Part 2 of 6: Drawing Unrealistic Poverty Lines

How urban poverty is defined and measured by governments and international agencies, and the many ways in which these definitions contribute to understating and misrepresenting its scale and nature, are explored in Chapter 2. After reviewing the approaches used in the World Bank national poverty assessments and the national poverty programming processes associated with international development assistance and the Millennium Development Goals, we found the criteria used to set many poverty lines are unrealistic and result in often large underestimates in the costs of non-food needs faced by low-income urban residents — including rent for housing and payments needed to obtain access to water, toilets, schools, and health care.

Different criteria used for defining poverty in a given nation can show almost no urban poverty or 30 to 50 percent of the urban population in poverty. There are hidden influences and assumptions within poverty definitions that often help under-count who is identified as being poor — for instance, an assumption that the costs of meeting the needs of infants and children are only a small proportion of the costs of adult needs. Inappropriate poverty lines also help explain why urban populations that apparently have very little poverty may still have high levels of under-nutrition and very high infant, child, and maternal mortality rates.

Many urban centres (especially the more successful ones) are places where the costs of non-food needs are particularly high, especially for low-income groups who live in informal settlements where costs such as rent, water (from vendors or kiosks), and access to toilets are particularly high (although the quality of accommodation is very low). In addition, the dollar-a-day poverty line and most other poverty lines are set with no consideration of who lives in poverty — for instance, those who do not have reliable, good quality, and not-too-costly access to water, sanitation, health care, and schools, as well as having voice and being served by the rule of law. Aid and other forms of development assistance are legitimated on the basis that they meet the needs of 'the poor', but decisions about the use of development assistance do not include any role for 'the poor', nor are those who make such decisions accountable to 'the poor'. Similarly, poverty lines are set without dialogue and without needed data — and so inaccurate poverty lines based on wholly inappropriate criteria are being used to greatly overstate success in urban poverty reduction.

One puzzle here is the refusal to acknowledge that the costs of food and non-food needs vary not only between nations but within nations. When international 'experts' and consultants work abroad, they get daily allowances to cover their accommodation and living costs that are adjusted by country and by city or district within that country. This shows a recognition that daily food and non-food costs for such experts vary by up to five times depending on location. So why is there no such recognition accorded to low-income groups?

Next: Exploring Why Health Is So Poor Among the Urban Poor

Summarized from Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature, by Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite, Routledge, January 25, 2013.

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