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End Poverty Day

Behind Closed Doors: how traditional measures of poverty mask inequality inside the household and a new look at possible solutions

Caren Grown's picture

During the days coming up to, and after October 17, when many stories, numbers, and calls for action will mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, we want to invite you to think for a second on what you imagine a poor household to be like. Is this a husband, wife, and children, or maybe an elderly couple? Are the children girls or boys? And more importantly, do all experience the same deprivations and challenges from the situation they live in?  In a recent blog post and paper, we showed that looking at who lives in poor homes—from gender differences to household composition more broadly—matters  to better understand and tackle poverty.

Globally, female and male poverty rates—defined as the share of women and men who live in poor households—are very similar (12.8 and 12.3 percent, respectively, based on 2013 data). Even in the two regions with the largest number of poor people (and highest poverty rates)—South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa—gender differences in poverty rates are quite small. This is true for the regions, but also for individual countries, irrespective of their share of poor people. Why is that the case? As Chapter 5 of the 2018 Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report explains, our standard monetary poverty indicator is measured by household, not by individual. So, a person is classified as either poor or nonpoor according to the poverty status of the household in which she or he lives. This approach critically assumes everyone in the household shares equally in household consumption—be they a father, a young child, or a daughter-in-law.  By design, it thus masks differences in individual poverty within a household.

Notwithstanding this shortcoming, when we look a bit deeper the information we have today still shows visible gender differences in poverty rates. Take age, for example. We know that there are more poor children than poor adults, and while we do not find that poverty rates differ much between girls and boys at the early stages of life, stark differences appear between men and women during the peak productive and reproductive years.