Monday, December 03, 2007

Why certain people stay poor?

When world embraced capitalism, it embraced, as Milton Friedman puts it, equality of opportunity and freedom of choice. It also embraced, as Karl Marx anticipated,  income inequality and therefore poverty.  Poverty, the product of capitalism, is a real circumstance.  Since capitalism also offers everyone a fair chance to rise above his circumstance and create wealth, there is not much discord with this arrangement. In fact, coupled with an enabling infrastructure provided by a democratic government, this represents one of the fairest civil structures yet created.

So why do some people remain condemned to poverty? To understand this, we need to understand poverty a little bit better.

Transient Poverty Vs Structural Poverty

Poverty, essentially (i.e. theoretically), is transient. In a stable, fair capitalist economy, there is a certain amount of population that always remains at the bottom - below the poverty threshold - of the income pyramid. By labour and enterprise, this population rises to the next income class. Simultaneously, competitive pressures force certain other people below the poverty threshold. These represent the transient poor. These people are currently poor but by no means restrained by their current poverty against rising through the income pyramid.

Then are there people who by currently being poor are condemned to be poor for their entire life, and even those of generations to follow? Sadly yes, and quite a few of them at that.

Dynamics of Poverty - Scaling up the Income pyramid

The income pyramid represents the basic framework on which the graph of poverty is drawn. The line income of a household will trace over time is determined by, other things remaining same, the age of the household and change in their income.

As mentioned earlier, a typical household has two ways of moving up the income pyramid - labour and enterprise. But a household below the poverty threshold, has only one way out - hard labour! This household does not have savings or income surplus or any access to finance (they are sub-prime!) to kick-start any enterprise. Even now, a household would not have a problem if labour opportunities are assured. Here is where the cusp of the problem lies. Labour does not always help this household scale the income pyramid.

The biggest hurdle - poverty!

Labour demand of an economy shifts every year across sectors. A very distinct shift is noticeable in farm labour's shift into industrial labour. Within this drastic shift there are micro-shifts moving between sectors from metals to plastics, from mechanical to electrical, from plumbing (hydraulics/pneumatics) to instrumentation (switch-gear). This movements create a chasm between available skill and desired skill. This chasm is difficult to cross without investment of time and money. Both of which our poor household does not have. Hence our poor household works twice as hard but does not get added surplus that can springboard it into the next income class.

Springboard for the poor - education and micro-finance!

The only way to help the poor out of this negative spiral is by making their labour ready for the market requirement and giving their enterprise a launch-pad.

Free training and education need to be made available to the poor. Agencies must use proper forecasting techniques and relevant research localised to the area to train the labour making them employable. Example - Locals in an area ear-marked for food processing zone, can trained in repairing, maintaining food grade machinery. Farmers can be trained in operating E-choupal kiosks and accessing mandi prices.

Micro-finance has a distinct role to play in this area. It gives the poor, access to capital to start their enterprise. Please remember micro-finance gives "access to capital". It implies financing "accessories" for the enterprise. And since its capital, return is estimated through study of potential viability  forecast of the enterprise. Thus micro-finance can be a robust springboard.

And the safety net...

We discussed two main levers that give poor households income advantage. But poor households also need a safety net in the form of accessible healthcare and low-cost banking facilities.

Healthcare represents one variable that can reverse income gains very fast. Rising healthcare costs have pushed many a household into the depths of poverty. Hence access to clean and complete healthcare is absolute essential.

Low cost banking is a worthy enabler for the poor helping them keep their assets safe and secure thereby granting small insurance against thefts and burglary etc. It also helps bank create a credit history for the household. This history (knowledge / information) acts as a de-risking element for the household making mainstream banking credit available when required.

Such a minimum safety net would indeed be a great service a nation can do for its poor.

In sum...

Poverty is not always transient. It is a nations responsibility to create adequate anti-poverty infrastructure to help its poor rise the income pyramid. Proper training and Education, accessible micro-finance provide great opportunities for income enhancing ventures to blossom. Adequate safety-nets through clean and accessible healthcare and access to low-cost banking provide critical support to household's growth initiatives.