The Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, defines human development as “the capacity of people to expand the freedoms they enjoy.” In his celebrated book Development as Freedom, used by the United Nations Development Program as its moral and philosophical framework, Sen argues that the distribution of income does not address the problem of inequality. For him, income measurement does not provide an adequate basis for the reasons as to why people are deprived of their well-being, or whether the kind of deprivation they suffer is worse than expected.
Sen says that income cannot provide an adequate informational basis for evaluating human well-being. For this reason, Sen makes the paradigm-shifting distinction between equality in terms of primary goods and equality in terms of capabilities. For Sen, evaluations regarding equality should not only be about resources, but about how people actually live. This requires knowing and evaluating socio-political situations, the lack of opportunities in society, or what generally are considered as “poverty traps.”
Sen uses the example of a pregnant woman and a man. Say a pregnant woman A and a man B have the same amount of money. Is their well-being comparable? The answer is no. This is because A has an inconvenience (pregnancy) which B does not have. A has other needs that B does not. This situation puts A at a disadvantage, and so, she needs more than primary goods. For instance, she will need a tremendous amount of care from her family, attention from her husband, good nutrition, and proper rest.
The reason for re-examining our judgments about inequality is the fact that giving the same amount of monetary benefit to people with different needs does not result to equality in terms of well-being. Thus, Sen’s use of equality as a starting point is a clear recognition of the value and importance of each person, and the right of each person to a life of dignity. Certain types of assistance given to people serve as mere dole-outs which cannot really change their circumstances.
The economics of welfare since the seventies evaluates human well-being through indices like the Gross National Product or the Gross Domestic Product. For instance, to address the problem of poverty, policy makers in government look at how economic growth can alleviate the lowness of income of the poorest households. The people who live below the poverty line have a lower standard of living and measures based on aggregate national income are seen to have a trickle-down effect. But the same does not reveal anything in terms of how the political and economic power structure in a society actually impacts the everyday life of people or their capacity to be able to make sound decisions in their lives as to the pursuit of meaningful things like good education.
The development theorist Des Gasper explains what the economics of welfare is about. This highly utilitarian process follows from the fact that “economic production creates wealth which is distributed as income. Income is used for consumption which results to personal utility on the part of the earner. In economic terms, utility is judged as economic well-being.” In this sense, economic well-being is the product of the income generated from the higher production inputs in the economy. A higher input into the process is something that results to gainful employment. However, the same does not consider how the imbalance in the power structures or even the political situation of a country can affect the lives of people, including their access to food and shelter.
Deprivation, destitution, and oppression suggest that the failure of a people to live a meaningful life is due to their inability to actualize their basic freedoms or capabilities towards being and doing. Women who are denied their basic rights to voice out their opinion are not free. A society in which women are not allowed to realize their full potential cannot be considered democratic nor free. Human development is not just about the lack of resources. Human poverty is irreducible to income measurement. It is fundamentally rooted in the absence of choice on the part of the people in terms of the kind of life they have reason to value.