Chapter 3 - Stratification, deprivation and quality of life  pp. 40-59

By Walter Scheidel

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Who is poor? There is a propensity to assimilate poverty to destitution. Other perspectives are possible. I would suggest that poverty assumes greater historical importance when the term is applied very loosely, in the sense of asking if societies as a whole were ‘impoverished’, and how this affected their development. There seem to me to be two ways of exploring this issue. One is by looking at the overall asset and income distribution in a society as a whole, in order to determine to what extent the concentration of resources at the top led to deprivation and impoverishment (however defined) of the general population. Alternatively, we may focus on the quality of life or human development as an indicator of overall well-being. This takes account of non-economic variables that are known to influence well-being, and in the absence of representative statistical data, such general factors (which include disparate features such as health, literacy, gender roles and legal rights) tend to be easier to study than a more narrowly defined phenomenon such as ‘poverty’. It also enables us to employ cross-cultural comparison both within the ancient world and between ancient and more recent societies, and to relate our research to the flourishing field of modern development studies. Both approaches ought to enhance the relevance of our findings to other disciplines.