Recap & Response — What is Poverty?

On September 23, 2016, CAPP-USA and Fordham University co-sponsored a conference called “Pope Francis’ Call for Escaping Poverty: Practical Examples and New Proposals.” The conference examined the definition and measurement of poverty and proposed specific, practical efforts which operationalize Pope Francis’ insistence that people “be dignified agents of their own destiny.” What follows is the second in a series of posts authored by graduate students in Fordham University’s International Political Economy & Development Program that offer a summary and response to a topic discussed at the conference.

Dr. Sabina Alkire
Dr. Sabina Alkire

What image comes to mind when asked, “What is poverty?”

Often one pictures empty pockets, bounced checks, or simply being poor.

Until recently, economists used income (e.g $1/day) as a “good” measure for poverty in trying to identify who was poor. But using income alone can lead to incorrect diagnoses—and prescriptions—by policymakers addressing poverty.

To correct this, Sabina Alkire and James Foster developed a new measure called the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), and it has significantly changed the way economists and policymakers look at what it means to be poor.

The conversation began to change about fifteen years ago when the World Bank conducted a study titled “Voices of the Poor” that approached the question in a new way.

Field researches sat down face-to-face with people who self-identified as poor and asked them, “What is poverty?” The answers spanned several categories: material wealth—sufficient food or a roof over one’s head, bodily well-being—health and appearance, social well-being—dignity and respect, and security in neighborhoods and communities.

Poverty, in other words, is more than just lack of income; it has many dimensions.

The MPI is comprised of ten indicators that span health, education, and living . This allows for a much more comprehensive and detailed look at who is poor and in what ways, and it’s having a big effect on policymakers around the world.

The magic in the MPI is that it doesn’t dictate broad or vague policies, but rather alerts policy makers to areas of issue. This allows for policies and funding to be targeted to specific geographic regions and initiatives within the ten indicators.

Examples include President Santos of Costa Rica, who declared that government spending has to match MPI indicators. This means specific areas that scored poorly, such as education, receive more funding as a result. In Colombia, businesses in the private sector use the MPI as a management tool to drive their social enterprises.

And because the MPI is now employed in over one hundred countries, it allows countries to compare and contrast with one another—and to compete to lower their MPI scores.

As Dr. Alkire stated, “The clustering of disadvantage is a defining feature of poverty.” By acknowledging and defining the multidimensionality of poverty, policymakers and practitioners alike can better identify and serve the interests of the poor.

Luther Flagstad is a first-year student in Fordham University’s Graduate Program in International Political Economy & Development.

Global Multidimensional Poverty Index.
Global Multidimensional Poverty Index.