Who are the real poor ?
The existence of poverty is as old as human civilisation itself, and
concerns about it have a long theoretical, conceptual and empirical
tradition. Almost all holy books, from the Gita, Mahabharat, Ramayan and
Koran to the Bible, illustrate that poverty existed in contemporary
societies. These holy books have also asserted that God would always
help the poor in one way or the other.
This implies that, for effective human action against poverty, God
must bless someone with the ability that uncovers the truth relating to
the robust identification of the poor.
Yet, no consensus exists on what is, or how to measure poverty, or
who really are the poor. So anti-poverty policies suffer in targeting
the poor. Hence, God's wish to help the poor largely remains
unaccomplished. Nevertheless, the most learned perspectives equate
poverty with the inability to participate in society with dignity.
Indeed, a host of monetary and non-monetary factors force people to
live in poverty. The fact of the matter is that identification of the
poor not only facilitates policy and project design, but it also
determines resources needed. This is the reason why so much research and
investigation are underway in identifying the poor.
Poverty: Helping the poor largely remains unaccomplished
According to classical economist Adam Smith, poverty is a lack of
those necessities that the custom of the society renders it indecent for
creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without. For the
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, the poor cannot participate adequately in
communal activities, or be free of public shame from failure to satisfy
Furthermore, there has always been a distinction in the public's mind
between the deserving poor - those unable to work due to age, disability
or sickness - and the undeserving poor - able-bodied individuals without
Very often, these attitudes establish conflicting objectives for most
of the social support programmes, in particular, and identification and
dealing with poverty issues, in general.
Knowledge of poverty
Despite these advancements, the knowledge of poverty and human
deprivation would always be imperfect. But in recent times, the
knowledge base has been greatly strengthened. The problematisation of
poverty and systematic studies and understandings about it are
relatively recent, however.
Such efforts started with the end of World War II and the subsequent
creation of the United Nations and other multilateral institutions,
which have approached poverty differently over the years.
Before that, starting from Adam Smith, material progress was the
expression almost invariably used by mainstream economists to
conceptualise development as a medium of overcoming poverty.
Consequently, many attempts have been made to construct poverty lines
- a tool for measuring poverty, both nationally and internationally, and
monitoring changes over time - to overcome a host of conceptual and
empirical shortcomings such as per capita total household expenditure
over a noisy indicator of per capita household income.
Various research studies employ various techniques to identify the
poor. One most common method is calculating expenditure on food per
household. Then based on the previously set poverty line, it is
determined whether that household falls below the line.
For the World Bank, households having less than 1 dollar per person
per day fall below the poverty line.
However, as Robert Chamber stated eloquently, such a tendency to
define poverty blurs distinctions and sustains stereotypes of the
amorphous and undifferentiated mass of the poor. Precisely, the income
or the expenditure-based poverty measurement largely excludes the
intrahousehold distribution of food and non-food items.
Also, such a measurement does not take into account the well being
derived from public provisioning. For example, if a society provides
free education and health services to all its citizens, households in
that society would benefit, despite their low incomes. Sri Lanka and the
Indian state of Kerala are the best examples in this regard.
In addition, the per capita monetary measure of poverty cannot
examine the gaps and severity among the poor, rather it assumes all the
poor as being equally poor. But in reality, some poor fall just below
the poverty line while others remain far below the poverty line.
Also, there may be many people who remain just above the poverty line
and vulnerable to falling below the poverty line if they face some sort
of negative income shock. Such a shock could be a fall in their real
incomes in the face of rising prices of the commodities they consume or
entitlement failure owing to some structural changes in the economy.
One such case, for instance, a haphazard engagement with capital
intensive technology is likely to result in a rise in unemployment,
pulling people below the poverty line. Moreover, we must take into
account the fact that money in the pocket does not automatically
translate into well being, which is the end result of poverty reduction.
Owing to many flaws in the consumption/income-based poverty
measurement method, new techniques have been brought up. One such
innovative technique is the Physical Quality of Life Index, which does
not explicitly take into account the money income, rather it focuses on
other more direct aspects of well-being such as health, education and
Again, the most accepted poverty measure these days is the Human
Development Index, which summarises health, education and standard of
living in a composite form, which shows the extent of deprivation.
However, this method also has many criticisms. Among others, such
criticisms rest on the fact that while it provides an insightful
aggregate ranking, it largely fails to capture the disaggregations
within the ranking. Concretely, it does not provide us with the
information about which group is most deprived.
Hence, knowledge about how to identify the deserving poor has been
constantly evolving over the years. While identification of the
deserving poor has profound implications for policy response, an
incorrect identification is equally likely to create policy noise and
Academics and policymakers around the world have been trying hard to
come up with a robust measure of poverty.
Let us wish God blesses someone to accomplish this task so that
he/she would not only be granted the prestigious Nobel Prize in
Economics for this investigation in the coming years, but also the
world's poor are really helped to come out of their miseries.