Many among us will experience short spans of poverty at some stages in our lives. I lose my job or my unemployment benefits, I have a catastrophic but transitory health problem, an extreme weather event destroys my crop, or an economic crisis forces me to declare bankruptcy. As a result, I have to live off my savings or my parents and friends will have to lend me money. Still, in time I find another job; my health improves as I benefit from cheap healthcare (perhaps provided or subsidized by the government); the weather returns to normal and I can resume my profitable farming activity; or I can start a new business under the protection of bankruptcy laws that don’t burden me with debt.
However, I may also be what’s called a “structurally” poor person, meaning that I’m poor for most if not the whole of my life. Perhaps I was even born into poverty. The reason may be that I find myself in a “poverty trap”, a self-reinforcing mechanism which causes poverty to persist. In other words, I’m poor because I’m poor. And because I’m poor I’ll always be poor. I’ll die without ever having had an “adequate” standard of living, all the while passing on my poverty to my descendants.
Here are some examples of poverty traps:
- I have a job, but the wage is low. As with many low wage jobs, I have almost no control over my work schedule. That means I can’t take on a second job and I can’t send my kids to child care. I have to spend time, money, effort and other people’s good will to take care of my kids. My job is physically hard and so I tend to have some health problems. My life is relatively expensive and it’s hard to find a better job. My salary doesn’t really cover my spending needs, hence I’m poor.
- I can’t afford to pay the security deposit for a rental apartment, so I’m stuck in an expensive motel or I have to live with my parents who can barely afford their own survival. I also don’t have a refrigerator or a microwave, so I have to buy more expensive food. I have to wash my clothes by hand because… you guessed it. This takes a lot of time, time that I can’t spend on wage labor.
- I don’t have tap water or heating because those aren’t things that people have where I’m from. I use wood for fuel like everyone else. The result is deforestation, soil degradation, lower crop yields and yet more poverty. My children have to help me – which is why I have a lot of them – to the detriment of their education. My kids will probably inherit my poverty because of this.
- A lot of the things I’m forced to do because I’m poor are illegal. The lights of my car broke down, and I got a fine. I should have made the financial sacrifice and get them replaced, but I gambled on not being caught. I couldn’t pay the fine and my car was repossessed. Now I have to take public transport but can’t pay for that either. So I often get a fine for that as well. I know some homeless people who get a fine just for being homeless.
- My calorie intake is too low to give me the strength to work. The quality of work I’m able to offer is inadequate for obtaining the food I require, and the food I do get isn’t enough to allow me to deliver quality work. My productivity is low, my earnings are low, and ultimately I can’t even keep a job or work the farm. My low calorie intake levels lead to health problems. My inadequate housing makes those problems even worse. My ill health, caused by my poverty, makes my poverty worse. I’m more likely to catch a disease, and also less likely to recover from it.
- Like many poor people I have a low credit rating, making it difficult to get credit. The credit I do get is very expensive, which sort of defeats the point. Now, I do need the credit because I don’t have any savings. People say that I exhibit a high discount rate, that I’m too present-oriented and that I’m unable to delay gratification. Instead of borrowing money at high interest rates as a means to satisfy my unrealistic consumption desires, I should moderate myself and save for the future. But I’m present-oriented because I live in an environment in which I can’t trust people. Better to consume what I have than to save it and lose it later.
- People also say that my issues with gratification extend to my sex life. I was indeed a teenage mother, and my education suffered as a result. This in turn affected my job prospects and my income. But this wasn’t just stupidity on my part. Being a mother gave meaning to my life. Other meaningful options just didn’t seem realistic.
So, there you have it. I think a lot of these stories are very real, and the problems that poor people face are often self-reinforcing. Of course, I don’t want to deny human agency. There are people who, even in the face of the worst possible circumstances, can fight their way out of poverty traps. So “trap” may be too strong a word. Individual responsibility still plays a role. Yet, let’s not forget that a poverty trap is sometimes intergenerational, as I’ve said before. Some children are born into a trap, and you can’t insist on responsibility and agency when we’re talking about children. A child growing up in a poor family may suffer in its early development. Undernourishment for instance can have a lasting impact on learning ability and earnings as an adult. Children of the poor are perhaps even more affected than the parents because the latter need a minimum calorie intake to work. They have to eat first. If they choose not to eat first, they will only make the poverty of the household worse.
Just to be clear: I’m not talking about an entire economy or country being stuck in a poverty trap. If you were expecting a post about that, I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time. I’m not wading into the treacherous debate about the necessity of large foreign aid injections to break the cycle of poor nations that can’t save enough to finance investment necessary to growth.
This post seems to be going on forever, so I’ll limit myself to a description of the problem. The solution – how to get out of poverty traps – is a topic for another day.