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.

The Causes of Poverty (35): The Membership Theory of Poverty

When you read about the causes of poverty you’ve probably convinced yourself that there are causes, and that the poor don’t have only themselves to blame. What you’re most likely to find are the following causes:

  • culture
  • geography, climate, resources (most notably in the work of Jeffrey Sachs)
  • institutional, political and governmental causes (e.g. the resource curse, the role of the rule of law and economic freedom etc.)
  • education
  • sociological causes (e.g. family structure)
  • etc.

It’s less common to find discussions about group affiliation as a cause of poverty. The group membership theory of poverty states that some people are poor because of the dynamics of the group(s) to which they belong. The groups may be residential areas (“ghettos”), schools, ethnic groups, workplaces etc. Poverty in this sense is “contagious”, hereditary, and self-perpetuating. It’s an example of a poverty trap.

This membership theory of poverty has a certain intuitive appeal to it. Group membership influences individual behavior and individual outcomes in various ways, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see that it influences economic status as well.

How do groups exert a negative influence over their members’ economic status? Peer pressure plays a role. The choices of some members of the group become the “natural” thing to do. The desire for social acceptance can force individuals to mimic their peers. Something similar occurs with role models. The behavior of older group members or members with some form of authority becomes standard behavior. Furthermore, when people witness high rates of failure among members, this will negatively affect their aspirations and effort. Finally, social and economic activities are highly complementary. When few group members start businesses for example, few other members will have the opportunity to work for them or trade with them. Conversely, when many members engage in economically destructive activities such as crime, other members may have no other economic opportunity than to collaborate.

You may ask, if groups are so bad, why don’t people just get out? Of course, it’s not always as easy as that. When you live in a crime infested ghetto, you don’t just move uptown. People will need some form of help. In order to break negative group dynamics, you can either work on these dynamics themselves (provide better education, crime protection, economic opportunities, affirmative action schemes etc.), or you can try to influence the prior group affiliation. How do people end up in a harmful group in the first place? There may be some room for government intervention. There’s the example of school desegregation through busing in the U.S. (not highly successful however). Governments can also tweak their social housing policies. Such policies are often called associational redistribution. One should be careful, however, not to cause harm elsewhere. There’s still a right to freedom of association and a right to privacy. Governments shouldn’t mess too much with group membership.

If you want to read more about the membership theory of poverty, I recommend two papers by Steven Durlauf, here and here. Those papers also contain an overview of the empirical evidence.