The Poor and their Poverty

In a Foreign Policy magazine article, “More than 1 billion people are hungry in the world“, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo ask what if its really true. It is an extract from their book, “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.” The article is long and well worth reading to get an idea of how some people think how some other people behave. Much of that thinking of even superficially wrong but there is a significant part where the thinking is plausible at first glance but wrong nonetheless.

Banerjee and Duflo, going by the article, are talking to the poor and the hungry. That’s always a good thing — at least it is better than only sitting in an ivory tower and making up theories — because this matter of poverty is a human condition. The study of poverty is as complex as say meteorology but there’s an essential difference. You can understand and predict weather patterns without actually having to get wet because instruments tell you more than you can find out with your bare senses.

Not so with poverty because poverty is a human condition; human feelings and human motivations come into play. To fully understand those, one has to be poor and hungry. Or be extraordinarily skilled to be abel able to imagine how it must feel to be poor. How you think and behave when you are chronically hungry has to be qualitatively different from how you think and behave when you are comfortable and well fed. I think that most policymakers get their prescription for poverty elimination wrong because they don’t understand poverty — and that is because they have never been poor.

Speaking personally, I never had any illusions about my understanding of poverty. I started studying economics when I realized that it was a discipline that studied human behavior. More often than not when I tell people that economics is the study of how humans behave, I get puzzled looks. They think that economics is about GDP and money and worse, the stock market.

Anyhow, I think that the people who are best equipped to address poverty are those who are not just good academically but have tons of empathy — the ability to imagine how it must feel to be very poor. They have to be able to think like how poor people think. I have concluded that many of the policy prescriptions from the experts fail because they either have never been hungry and poor, or they lack imagination and empathy, or both.

I have often thought to myself that many of India’s problems may be easier to solve if those who make policy aimed at reducing poverty were required to experience poverty first hand for say a year or so. What if the prime minister was required to live and eat like a person below the poverty line for a couple of months? What if he were forced to subsist for a week on 1000 calories a day from food that is nearly inedible? Would he still help his colleagues steal from the poor to the tune of billions of dollars?

In any event, I think it is a shame that poverty of the kind that means chronic hunger still exists in the world today. The productive capacity of the world exceeds what is needed to provide everyone with food, clothing, shelter and education. The misallocation of resources into weapons of mass destruction (the US is the biggest criminal in this regard) is the greatest avoidable tragedy and it is brought on by the greed of a relatively few people. I am convinced that the war machine will continue to expand as the global economy increases and thus continue to suck the life blood out of humanity.

Author: Atanu Dey


18 thoughts on “The Poor and their Poverty”

  1. Well India houses the largest numbers of poor, and you seldom see poverty anywhere in the world like in India. India recently added the equivalent of Brazil in the last ten years in terms of population, but no one even seemed to notice or even care, it was reported in few newspapers. No one is interested in solving how India can be prevented from adding the equivalent of another Brazil of hungry people in the next ten years. Even countries like China have gotten rid of things like beggars on the streets which you saw in the last century in developed economies, India still has such things. The people seem wretched and oppressed as soon as you step out of the airport, India still has coolies in airports and railways like China also had sixty years ago but China does not have anymore. India just keeps producing more and more hungry without break…Look at those who govern us, the last three leaders of Congress never passed college, do you think they can understand even what economics is about? I suppose we are just a country wallowing in ignorance which will ultimately be left behind, a country of vast, large illiterates governed by semi-literates.


  2. Like many other tools in economics, the use of Gini index for measuring disparity may make sense as a definition, but has clumsy ties to reality. The ratio of Ambani to railway porter may be the same as Bill Gates to American cab driver, but the absolute earning rate matters a lot more. The American cab driver lives in a house that few middle class Indians, leave alone porters, can access. In that sense USA is much more humane and egalitarian than India.

    That being said, I don’t really believe external (from the government or rich people or the middle class) forces can help poor people. At best the former classes can stay out and not actively screw poor people. Poor people need to want to improve their lives by themselves, using and shaping the law of the land to give them a fair chance (but no more). The only exception to this would be population control.

    China did the one brilliant thing that is a perfect compromise between expediency and humaneness: the one child policy. (The West realized how brilliant this was, so they wasted no time in criticizing them harshly.) If India, um, “grew a pair” and did that within 1970, we would be in a different place altogether. Now it is too late. All we can do is to watch the train wreck unfold in slow motion.


  3. How do people decide what should be the min. wage?
    And on the same note, countries who have bad record in treating war prisoners, give ranking to other countries in human index?

    What a world, we are in?

    The poverty issue cannot be solved (i.e. by a date & time). It can only be solved with society working together. Moving people off the street, is like keeping the issue under the mattress. Isn’t it?


  4. “Now it is too late. All we can do is to watch the train wreck unfold in slow motion.”

    Perhaps such people truly deserve their fates. It seems that after 800 years of slavery, Indians can never have the mindset to really stand up for something, when the train wreck does arrive they will be watching bollywood and cricket (two nasty symbols of modern India) to even notice, as long as it does not affect their family, basically the entire country can fall apart around them, they will go along…You have a nation which does not act according to a plan or strategy but merely reacts to external stimuli, because to act according to plan would require national vision and purpose and the sense of nationhood and an understanding of what the nation stands up for…Apathetic peoples and nations by law are meant to be ruled by other and for perpetual slavery…


  5. On the subject of poverty, I recently saw this scary 60 minutes segment on poverty in the US:

    It claims that 25% of kids in the US are in poverty. The poverty level in the US is something like $22K for a family of 4 which doesn’t sound so bad by Indian standards, but when you look at high costs of everything from healthcare to education it is quite bad.

    Another article spoke about record dropouts from college. Sad.


  6. Just wondering over the logic as you have posted. Is it really necessary for a man to be poor to understand how poor people feel.
    Our very “dignified” prime minister who has lived in poverty as a child, still has not come up with any influential policy to over come poverty in India. Where as Lee kwan yew, former singapore prime minister,who has spent his life as a child and till now in a wealthy background has been able to come up with fantastic policies which has led to the development of the country.


  7. Economics everywhere is least understood and the case is worse in India. Until few years I was like that economics =GDP/GNP all the crap. I do not think we have any “policy makers” in India who truly understand poverty its causes, capital and money.



  8. Great Article !
    After reading completely we now know that poverty is not what we think.
    The poor don’t think they need food, they need TV DVD Player or cell phone more than food.

    Thanks for the article


  9. india will never see better days as long as it keeps adding people.The big CURSE of know poverty not necessary to have
    “I think that the people who are best equipped to address poverty are those who are not just good academically but have tons of empathy”
    But have a thinking mind and keep eyes open.
    even people who are good academically cannot see poverty around them.they are lost in their own world .


  10. One of the very rare typos from you where you misspelled “able” as ‘abel’. 🙂

    Besides, I tend to differ from you where you seem to say that having experienced poverty and strife would make one empathetic of others. In fact, I think it to be exactly the opposite! I’ve seen people who experience severe strife for long become very ruthless. When there is resource crunch, people have to compete with each other. Others’ success is failure of the self, which reduces the chances of one’s own survival and starts making one see others as enemies. This also increases the overall unhappiness and pain quotient (of course, I made that quotient up 😀 ), and makes people sadist. There might be notable exceptions to this. But what living in these kind of conditions does is, it gives rise to a certain ‘hoarding’ tendency. When the prospect of death stares one in the face, ethics and scruples become dispensable. And I find that quite forgivable. But when the same person would become more well off, ethics and scruples cannot return. Because once a threshold of impropriety is crossed, the person stops seeing that as improper. Why would he start seeing that as improper again? Also, all this gives rise to paranoia (and in turn again to a hoarding tendency). So, all those people who might have been poor, even if they were to be made ministers, I don’t think they’d behave much differently from the current crop of ministers we have.

    Issue is not just of understanding the problem; problem is at the level of intent. What incentive do those who are in power have to try to alleviate poverty instead of using the instrument of ‘socialism’ they have to do good for themselves? If history textbooks are to be believed most of out freedom fighters had lived in abject poverty. It is they only who went onto hold important ministries after independence (of course, with one notable exception 🙂 ). I don’t think their policies were much better. Their ideas were ‘Gandhian’. They all loved ‘simplicity’ and ‘Swadesi’ (read: to hell with innovation and industrialization). I don’t think those were really bright ideas to alleviate poverty?

    I repeat, I don’t think problem is at the level of lack of comprehension as much it is at the level of intent.


  11. @ATANU,

    Just watched ur photographs!

    Not to mention,but,U r such a poor photographer..u don’t look to consider all the things into the picture!

    May b u should learn from me,like i learn from u how to criticize things cautiously!


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