Understanding the Puzzling Nature of Poverty
PONDICHERRY, INDIA — Rahul Gandhi, the general secretary of India’s Congress party, often says that there exist “two Indias” — one of the rich, and one of the poor.
Those two Indias were in evidence a couple of weeks ago, when closely timed events on opposite sides of the planet brought into relief the deep divides that in many ways define this country.
In Mumbai on Nov. 7, President Barack Obama told a group of students that India was no longer a “rising power,” but rather an “already risen” power. He celebrated an economy that “has risen at a breathtaking rate.”
Three days earlier, in New York, the United Nations released the 20th edition of its Human Development Report, a publication that has in many ways become the authoritative measure of poverty and deprivation.
India ranked 119th of 169 countries. The nation’s eight poorest states contain as many poor as the 26 poorest African countries combined. In terms of life expectancy and even gender inequality, India rates below its neighbors of Bangladesh and Pakistan.
None of these figures deny the remarkable strides India has made in recent years. But if India is indeed a risen power, then it has risen despite its terrible poverty — despite lingering inequality and despite widespread deprivation that has left millions in conditions that are almost medieval.
After nearly two decades of economic changes that were to have ushered in an era of prosperity, it is clear that in some ways the nation has been naïve: high growth rates alone cannot cure poverty.
The problem, as Anirudh Krishna, a political scientist at Duke University in North Carolina, and the author of a remarkable new study on poverty, put it to me, is that “poverty in India has become very resilient. The numbers hardly budge.”
Indeed, while official estimates suggest that poverty has declined since the advent of reforms, other recent studies suggest that it is in fact far more widespread than had been thought.
At least three government committees have been formed to count the poor in India. The variance in their findings — ranging from 37.2 percent to 77 percent — suggests not only the prevalence of poverty, but also that its very nature is misunderstood. For all the attention directed at the issue, poverty remains something of a mystery.
Mr. Krishna’s study, published in September as “One Illness Away: Why People Become Poor and How They Escape Poverty,” is in large part an effort to peel away the layers of this mystery. The outcome of a decade of work in five countries, and the result of conversations and surveys with more than 35,000 families, one of its chief goals — and accomplishments — is to flesh out our understanding of economic deprivation.
There are several insights in this book, but one of Mr. Krishna’s more important is that, as he writes, “poverty is not an undifferentiated mass living beneath some theoretical or statistical line.” It is, rather, a constantly churning pool of deprivation, with those who escape being replenished by a new population that has fallen from relative prosperity.
In a 25-year study he conducted in Andhra Pradesh State, for example, Mr. Krishna found that while 14 percent of households escaped poverty, another 12 percent became poor. Overall, there was a 2 percent reduction in the poverty rate, but 26 percent of households had seen their status change.
This understanding of poverty as nonstatic, always in flux, has policy implications. It suggests that welfare programs need to be designed not just to raise people out of poverty, but also to prevent those who are not poor — and thus perhaps off the radar of such programs — from descending into poverty.
In particular, Mr. Krishna’s research highlights the major role played by illness in pushing people over the edge. He writes about “chains of negative events” that lead, through costly hospital bills, unemployment and debt, into economic hardship.
“I am fully convinced that we can’t reduce poverty in India without first doing something about health care,” he said.
Mr. Krishna’s ideas for alleviating poverty are generally convincing. But what is most persuasive about this book is less the policy prescriptions than the nuanced and rich portrait of poverty that informs those prescriptions.
Earlier in his career, Mr. Krishna worked as an Indian Administrative Service officer, spending much of his time in rural India. This on-the-ground experience clearly guides his research — his understanding that poverty is not a uniform phenomenon, that it varies across communities, and that it means different things to different people.
While working as a government officer, Mr. Krishna said, he frequently found that closely located villages, benefiting from the same welfare programs, nonetheless had widely divergent levels of development. This led him to conclude that “it’s not just a question of getting the program right; there’s something about a village that mattered.”
In other words, poverty, and its cures, are highly context sensitive. Welfare schemes can only succeed if they take account of local conditions.
In practice, Mr. Krishna suggests that this means government programs need to include a strong degree of local control. They must be broad enough to work across nations and regions, but flexible enough to allow for local variance. As a model, he points to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a public works program that allows villages to set their own priorities by choosing which projects receive government funds.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the dangers of overly broad approaches to development, arguing that it was essential to stay close to the ground and focus on details. That argument is reinforced by Mr. Krishna’s work, which suggests the multiplicity of conditions included under the general rubric of poverty.
Like cancer, poverty is not a single disease. It is a scourge with many symptoms and causes. And it is for that reason that, also like cancer, it is so difficult to eradicate.