The dynamics of poverty

Why don't "the poor" act collectively?

Where the poor form a majority or near-majority, why don’t they vote themselves to power in democracies? In Madagascar, Mozambique, Mali, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, and Bangladesh, where the poor constitute 71, 70, 64, 56, 53, 52, and 50 percent of the population, respectively, why don’t poor groups emerge and take power democratically? Even in countries where the poor form a smaller but still sizable part of the population—such as India (29 percent), Ecuador (35 percent), and the Philippines (37 percent)—why are the politics of poverty not more emphatic, potent, and visible? Traditionally these questions have been answered by referring to factors that create divisions among the poor, such as caste, religion, or tribe; but a more fundamental basis of division also exists, emanating from the separate relationships that different poor people have with poverty itself. Not everyone who is poor was born into poverty.

New research shows that large numbers of poor people have fallen into poverty within their lifetimes. Their relationship with poverty is qualitatively different from that of people who have been chronically poor. Different trajectories into and out of poverty define different relationships that produce different identities and interests among subgroups of poor people. Apart from those who have newly fallen into poverty and those who are persistently poor, a further subgroup consists of upwardly mobile poor people on the cusp of escaping poverty.

Members of each of these subgroups have quite different interests, and their demands from the state are correspondingly disparate. These divisions make it difficult for poor people to unite and make common
cause. Rather than considering “the poor” as a homogeneous group requiring some common policy responses, it is preferable to take account of subgroup-specific requirements. Policymakers intending to deal more effectively with poverty will do well to mount a more comprehensive response. Unless the creation of new poverty is first stemmed, efforts to move people out of poverty will ultimately be ineffective. Mounting a more comprehensive response—addressing escape and descent concurrently—will also help empower poor people socially and politically.

Krishna, Anirudh
Published date: 
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Series number: 
Special Edition
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