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Extreme Poverty is More than Just Living on $1.25 a Day

Quentin Wodon's picture

“I want my children to be able to go to school. I don't want them to suffer like me.” Little by little this dream disappears as a piece of sugar, as water that runs through your hands. The long lists of material, a simple button that is missing on a shirt, this can be the end of a dream for learning to read and write.

This short text from Peru published on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty website illustrates how the very poor struggle every day. An empty stomach, a lack of clothes, a gap in learning may all lead children in poverty to miss school and ultimately drop out. Keeping the dreams of these children and their parents alive is in essence the message of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Every year on October 17, communities around the world gather to pay honor to the struggles of the extreme poor to emerge from poverty.
The celebration of the day dates back to Joseph Wresinski, a Catholic priest who founded the International Movement ATD Fourth World. On October 17, 1987, Wresinski and his organization gathered 100,000 people in Paris, France to honor the victims of extreme poverty, violence and hunger. They unveiled a commemorative stone that proclaims: “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.” The stone has been replicated in other countries including Burkina Faso, Canada, Germany, Philippines, Portugal Reunion Island, Switzerland, and the US. The international day was recognized by the United Nations in 1993.

Why did Wresinski make a link between extreme poverty and human rights? Wresinski’s understanding of the plight of the extreme poor emerged from his life experience (he was born poor) and 40 years of grass-roots involvement with families in extreme poverty in both developing and developed countries. Instead of defining extreme poverty solely in monetary terms, he used the following definition in a report for the French Economic and Social Council:
“A lack of basic security is the absence of one or more factors that enable individuals and families to assume basic responsibilities and to enjoy fundamental rights. Such a situation may become more extended and lead to more serious and permanent consequences. Extreme poverty results when the lack of basic security simultaneously affects several aspects of people's lives, when it is prolonged, and when it severely compromises people's chances of regaining their rights and of reassuming their responsibilities in the foreseeable future.”
This definition has been adopted in several United Nations reports. It is very different from the consumption-based ($1.25 a day) definition used by the World Bank (for a first-rate analysis of extreme poverty so defined, see the report released last week by Dean Jolliffe, Peter Lanjouw and colleagues). The Bank’s definition of extreme poverty makes sense for practical measurement purposes at a global level. But as a definition it does not necessarily provide much insight into what goes on in the life of the extreme poor. Wresinki’s approach tried to do that.  It relies on three main ideas.
First, according to Wresinski, extreme poverty results from a lack of basic securities – not only a lack of income, but also the lack of education, employment, housing, health care, and civil and political rights. Beyond some threshold, the insecurity endured by the poor is such that the lack of multiple basic securities leads to extreme deprivation. The extreme poor then become prisoners of a vicious circle. With no security left as a solid foundation to rely upon, they cannot emerge from extreme poverty by themselves.
Second, the extreme poor often share a long history of deprivation, and as a result, from exclusion and isolation. The longer a person experiences extreme poverty, the more socially excluded he/she may become.
Third, for each human right, the link between the exercise of that right – for example, raising one’s children, and the corresponding responsibility – in that case being able to provide for one’s children, may be broken for the very poor. The very poor often say that what is hardest in their life is precisely the difficulties they face in being good parents and neighbors. Wresinski further argued that the life of the extreme poor is a prime example of the indivisibility of human rights.
Wresinski’s approach to extreme poverty was based on the reality of everyday life for the extreme poor. His approach is complex, but rich in insights. Because the extreme poor suffer from multiple disadvantages, multi-sectoral integrated policies are required to help them succeed in their own efforts to emerge from poverty.  

The theme of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty this year is: “Leave No One Behind: Think, Decide and Act Together against Extreme Poverty.” Wresinski was convinced that the extreme poor know best what is required to fight poverty, and that we should learn from them. They can indeed teach us a few things about life and resilience.

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Submitted by Emcet Tas on

Dear Quentin, thank you for this article. It is now widely acknowledged that poverty is more than material deprivation and is underpinned by a number of interlocking factors, including powerlessness, inequality, exclusion, lack of voice and control over decisions, among other things. These ideas have been a part of the mainstream development discourse for several decades now, and in fact, World Bank staff have made important contributions to it since the days of the WDR 1990 and the Voices of the Poor. What, then, drives the urge to search for strictly monetary measures in measuring societal progress - even at national or subnational levels? In your view, is there a missing link between 'learning' from those who live in poverty and 'applying' that knowledge to development policy and practice? Thanks.

Dear Erncet, you are right that the multidimensionality of (extreme) poverty has been recognized for some time. My understanding of Wresinski's thought is that his take is a bit different from common approaches to multidimensionality. He tries to highlight not only outcomes and their measure, but also the process that leads people to become extreme poor. He also makes this interesting link between extreme poverty and human rights/responsibilities, which brings the ethical dimension of extreme poverty into play…
As to why we continue to focus largely on the measurement of consumption-based poverty, the short answer is probably that these measures are easier to use, especially for global measurement. I actually believe that consumption-based measures are very useful – insufficient resources to meet basic needs are clearly a key aspect of extreme poverty. Whether we use national or global poverty lines for applied work, we need to continue to do this work – as done in the recent Bank report I mentioned.
But we seem not to have enough systematic work on the other dimensions of extreme poverty, for example to highlight agency and social exclusion processes that contribute to the plight of the extreme poor and the fact that emerging from extreme poverty is so hard. There is of course a lot of research underway on many different sub-topics – but in applied policy work, the bulk of our attention continues to go to consumption-based poverty analysis. Again, this maybe in part because in policy work time and resources are often lacking to go beyond that. Trying to broaden the focus of work on extreme poverty on the basis of an understanding of the daily life of the poor as seen from their point of view was part of what Wresinski was trying to do, and this is also at the core of the idea behind the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

Submitted by Emcet Tas on

Dear Quentin, thank you for this thoughtful response. I agree about the usefulness of consumption measures, especially for studying certain aspects of poverty. However, availability of consumption data is not coincidental - it is the result of years of investment in socioeconomic surveys because of the belief that poverty is about 'objectively measured' outcomes. At the end of the day, we collect data on what we value, and our disciplinary biases play a large role in what we consider to be important, 'objective' or robust measures of poverty. There are wealth of research and methodologies for measuring both the outcomes and processes of deprivation (see for instance, the Chronic Poverty Research Center and OECD's How's Life?) and I think it's time for mainstream development agencies to make better use of these interdisciplinary approaches. Thanks again for your response.

Submitted by Diana Skelton on

Thanks for this timely and well-argued post. Another factor worth considering when we measure extreme poverty is that of shame--which has recently been researched by Oxford's Robert Walker who delved into Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's contention that shame lies at the core of poverty:

Dear Diana
The book by Walker looks interesting, and links nicely to how Wresinski discussed some of the differences between poverty and extreme poverty/misery.  While household survey data used to measure poverty and look at (among other things) education, health, labor markets, social capital, and many other topics typically do not include data on shame. Many surveys now include data on household perceptions on whether households feel poor or very poor, and how they rate services provided by governments, NGOs, and the private sector. Questions are also often asked about how households see poverty. But issues related to feelings of social exclusion and especially shame have not yet been documented much, at least in developing countries. This would have to be researched carefully, but questionnaires could be field-tested. This does seem like an interesting and important area of future research in development.

Submitted by Diana Skelton on

In addition to the book, Walker has also begun sharing some of his research through videoclips of some of the interviews. Three of these can be found here:
One of the things I liked about his research is that it focused not only on open-ended interviews with people in poverty about how they see their lives, but also on interviews with middle-class people in each country about how they consider the poor. He also looked at the ways poverty is portrayed in local film industries, or in literature chosen for secondary school curricula, to find out how people creating culture see the disenfranchised, and whether culture perpetrates stereotypes.

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