Why will ‘the poor’ always be with us?

Deborah Ewing

The world is awash with theories about poverty and with policies and programmes to reduce it, yet the numbers of people living in poverty continue to increase. Even if we succeed in reducing the proportion of people living in poverty by half by 2015,[1] that will still leave 900 million people living in absolute poverty.

The majority of these will have been poor for many years. What is it that entrenches people in poverty? Who is most likely to be living in chronic poverty? And how can policy and programmes be shaped to reach those people? These are the kinds of questions that the Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC) is seeking to answer.[2]

Definitions of poverty have broadened over the decades. Although the World Bank still uses income as the indicator of poverty – absolute poverty is defined as living on less than US$1 a day – it is increasingly recognized that lack of other resources, such as basic services, social support, skills, opportunities to work and to participate in decision-making, contribute to poverty. Terms such as the ‘poorest of the poor’ and the ‘ultra-poor’ have been coined to differentiate people who are barely surviving from those on low incomes. Little attention has been paid, however, to the intractable nature of much poverty – chronic poverty.

The chronically poor are people whom orthodox development programmes have not reached – and may even have harmed. Emerging research indicates that if development policy does not look more carefully at the nature of poverty and the factors that entrench poverty, it will continue to fail hundreds of millions of people.

What is chronic poverty?

Chronic poverty is essentially poverty of long duration. It is defined as lasting at least five years but for millions of people it lasts for a lifetime – and may be inherited from parents and passed on to future generations. Significant proportions of people in Africa and Asia have been living in poverty for at least five years.[3]

A growing body of work is showing that although chronic poverty can affect anyone, particular groups are most likely to be chronically poor:

  • those suffering deprivation because of their stage in the life cycle (eg older people, children and widows);
  • people discriminated against because of their social position (eg marginalized castes, religious groups and refugees);
  • people discriminated against because of their position in the household (eg female children);
  • people with health problems and disabilities (eg people living with HIV/AIDS and those with mental health problems);
  • people in remote areas and areas affected by conflict and displacement.

However, the reasons why some people within these groups are chronically poor while others are not are not clear.

Implications for policy and poverty reduction?

If the forces that keep certain groups or individuals locked in poverty are not well understood, interventions to help people move – permanently – out of poverty will continue to bypass them. In South Africa, for example, the social security system is the main poverty reduction mechanism but at least 40 per cent of the poorest people don’t qualify for benefits and many of those who do cannot access them – or even afford to follow up their applications for grants, such as child support grants or disability grants.

As in many other developing countries, there is a large-scale need for social protection, in the form of benefits and grants, land transfers, basic services and wage protection. However, the focus – pushed by donors and the international financial institutions – tends to be more on economic growth and livelihood promotion than protection strategies. There is more emphasis on creating new jobs, opportunities and access to services than on ensuring that people are able to feed themselves, keep their homes or sustain a small business.

Development policy needs to take more account of factors that cannot be addressed simply through economic growth. CPRC research is highlighting complex relationships between vulnerability, exclusion and security. It finds that the quest for household security often locks poor people into social structures that reduce vulnerability but also keep them poor – for example engaging in full-time, low-skilled and low-paid labour. In such cases, ‘The patron-client ties that provide security also block off opportunities for increased incomes or capital accumulation’.[4]

As Hulme and Shepherd conclude: ‘The contemporary understanding of chronic poverty may be constrained but it is clear that if policy continues, as it has to date, treating the chronic poor as being like the transient poor but a little bit “further behind”, then hundreds of millions of people are likely to stay poor and many of those yet to be born will spend their lives in poverty.’

1 This is the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals. There is an annual shortfall of US$50 billion a year between estimates of aid required to meet the MDGs and what was pledged at the Monterrey Financing For Development Conference.

2 The CPRC is a partnership of research institutions and NGOs aiming to focus attention on the concept of chronic poverty. Directed from the University of Manchester, it operates from the UK, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Lesotho and South Africa, and is generating research from all these countries and many others.

3 For example, 18-24 per cent of people in South Africa – and this is expected to reach up to 30 per cent by 2010 due to HIV/AIDS; 25 per cent in Ethiopia; 22-33 per cent in India.

4 D Hulme and A Shepherd, ‘Chronic Poverty and Development Policy: An introduction’, World Development Volume 31, Issue 3, March 2003. Elsevier Science. See http://www.sciencedirect.com

For more information about CPRC and the latest research on the issue, go to http://www.chronicpoverty.org

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