Understanding Fluctuations in Poverty


SEATTLE, Washington — Statistics on poverty tend to be presented in a very simple way, such as how many people live on less than a dollar per day. New research is attempting to gain a more comprehensive understanding of regular fluctuations in poverty, based on a multitude of factors which could be incorporated into more effective policy.

Duke University professor of political science Anirudh Krishna studies poverty and all of its complexities. Much of his work has taken place in India, Kenya, Peru and Uganda, and his vast quantities of data have led to the development of a poverty assessment methodology termed “Stages of Progress”. This technique is complex by design, taking into account geographic location, cultural norms, economic turmoil, illness, household characteristics and other important factors based on the community being studied.

In one state of India, Andhra Pradesh, basic data shows a two percent reduction in the poverty rate, but Krishna’s 25-year study revealed that 14 percent of households were able to escape poverty while 12 percent of households fell into poverty. This kind of fluctuation is common. Across India, multiple government committees measuring poverty have had results ranging from 37 to 77 percent. In 2011, the International Monetary Fund showed that depending on the study, the reduction in global poverty between 1981 and 2005 had a discrepancy of 170 million people.

Krishna states in his book “One Illness Away” that after years of research, the best summary he can make is that poverty is a result of “frequent downward tugs” coupled with ineffective upward mobility. The leading cause of poverty in every community studied was illness and the resulting expenses, with other major factors being marriage expenses, funeral costs, and high-interest debt.

Many infectious diseases predominantly affect the poor. In 2015, sub-Saharan Africa had 91 percent of global malaria deaths. More than 95 percent of deaths from tuberculosis occur in low and middle-income countries. Diarrhea kills 2,195 children every day, and these deaths rarely occur in the U.S. or Europe. Before taking their final toll, these diseases inflict very high treatment costs on communities and families.

Beyond aggregate numbers, Krishna highlights the importance of the individual stories of poverty and illness. He describes the life of Chandibai, a woman living in the state of Gujarat, India, who had come to face USD$1,000 in debt from her husband’s medical expenses and an expensive wedding ceremony, an expected cultural norm. This amount is equivalent to about two years of income in her village, and it was accruing eight percent interest every month, doubling the loan amount every year. It is difficult to argue that macro measures like increased GDP growth would have done anything to help Chandibai.

Beyond simplistic understandings of poverty, factors such as food security, educational achievement, healthcare access, human rights and technology factor into how poverty changes all the time.

In 2013, the World Bank reported that 767 million people were living in poverty. We now know that this is not a stagnant mass of people, but an ever-changing pool consisting of millions of individual fluctuations. The fight against global poverty will only be fully effective with adaptable mechanisms, policies, and methodologies that reflect the fluctuations in poverty.

Patrick Tolosky

Photo: Flickr


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