Unscrambling the Poverty Puzzle: Are We Poor OR Are We Poor?
UNSCRAMBLING THE POVERTY PUZZLE Are We Poor or Are We POOR? By Myrtle Palacio Article in The Amandala—July 2000“If the misery of our POOR be caused not by laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin …”Charles Darwin. “Voyage of the Beagle”.KOHM EEN DA MEE MEK AHMHuman dignity is not the outcome of charity or handouts. In the final analysis, the onlyperson who can give a person worth is the woman, man, child, himself/herself.Emerging thinking on the issues of sustainable development and basic human needs haslong ago moved beyond “the quantity of goods” as a basis to judge development. Thesethinkers see the concepts of “per capita income” and “economic growth” as amaterialistic idea of progress, as these indicators measure human welfare by the level ofmaterial consumption. Therefore development should not only be concerned withmaterial output. It is a transformation of the entire society.Community grassroots development stems in part due from an aversion to the regard forthe GNP and the rate of growth as sole arbiters of human progress and economic growth.In fact grassroots development refuses to be judged by such standards. The participantsin this arena perceive their contribution as valuable in itself without regard to its overallimpact. They participate without the reassurance of optimistic reports of the macro-economic consequences of their effort.This week’s article will put forward arguments against poverty profiles against incomepoverty, while next week’s article will argue for. You make your analysis.POVERTY PROFILEThe ‘P’ word was introduced at the most opportune time in Belize. Blane D. Lewis,whose research was funded by USAID in November 1994, first initiated it via a “PovertyProfile Report on Belize”. One year later, a poverty assessment, funded by CDB andGOB, was conducted. Since then, the poverty lingo along with its indicators have beenquoted and banded at will from most every niche.Lewis’ report utilized data from the 1990 Household Expenditure Survey, and the 1990Consumer Price Index. The CDB/GOB study utilized 1995 statistics from secondarysources, and conducted focus groups studies in communities identified as POOR. Both
studies relied heavily on the minimum food basket approach to arrive at the poverty line.The assumption is that an individual needs a minimum amount of food and non-fooditems in order to survive.The cost of the basic items is calculated to arrive at the lowest amount of moneynecessary to feed a family of a given size with minimum nutrition. This is then weighedagainst income to arrive at the number/percentage of POOR in the country. So thatBelize’s poverty level is based primarily on income and expenditure, referred to asINCOME POVERTY by the literature. A comparison of some of the findings isdemonstrated in the table below. Profile Lewis CDB/GOB Variance 1990 Data 1995 DataHighest incidence in Toledo District 41% 57.6% 16.6%Belize’s poor population 23% 33% 10%Belize’s indigent population 6.4% 13.4% 7%Belize’s rural poor 24% 42.5% 18.5%Belize’s urban poor 21% 20.6% -.4%Poorest sector Agric. & Constr. Agric & FishPoorest ethnic group Garifuna & Maya MayaIn looking at the “Variance” column above, one would quickly conclude that povertyincreased tremendously between 1990 and 1995. Also one would conclude that thenumber of Belize’s indigent population more than doubled—6.4% in 1990 (Lewis) and13.4% in 1995 (CDB/GOB). However, other characteristics offered by both authorssoften the blow for the POOR in Belize. These are the following: • High % of land ownership • High % of home ownership • No significant (poverty) differences in the gender of the household head • High dependency and taste for the more expensive imported food itemsIs Poverty Overestimated?Several arguments have been put forward for or against income poverty. Income, asignificant variable in the calculation of the poverty size, is oftentimes understated.Firstly, significant numbers of poor and low-income families have cash-income, whichare not reported. Women’s contribution falls under this category. So our worth by wayof direct supplemental income is not valued statistically.Secondly, savings through the community banking systems are ignored in thedetermination of poverty. Informal credit/savings systems, such as the syndicate havelong been a source of finance for small-persons. Thirdly, whereby home ownershipamong those identified as poor is high, such non-cash asset is also not a variable forcomputing the poverty line.Lastly, there are those who are only “temporarily poor”, a condition that is brought on bysudden illness or death, loss of employment, change in marital status, and those who arenot interested in seeking employment. Therefore the official poverty line for Belize is
not a demarcation of economic distress. By its very definition, INCOME povertyoverestimates poverty.Is Poverty Underestimated?The poverty profile offered by the Lewis (1990) and CDB/GOB (1995) reports ismanifested in both the rural and urban areas, even after a decade of development projects.This is after a decade of development projects funded by multilateral aid agencies. In the1980’s the hardware of development projects were ubiquitous in the form of UNICEF’sincome-generating fund for women, CARE latrines and water systems, Peace Corpsrabbit hutches, USAID schools and scholarships , UNHCR hand-outs, a proliferation ofNGO’s and government officials in acronym initialed four-wheel drive vehicles. ThePOOR then are better educated and better connected to the outside world. Hence thereason the poverty we face is more deeply ingrained and more inculcated than thetraditional poverty of our parents’ generation.The real characteristics of poverty then, are the non-monetary aspects. For the urbanPOOR, it is the noises, the smells, and the fears of living in the “City” with a lack ofknowledge of resources. It is the invidious quality in our lives that particularlyconstitutes our poverty. It is the perception of having less than everyone else thatcontinually redefines and upgrades what are regarded as necessities of a decent life. It isthe labeling and stereotyping, with acknowledged traits, such as, helpless, lazy, andillegitimate that is the absolute condemnation. It ultimately creates misplaced values anda vicious circle of behaviour and a lifestyle that is not consistent with the need to competein our mixed economy.The Poverty Paradox—What It symbolizesTrying to understand poverty only in terms of a simple figure on absoluteincome/expenditure levels is not enough. As many of the more direct consequences ofpoverty cannot be translated into income figures. The prevalent rural to urban movementwithin Belize, as well as out of Belize, resulted largely from the presumption that thereexists a better opportunity than the marginal economy one migrated from.Large pockets of new Belize City residents comprise of rural migrants who have come tothe City, which offers them only a ‘place” in line. Some left behind family plots or aseaside environment for a piece of the swamp. They live in clusters in the under-developed outer fringes of the City, and the poorer areas of the South-side. Raised insuch an environment, their children discover their “place” at an early age. Unfortunately,that “place” is further down the socio-economic ladder compared with the villageenvironment.
Therefore, home life which once implied a web of multi-generational, extended familyhouseholds, now consists more and more of family fragments. The separation fromplace, the loss of resources due to dislocation, among others, have all increased thenumber of people who are very poor, relatively to those who are merely poor. Theleaving communities also suffer, as they are left leaderless, and in some instances havebecome virtual ghost towns.The poverty experience in Belize is certainly not income-based. It more symbolizes ageneral deterioration of the society, which is still relatively unfathomable.