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An impoverished perception of poverty

An impoverished perception of poverty

By Andy Norman

As an aspiring Development Economist, “poverty” is a word I come across all the time. What are the poverty trends in country X? How do we reduce poverty in country Y? What are the drivers of poverty in country Z?

Yet, despite its ubiquity in development discussions, the predominant ways in which poverty is defined, measured and reported are malnourished in the extreme.

The UNDP recently asked a group of 5-year-olds in New York City what they thought poverty meant. Their answers were:

  • “Not having a proper house.”
  • “Not having a proper school.”
  • “Not having enough to eat.”
  • “In some places, girls can’t go to school.”
  • “An earthquake hit my country, and people lost everything.”
  • “Not having enough money.”

The standard measure I see reported time and again in the media is the poverty line. In October 2015, the World Bank announced a new international poverty line of $1.90 per day. This craftily simplistic measure allows us to say that somebody living on $1.89 is in poverty, yet his or her neighbour who earns $0.01 more is not.

Even more bizarrely, someone living on, let’s say, $1.80 was plunged into a life of poverty overnight by the World Bank–I do hope the Bank bothered to notify them on the drastic deterioration of their circumstances. I’m being deliberately obtuse, of course, but it serves to illustrate the absurdly arbitrary nature of poverty lines.

These lines are also downright dangerous. They encourage policymakers to focus on those living just under the poverty line. In the same way a teacher who is assessed on the percent of students achieving a C or above may well focus on those with D’s rather than those failing completely, policymakers trying to reduce poverty have a greater incentive to focus on people living just below the poverty line than on those living far below it–the people who are undoubtedly more in need of help. The mercenary truth is that those living on $1.89 offer policymakers more bang for their buck.

These lines also incentivise policymakers to define poverty as something that falls comfortably within the confines of income analysis. However, out of the twenty kindergarten students asked, only one mentioned money (note that none argued the case for an international poverty line of $1.90).

Do we really need five-year-olds to tell us that poverty is a multi-dimensional concept that defies the restrictions of monetary analysis?

The problem is that poverty lines are easily understood and simple to report, making them perfect for media outlets tailored toward short attention spans. While they are useful tools for galvanising support in the fight against global poverty, poverty lines only tell a fraction of the story.

A quick Google search tells me that 46.6% percent of people in Tanzania were living on less than $1.90 per day in 2011. Is this all I need to understand poverty here? Absolutely not–I must dig a lot deeper to appreciate the country’s complexities. Are people permanently below the poverty line? Do they have the opportunity to escape? Are they malnourished? Are their human rights being abused? Do they have access to good healthcare and education? Do people have social lives? Will they live a long life? Do they have fulfilling jobs? I could go on.

I see incredibly intelligent young people here working in unskilled jobs, such security guards, for something like $60 per month, simply because their circumstances did not afford them the chance to get a good education. It is this poverty of opportunity that really troubles me, and it’s something that poverty lines completely fail to capture.

Poverty is at the centre of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. When assessing humanity’s success in reaching these goals, I hope the UN listens to the wisdom of these five-year-old New-Yorkers. We must dare to look outside the cosy confines of poverty lines, because a world in which everyone lives on $1.91 per day is no guarantee of a world without poverty.

Andy Norman is currently living in western Tanzania and working with Seed Change. He recently graduated with a Master’s degree in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. Andy blogs at AndyNormDevelopment, and you can also follow him on Twitter.

Featured image shows homes in a village in Karatu District, Tanzania. Photo from Pixabay.

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5 thoughts on “An impoverished perception of poverty

  1. Baba

    The problem is that you are beung obtuse without justification. All development economists know that poverty cutoff points are just that. Multidimensional concepts of poverty are built into the human development paradigm. And you are confusing reporting for programming. I know development work sucks and mostly fails, and that is the bigger issue. Not the poverty lines themselves.

  2. […] adds to my critique of the World Bank’s poverty line use published on WhyDev. Even if you want to examine poverty through a monetary lens, mean income is […]

  3. Rick

    Good argument Andy, and there are parallels in medicine. Diabetes, hypertension, autism etc are all diagnosed on the basis of a spectrum withcutoff points. Health economics, I suspect, requires such definitions to direct resources appropriately. Could the same be true in development economics?

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