Poverty is Dynamic and Flexible, Just like the Informal Economy: Evidence from India

…the concept of poverty today is fundamentally different from that of poverty three decades ago, and that safety nets need to be tailored to meet the needs of a society in transition.~ The Hindu, 2 Aug 2016

When quantitative data provided by the India Human Development Survey (the first large panel survey in India) provokes the academics involved to question their fundamental assumptions and premise of what poverty is, and what it might mean, its a noteworthy moment.

The survey, conducted by the University of Maryland and the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) for the same households at two points in time, viz. 2004-05 and 2011-12. Their analysis has led them to say:

Once we recognise that poverty is dynamic in nature, and that as per our conventional definition of poverty, poor households may move out of poverty and the non-poor may become poor over a period of time, we are forced to question the veracity of our fundamental assumptions about poverty. Perhaps poverty occurs not simply due to the accident of birth or as defined in terms of where and in which family people are born, but also due to the accident of life caused by the occurrence of disease, disability and unemployment. Achieving this recognition entails a complete transformation in our mindset.

I will leave them to their explorations from the perspectives of their disciplines, and explore the broader implications of their findings.

A few years ago, as part of my discoveries from more qualitative user research in the field on the informal sector’s financial context and operating environment, I had had my insight on the dynamic nature of poverty as it was conventionally defined.

It was when attempting to clearly distinguish between patterns of cash flow in the formal vs the informal economy, using the concept of the degree of control granted to the end user over the variables of time (duration, frequency, periodicity) and money (amount, cash or kind), that it struck me what kind of difference does control over timing mean for money.

That is, there is a complex value processing underneath each of the decisions on allocating available cash money, particularly in rural areas where cashless transactions can tend to be more common.

When one can control the timing of one’s payments – such as the advance purchase of airtime minutes to use a mobile phone – one’s income could be called dynamic. Within any particular set of calender based time eg a week or a month or a quarter; a vast majority of the lower income bracket cannot predict their total cash income nor feel confident enough to claim it. It can be affected by seasonality prevalent in their region, or it can be purely random volatility, one’s workshop burns down in an accidental fire.

Static income is that which is stuck, such as a fixed salary paid every calender period, regular in frequency, amount and periodicity.

As cash flows tend to be volatile, fluctuating with seasonal influences, chance, and the vagaries of daily life, those whose incomes are not as predictable as a periodic paycheck, are more often than not unable to clearly state (or even know) their monthly or weekly income.

That is, even as data gurus in development banks seek to segment people into neatly defined ranges such as $2 to $4 a day or whatever, it is neither a given that people will remain within this range over the course of the natural year, nor can it be a reliable and consistent indicator of their income level – Below Poverty Line (BPL) is the concept used in The Hindu’s article above.

Therefore, if the survey studied households in an agricultural region during its fallow season the first time, and then went back to study the same households during the post harvest season the second time, that simple little factor of calender time alone can create a difference of as much as 100% to the incomes being claimed during that period. If the study does not follow up the income question to ask if there was seasonality in their cash flows over the course of the natural year and if this question was being asked during the high season or the low season.

When I did the original fieldwork for the prepaid economy project on an IDRC grant, looking at the rural household financial management behaviour in rural India, Philippines, and Malawi, I found that depending on the local region’s primary cash crop harvest patterns over the natural year (say monsoon to monsoon, or Christmas to Christmas) the entire local economy felt the impact of the difference in cash flowing through their ecosystem during the high and the low season. Or, the wet and the dry season.

It was not the naming of the seasons that is important. It is the ability of the people to forecast known fluctuations in their income streams based on patterns recognized from experience and local wisdom. Within the context of an environment of uncertainty and volatility, it offered them some anchors for planning and financial management.

Given that the vast majority of the poor in the developing world, like in India and across Africa, are dependent on irregular, often unpredictable cash flows from a variety of sources, in an environment of higher risk and uncertainty, their incomes can confidently assumed to be dynamic, rather than a static salary.

And the dynamic nature of the informal sector precludes conventional classifications and categorizations of poverty, especially by any stated amount of money mapped against a particular duration of calender time. Time and money are themselves the uncertain elements requiring flexibility built into the systems if they are to work properly in this operating environment.

Thus, I can confidently state that what the Indian data is finally providing the evidence for are the findings from my qualitative research among the same segments of the population, using design ethnography methods. That is, we now have the quantitative data to support the insights derived from the qualitative research.

Full Stop.

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