The real meaning of poverty is not having enough money to allow you to participate in the social life of your community. These days poverty does not mean having no food to eat; it's more about having no money to keep up with the Joneses. The idea of social inclusion as a fundamental human right introduces a whole new meaning of Deprivation and Want.
People define themselves by reference to other people, and it's really hard to feel part of the society if you don't have the same amount of stuff as the people you interact with. This is how the idea of 'poverty' came to mean making sure that everybody has an equal amount of stuff. So that they can all hang out together and nobody will feel excluded.
In societies where people actually don't have food to eat or clean water to drink, the word 'poor' can no longer be used with any degree of accuracy. After all, they don't need food and water simply because they need these things to feel socially included. For them it's more a basic matter of survival. So these people are now described as 'extremely poor', meaning they are probably going to die soon if nobody helps them. The word 'poor' can then be reserved for those in rich countries who are suffering from not having as much as other people in their society: not as many varieties of breakfast cereal, not as many toys for Christmas, not as many pairs of shoes or coats to wear, etc.
To give the most obvious example of how relative poverty leads to social exclusion, imagine someone in a rich country who doesn't have a nice interview suit to wear. He is probably going to remain unemployed forever, not because he lacks the capacity to do amazing work but simply because he lacks clothes that are as smart as those worn by most people. Unemployment in turn leads to persistent poverty. Tackling poverty therefore means that everyone should at least, as a bare minimum, have the financial means to get kitted out on Saville Row. Otherwise it's not fair, is it. Those who can afford fine clothes end up getting richer by the second, and those who are forced to wear cheap clothes never have a chance in life to get rich.
Some people are skeptical about the idea of relative poverty and prefer to focus on absolute poverty. So, a certain minimum subsistence threshold is identified and those falling below that threshold are poor. Nothing to do with comparing them to their neighbours, but simply asking whether they have enough to meet an agreed minimum standard of living. This is the approach of Maud Pember Reeves's Round About a Pound a Week (1913), examining the lives of families who had only a pound a week to live on. Or in modern studies, examining the lives of those who get by on only a proportion of the average income.
This matters because identifying and defining 'the poor' is the first stage in deciding how best to help. Everybody wants to help 'the poor', right? We're just having a bit of trouble identifying them, that's all, because sometimes you might be in for a rude shock when you discover that you also don't have the stuff that is being raised for 'the poor' in your community. Nobody wants to raise money for the poor, only to discover that they themselves are even poorer than the poor folk they were trying to help. Very disconcerting. Like when poor people in rich countries discover they've been sending money to line the pockets of rich people in poor countries. It's really not what anybody wants and this should be avoided if at all possible.
The terms 'poverty' and 'inequality' are often used interchangeably. As long as there are some people with lots of stuff, and other people who have less stuff, there will always be inequality. The only way to eradicate inequality is to ensure that everybody has exactly the same amount of stuff.
There are many people who believe that everybody should have the same amount of stuff, but there are also many people who don't care whether other people have more stuff than them. So there is no consensus on the inequality issue. But how about 'poverty'? What does it mean to be poor? Does being poor simply mean that there are folks out there who are richer than you are, therefore you are poor? Is poverty the same thing as inequality?
By viewing poverty as a relative rather than absolute concept, and identifying poverty by reference to income and wealth distribution, poverty becomes exactly the same thing as income inequality. In other words, it is not poverty in itself that is the problem, but the fact that some people are poor relative to others.
In one sense it must be true that poverty is always a relative concept. It would be meaningless to describe myself as 'richer' than King Henry VIII because I have a car and he never had one, the poor dude. By that measure I'm richer by far than everyone who lived in the centuries before I was born, which may be a comforting thought in an existential sense but this is not what most people understand by the notions of wealth and poverty. Common sense dictates that when we describe people as 'poor' we are comparing them to other people in the same time and place in which they live, and in that sense the whole notion of poverty must be relative to the context:
Someone too 'poor' to own a linen shirt when everyone around him owns one would not be 'poor' in ancient Greece, sure. Hence today people plead poverty because they don't have smart phones that you need to buy bus tickets in many cities, smart televisions that you need to keep up with the news, and smart cars that you need to get from your home to your place of work especially if you live in places where public transport links are inadequate.
But just because poverty is relative in this common sense way does not mean that everybody should have an equal amount of stuff. Nor does it mean that it is 'unfair' for some people to have more than others. If the so-called fight against poverty were simply about making sure that everyone has the basic 'necessities' however that is defined, it would not be so controversial: it is easy to imagine a society that agrees that everybody should own a smart phone or whatever, and then allocates tax dollars to make sure that everybody has a smart phone. The controversy arises when the so-called fight against poverty becomes an open-ended fight to make sure that everybody has the same amount of stuff and that nobody is richer than other people. When people are accused of not being bothered about 'the poor', that is not usually an accusation that they have failed to be concerned about those lacking food to eat or a place live or even a television to entertain themselves with; it is usually an accusation that they don't seem to care whether everybody in society has the same amount of stuff.
If your house is very modest, with a bed for you to rest your head and a hob for you to cook your dinner and a shelf for you to store your books, are you allowed to be happy with that? Or are you supposed to work yourself up into a righteous lather because out there some people have ginormous mansions and servants and expensive cars and yachts, so you're supposed to become very angry because it's all just so unfair? Also, what shall we do with those who have the temerity to be content with their lot and who don't give a flying fig about the rich feckers out there - if they refuse to get angry because they haven't bothered to cry 'it's not fair!' since the age of approximately 5, then what: should they perhaps be locked up until they become enlightened enough to join the revolution?
Of course not. The thing about freedom is that people are free to care or not care about all this malarkey. The problems only arise when those who care very much feel that they must wage war against those who don't care, forcing them to make the same choices as the choices made by those who care. Rather than quietly give to charity because of how much they really care, such warriors must create lots of mandatory laws to ensure that everybody gives the same amount of money towards the cause of ensuring that society becomes ever more equal.
Some people make risky choices, just for the thrill of it, but when it comes to work, who chooses to work and who can say they were forced to work by their employer? Yes, this is about Uber again.
There is a great yawning divide between those who care very much about economic inequality and would do anything [Editor: anything?] to make sure that henceforth everybody will have the same amount of stuff, and those whose only response to the reams of data proving beyond doubt that some people are richer than others is to ask: ‘so what?’
If we start by asking whether we can reduce inequality while still enhancing market efficiency, we are assuming that ultimately we want to continue enhancing market efficiency; or at least we don’t want to push inequality-busting policies beyond the point at which efficiency would begin to erode.
What does it mean to say that a worker is being paid more than they deserve, or less than they deserve?
We are all concerned with being paid as much as other people so we can all have the same amount of stuff and feel that life is equal and fair, but we don’t usually worry about the inequality of production, or the fact that some people and nations are far more productive than others.
The problem with income inequality is that most people don’t like it when others are richer than them. As soon as winter is over and the weather turns pleasant the 99% will take to the streets to riot, burn cars, etc., to show how unhappy they are about some people being billionaires. Of course, the assumption is that billionaires must have done something wrong (cheating, stealing, being greedy, being unfair to other people, etc) to invite public ire.
Artificial intelligence is good news for skilled workers, and tragic news for unskilled workers. For sufficiently skilled workers, it will increase their productivity and free up time that would otherwise be spent doing large amounts of repetitive work so that they can focus their energies on being creative and innovative and having more fun at work, doing cool stuff. For insufficiently skilled workers, they’ll soon be replaced by robots.
It's very easy to argue that rich people should be made to pay for the stuff other people want, because they're rich and they can afford it. This is usually justified as being necessary for the public good.