The basic needs approach is one of the major approaches to the measurement of absolute poverty in developing countries. It attempts to define the absolute minimum resources necessary for long-term physical well-being, usually in terms of consumption goods. The poverty line is then defined as the amount of income required to satisfy those needs. The 'basic needs' approach was introduced by the International Labour Organization's World Employment Conference in 1976. "Perhaps the high point of the WEP was the World Employment Conference of 1976, which proposed the satisfaction of basic human needs as the overriding objective of national and international development policy. The basic needs approach to development was endorsed by governments and workers’ and employers’ organizations from all over the world. It influenced the programmes and policies of major multilateral and bilateral development agencies, and was the precursor to the human development approach."
A traditional list of immediate "basic needs" is food (including water), shelter and clothing. Many modern lists emphasize the minimum level of consumption of 'basic needs' of not just food, water, clothing and shelter, but also sanitation, education, and healthcare. Different agencies use different lists.
The basic needs approach has been described as consumption-oriented, giving the impression "that poverty elimination is all too easy." Amartya Sen focused on 'capabilities' rather than consumption.
In the development discourse, the basic needs model focuses on the measurement of what is believed to be an eradicable level of poverty. Development programs following the basic needs approach do not invest in economically productive activities that will help a society carry its own weight in the future, rather it focuses on allowing the society to consume just enough to rise above the poverty line and meet its basic needs. These programs focus more on subsistence than fairness. Nevertheless, in terms of "measurement", the basic needs or absolute approach is important. The 1995 world summit on social development in Copenhagen had, as one of its principal declarations that all nations of the world should develop measures of both absolute and relative poverty and should gear national policies to "eradicate absolute poverty by a target date specified by each country in its national context."
Professor Chris Sarlo, an economist at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario, Canada and a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute, uses Statistics Canada's socio-economic databases, particularly the Survey of Household Spending to determine the cost of a list of household necessities. The list includes food, shelter, clothing, health care, personal care, essential furnishings, transportation and communication, laundry, home insurance, and miscellaneous; it assumes that education is provided freely to all residents of Canada. This is calculated for various communities across Canada and adjusted for family size. With this information, he determines the proportion of Canadian households that have insufficient income to afford those necessities. Based on his basic needs poverty threshold, the poverty rate in Canada, the poverty rate has declined from about 12% of Canadian households to about 5% since the 1970s. This is in sharp contrast to the results of Statistic Canada, Conference Board of Canada, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and UNESCO reports using the relative poverty measure considered to the most useful for advanced industrial nations like Canada, which Sarlo rejects.
OECD and UNICEF rate Canada's poverty rate much higher using a relative poverty threshold. Statistics Canada's LICO, which Sarlo also rejects, also result in higher poverty rates. According to a 2008 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the rate of poverty in Canada, is among the highest of the OECD member nations, the world's wealthiest industrialized nations. There is no official government definition and therefore, measure, for poverty in Canada. However, Raphael Dennis, author of Poverty in Canada: Implications for Health and Quality of Life reported that the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Canadian poverty researchers find that relative poverty is the "most useful measure for ascertaining poverty rates in wealthy developed nations such as Canada." In its report released the Conference Board
The Municipality of Rosario, Batangas, Philippines implemented its Aksyon ng Bayan Rosario 2001 And Beyond Human and Ecological Security Plan using this concept as a core strategy through the Minimum Basic Needs Approach to Improved Quality of Life - Community-Based Information System (MBN-CBIS) prescribed by the Philippine Government. This approach helped the municipal government identify priority families and communities for intervention, as well as rationalize the allocation of its social development funds.
In the United States, the equivalent measures are called self-sufficiency standards or living income standards. Unlike the federal poverty level (FPL), which is calculated from a single, national variable (cost of food), these models assume that different households have different needs, based on factors such as the number and age of children in the household, and the cost of housing in the particular area (usually a county) that they live in. In keeping with the principles of basic needs, these measurements do not include any extra money for entertainment, savings, debt payment, or unusual or avoidable expenses, such as vehicle repairs. It assumes that adults will be working and pay taxes; it also includes costs of all government, charitable, and family subsidies, such as free medical care through Medicaid, free food from the USDA food stamps program or a food bank, or free childcare from a grandparent. All of these costs are ignored by the official FPL measurement, but included in a self-sufficiency standard.
Minimum expenses vary by region. For housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and other necessary expenses, plus net taxes, a family in middle-class Warren County in northwestern Pennsylvania of one adult and two children (one preschooler, one school-aged) needed a minimum income of $30,269 to pay its own way in 2006. Child care is the largest expense in this budget, followed by housing, taxes, and food. The same family, living in the wealthy Seattle region of Washington would need to earn $48,269 to be self-sufficient while remaining in that location. These figures contrast sharply with the FPL for that year, which was just $16,600 for any three-person household.
- In 1992 Sarlo argued that the difference between absolute and relative poverty thresholds is artificial since "what is considered to be a necessity depends to some extent on the conditions in the larger society in which one is a member (Sarlo 1992: 19)." In 1992 and again in 2001 Sarlo clarified that the basic needs poverty line is not absolute but relative, since the poverty threshold must be "connected to the society in which people live" but that an "aspect of poverty remains timeless" (Sarlo 2001:11). This is the "irreducible core of necessities invariant through time:"..."water, food, shelter and clothing (Sarlo 1992: 19)" which remains the same through time but the "quantity and quality" are relative to one's society.
- The Conference Board of Canada "uses the OECD’s relative measure of child poverty, which calculates the proportion of children living in households where disposable income is less than 50 per cent of the median in each country." The Conference Board 2013 cautioned that Canada’s high poverty rate, ranks among the worst of the 17 countries they compared. "Canada’s child poverty rate was 15.1 per cent, up from 12.8 per cent in the mid-1990s. Only the United States ranked lower.
- Anthropological theories of value
- Ecosystem services
- Maslow's hierarchy of needs
- Living wage, a wage that is high enough to meet basic needs
- Basic income
- Standard of living
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