked Ms Woolum and three of her local social-worker colleagues to share their life stories, those stories shared a common thread.

All four women had been beaten by husbands or boyfriends, most of whom had problems with drink or drugs.