Who are the poor? Do current poverty measurements really capture the poor? The questions are pertinent in the light of current media reports on the new national poverty line and revamping Samurdhi, the largest poverty reduction programme in the country. The current poverty line at Rs. 3937 per person per month, is defined using a monetary approach to poverty. This is a uni-dimensional indicator, capturing only the economic dimensions of poverty (income and expenditure) and leaving out aspects such as health, education, social relations and environmental issues. However, limiting poverty to monetary or absolute measures, is insufficient and can even be misleading. For instance, data shows that income poverty in the estate sector has fallen significantly in recent years. However, most of its population lags significantly behind in terms of access to education, water and sanitation, and adequate housing.
Dealing with poverty requires a much deeper understanding of the phenomenon, looking beyond simple income and expenditure to include dimensions such as access to health, education, water and sanitation which the monetary approach cannot measure. The Capability approach, introduced by Amartya Sen, focuses on the availability of a means to a good life. Does an individual have a life that he/she values? Can he/she achieve a basic level of capabilities in terms of health, education, environment and empowerment? If not, poverty is understood as being deprived of the capability of living a good life. The Social exclusion approach recognises that segments of the population are socially discriminated and excluded. As a result, these segments fail to fully participate in decision making, civil, social and cultural life.
They are therefore denied of rights, goods and services available to a majority of society. As the unit of analysis is the individual, it is location-specific and useful for identifying pockets of poverty such as the urban poor. The Participatory approach allows people to assess their own level of poverty or identify the poor in their community. Ranking of wealth is done participatory with the unit of analysis being the household. The approach is used widely and useful to identify vulnerable groups. It has been used to identify the poor in attempts to reduce poverty in Sri Lanka. These multi-dimensional approaches with different units of analysis do not necessarily require the poverty line to understand and measure poverty. However, each approach does have its limitations which must be considered.
As the primary goal of poverty measurement is to identify both those who are in poverty (chronic poor) and those who are vulnerable to poverty (transient and near poor), a reliable and accurate poverty measurement that captures poverty in all of its dimensions is required. Such a measurement is a prerequisite for capturing the poor and near poor, and for targeting in pro poor and poverty reduction programmes such as Samurdhi, the Public Assistance Monthly Allowance and allowances for poor and vulnerable groups such as the elderly and the disabled. A measurement based on a single dimension such as the monetary approach ignores other (multidimensional) aspects of poverty and thereby effectively fails to capture the wider issues that affect those who face deprivation and exclusion.
Whilst reliable data is central to poverty estimates, poverty measurement also calls for data spanning over time, i.e. longitudinal studies in which the same households are visited repeatedly over many years. This is necessary to understand chronic and transient poverty. For instance, whilst data indicates that the numbers of those in poverty in absolute terms has reduced from 2005 -2010, there is still a significant number of people hovering just above the poverty line and who are vulnerable to fall back into poverty due to ‘shocks’ either at the household or community level such as the death of an income earning member of the household or an external shock such as a natural disaster or a sudden rise in the price of essential goods.
Such studies are important to capture the different categories of poor such as: the transient poor who move in and out of poverty, the ‘invisible poor’ who work in the informal labour sector, female headed households, the elderly, the homeless and other vulnerable groups who may be ‘missed’ in the official count. This could result in underestimating the numbers of those in poverty. However, Sri Lanka currently does not have longitudinal data sources to capture and analyse these different dimensions and categories of poverty and the poor. Consequently, it is unlikely that these categories of the poor are targeted in poverty reduction programmes, effectively leaving them out of the very programmes which are designed to help the poorest and most vulnerable segments of our society.
Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty-related development issues. CEPA believes that poverty is an injustice that should be overcome and that overcoming poverty involves changing policies and practices nationally and internationally, as well as working with people in poverty.
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