Economic Human Rights (40): How Do Poor People Live?

The poor tend to become a number, a statistic, an undifferentiated mass, especially here on this blog. Talk of the “bottom billion” and the one-dollar-a-day people only makes things worse. Of course, it’s important to know the numbers, if only to see how well we are doing in the struggle against poverty. But to actually know what we have to do, we need to know what poverty actually means to poor people. How do these people live? Which problems do they face? Who are they? None of this can be captured in numbers or statistics. Pure quantitative analysis doesn’t help. We need qualitative stories here, and these stories will necessarily differentiate between groups of people because poverty means different things to different people.

Keeping in mind the caveat that poverty is “multidimensional” and that it varies with the circumstances, is it possible to give a more or less general impression of the “lives of the poor”? There’s an interesting attempt here. Banerjee and Duflo analyzed survey data from 13 countries in order to distill a picture of the way people live on less than one dollar a day, of the choices they have and the limits and challenges they face.

The countries are Cote d’Ivoire, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, and Timor Leste. Obviously, the lives of the poor are very different in these different countries, and vary even for different groups within each country. Still, some general information can be extracted:

  • The number of adults (i.e. those over 18) living in a family ranges from about 2.5 to about 5, with a median of about 3, which suggests a family structure where it is common for adults to live with people they are not conjugally related to (parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, etc.). When every penny counts, it helps to spread the fixed costs of living (like housing) over a larger number of people. Poverty has consequences for family structure, and vice versa.
  • Poor families have more children living with them. The fact that there are a large number of children in these families does not necessarily imply high levels of fertility, as families often have multiple adult women.
  • The poor of the world are very young on average. Older people tend to be richer simply because they have had more time to accumulate resources.
  • Food typically represents from 56 to 78 percent of consumption expenses among rural households, and 56 to 74 percent in urban areas.
  • The poor consume on average slightly less than 1400 calories a day. This is about half of what the Indian government recommends for a man with moderate activity, or a woman with heavy physical activity. As a result, health is definitely a reason for concern. Among the poor adults in Udaipur, the average “body mass index” (that is, weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) is 17.8. Sixty-five percent of poor adult men and 40 percent of adult women have a body mass index below 18.5, the standard cutoff for being underweight. Eating more would improve their BMI and their health, and yet they choose to spend relatively large amounts on entertainment. Which just shows that the poor have the same desires as anyone else and choose their priorities accordingly.
  • The poor see themselves as having a significant amount of choice, and choose not to exercise it in the direction of spending more on food. The typical poor household in Udaipur could spend up to 30 percent more on food than it actually does, just based on what it spends on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Indeed, in most of the surveys the share spent on food is about the same for the poor and the extremely poor, suggesting that the extremely poor do not feel the need to purchase more calories. This conclusion echoes an old finding in the literature on nutrition: Even the extremely poor do not seem to be as hungry for additional calories as one might expect.
  • Tap water and electricity are extremely rare among the poor.
  • Many poor households have multiple occupations. They may operate their own one-man business, sometimes more than one, but do so with almost no productive assets. They also have jobs as laborers, often in agriculture. And they cultivate a piece of land they own. Yet, agriculture is not the mainstay of most of these households. Where do they find non-agricultural work? They migrate. The businesses they operate are very small, lacking economies of scale and without employment opportunities for people outside the family. That’s a vicious circle because it means that few people can find a job and are forced to start petty businesses themselves. This circle makes economies of scale very difficult.
  • The poor tend not to become too specialized, which has its costs. As short-term migrants, they have little chance of learning their jobs better, ending up in a job that suits their specific talents or being promoted. Even the non-agricultural businesses that the poor operate typically require relatively little specific skills. The reason for this lack of specialization is probably risk spreading. If the weather is bad and crop yields are low, people can move to another occupation.
  • The poor don’t save a lot, unsurprisingly. Some of it has to do with inadequate access to credit and insurance markets. Banks and insurers are unwilling to give access to the poor and saving at home is hard to do; it’s unsafe and the presence of money at home increases the temptation to spend (that’s true for all of us by the way).
  • In 12 of the 13 countries in the sample, with the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, at least 50 percent of both boys and girls aged 7 to 12 in extremely poor households are in school. Schooling doesn’t take a large bite from the family budget of the poor because children in poor households typically attend public schools or other schools that do not charge a fee.

Measuring Poverty (11): The Subjective Approach

Usually, we measure poverty on the basis of objective numbers about income or consumption. Income or consumption levels are put on a continuum from lowest to highest and somewhere along the continuum we put a threshold that indicates the difference between poor and non-poor. For example, the Indian government uses a consumption threshold of 2,400 calories a day in rural areas and 2,100 in urban areas. The World Bank uses an income threshold of one dollar a day (corrected for purchasing power).

There are numerous disadvantages to these objective approaches. One is the inevitably arbitrary positioning of the threshold. One dollar a day, even after correction for purchasing power, means different things to different people in different areas, circumstances, groups etc. Calorie intake also means different things to different people, depending on people’s way of life etc. Moreover, income levels are notoriously difficult to measure (poor people in particular have a lot of informal income, e.g. “income” coming from all sorts of assistance from relatives etc.). Consumption as well is a difficult measure: it doesn’t necessarily have to mean just calorie intake for example. Poverty can mean a lack of non-food consumption. And if you focus on calorie levels after all, you’ll miss the issue of the quality of the food.

Also the third most common approach to poverty measurement suffers from some disadvantages. This approach, also called the multidimensional approach, tries to assess to what extent people suffer from a series of different types of deprivation: do they have access to water, to electricity, are they literate, malnourished etc. Rather than purely quantitative these measurements can be qualitative: a binary yes/no is often enough. Unfortunately, also this measurement system has some drawbacks: it fails to distinguish between deprivation and choice; there’s necessarily a level of arbitrariness in the determination of the “basic needs” or forms of deprivation that are measured; and these needs are often overly general, obscuring some very specific needs for some people in some areas or groups.

That’s why people have been searching for alternative measures of poverty. One such alternative is the use of surveys that ask people about poverty. You could ask people what they believe is “the smallest amount of money a family needs each week to get along in this community”, “what is the level of income below which families can’t make ends meet” etc. That would remove some of the arbitrariness of the cutoff line between poor and non-poor, and putting that decision in the hands of the people rather than the scientists.

Or you could also present people with evocative descriptions of different family situations, of types of families according to their level of income or consumption or according to the type of deprivation. People would then have to decide for every family situation what they believe the standard of living is and which situation can be described as “poverty”. That would specify what poverty means to people. And what it means to people is much more important than what it means to researchers and statisticians.

A disadvantage of this subjective approach is the wellknown effect that people’s income levels affect their judgments about income adequacy. In short, relatively rich people overestimate the level of income inadequacy. A solution to this problem could be to ask only poor respondents about poverty, on the reasonable assumption that poor people are the best experts on poverty. But that’s a circular reasoning: you already think you know what poverty is before you start asking about it. Since you focus only on the poor, you’ve already decided what poverty is.

An advantage of the subjective approach is that researchers don’t have to list basic needs or types of deprivation in order to assess what poverty is; people tell you what poverty is. There’s also no need for researchers to specify regionally or socially undifferentiated and general cutoff levels of income or consumption below which people are considered to be poor.

What is Poverty? (5): A Psychological Thing

Poverty is not just the absence of sufficient income or a level of consumption that is below a minimum threshold. Poverty is multidimensional: it also means bad health, high mortality rates, illiteracy etc. And these different elements of poverty tend to have a negative effect on each other (the so-called poverty trap). Being deprived of literacy or education is usually seen as an obstacle to material wellbeing.

The absence of material wellbeing – whether expressed in terms of income, consumption, health, mortality etc. – is often viewed as an isolated evil. However, it’s possible to make the case that it can also have psychological effects that harm people’s mental wellbeing. If this is true, and I think it is, then poverty does more harm than we usually think it does.

I believe it’s widely accepted that poverty does some psychological damage, such as stress, depression, loss of self-esteem and of the feeling of control, loss of ambition and aspirations etc. Although usually people assume – correctly or not – that this type of damage is less severe or less urgent than the physical damage that results from poverty (such as bad health, mortality, hunger etc.). Some even argue that there’s a tendency to overemphasize the link between material deprivation and (the perception of) subjective wellbeing, and that psychological problems which may seem to be caused by material deprivation have in fact other causes (genetics, upbringing, personality etc.).

However, I think the tendency is rather to underestimate the effects on mental wellbeing. A recognition of the psychological effects of poverty would also open the possibility of a more positive evaluation of notions such as poverty as vulnerability and relative poverty. Vulnerability, or a high level of risk of poverty, can perhaps produce the same amount of stress as actual poverty. And one’s self-esteem can suffer as much from actual deprivation (including illiteracy) as from comparative (or relative) deprivation (e.g. comparatively low levels of education or income).

Measuring Poverty (10): Multidimensional Poverty

Poverty can be many different things. It can be different things to different people in different countries or circumstances. It can mean one thing for people in Africa and another for people in the favelas in Rio, and still another for those in the inner-cities in the U.S. It’s probably different for men, women and children. It can be absolute deprivation or relative poverty (i.e. inequality). It can be insufficient income or insufficient consumption. It can be a lack of one thing or another. For some people it means inadequate healthcare, for others it means insufficient water. It can be physical suffering or the stress inherent in insecurity. It can be malnutrition or a lack of self-esteem. It can be illiteracy or child mortality. Etc.

Most poverty measurement systems try to keep it simple. The most common systems just measure income. Poverty is then insufficient income (typically below $1-a-day, corrected for purchasing power; this measures the number of people incapable of buying a basic basket of commodities). That makes sense, because without sufficient income, you’re likely to experience child mortality, illiteracy, malnutrition, inequality, water shortages, stress, insecurity and all the other nasty things that come with poverty.

However, it is important to know those details of poverty. Two people who both have an income of less than one dollar a day, may experience very different consequences: one may be deprived in lots of areas, the other one maybe in just a few. One may lack good health, may be starving and may be illiterate. The other one may just be illiterate. If we want to help people, it’s important to know what the exact nature of their problem is. Which we don’t if we just focus on how much their income is.

That is why some researchers at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative at the University of Oxford have tried to come up with a so-called Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI).

The index seeks to build up a picture of the prevalence of poverty based on the fraction of households who lack certain basic things. Some of these are material. Does a family home have a dirt or dung floor? Does it lack a decent toilet? Must members of the household travel more than 30 minutes on foot to get clean water to drink? Do they live without electricity? Others relate to education, such as whether any school-age children are not enrolled or whether nobody in the family has finished primary school. Still others concern health, such as whether any member of a household is malnourished. A household is counted as poor if it is deprived on over 30% of the ten indicators used. Researchers can then calculate the percentage of people in each country who are “multidimensionally poor”. (source)

Such a multidimensional approach has the advantage of identifying which specific aspect(s) of poverty is/are most common in certain areas or among certain groups of people. It shows how people are poor, and what contributes most to poverty in a specific place and among a specific group. This will obviously greatly enhance response capacity. Rather than just trying to generally increase income, we can target our efforts more specifically: in one area or among one group of people we know that we should focus on nutrition; elsewhere we know that we should focus on literacy for instance. The MPI also shows us how different aspects of poverty overlap: for example, how many people who are illiterate also have health problems?

If 30% of people are malnourished and 30% of children are out of school, it would be useful to know if these deprivations affect the same families or different ones. (source)

The approach also helps us to distinguish between deprivation and choice. People may actually prefer mud floors to concrete floors in some places, and don’t consider having a mud floor as a form of deprivation. It also helps to identify the depth of poverty: deprivation along a wide spectrum of indicators means that poverty is deeper.

Unsurprisingly, the results of the MPI are substantially different from traditional poverty measurements:

Also the totals are different:

About 1.7 billion people in the countries covered – a third of their entire population – live in multidimensional poverty, according to the MPI. This exceeds the 1.3 billion people, in those same countries, estimated to live on $1.25 a day or less, the more commonly accepted measure of ‘extreme’ poverty. (source)

One of the disadvantages of this new approach is the weighting of the different measures: there’s inevitably some arbitrariness involved. Is the death of a child equivalent to having a dirt floor? Worse? How much worse? More criticism of the MPI is here.

There’s a really cool interactive map of the MPI here.