Gender and poverty

The way that poverty is conventionally measured probably hides its gender dimensions. The standard assumption is that there is an equal distribution within the household. The only way that poverty rates would then differ between men and women is that the gender breakdown differs according to consumption or income per person (or per equivalent single adult). There are ways that this can happen, by the departure of adult men from poor families, either through selective mortality or migration/dissolution. However, it remains that the standard measures are unlikely to reflect well the gender dimensions of poverty. This is a deep data problem, since it would add greatly to the cost of standard surveys to capture intra-household distribution, and it is not even clear that this is technically feasible.

This has not stopped some observers.  One often hears that 70% of the world’s poor are women. This was reported in the 1995 Human Development Report (UNDP, 1995). Soon after that report came out, Hilary Clinton, and the (then) President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, quoted the 70% figure in their speeches. It has been repeated many times since. For example, it appears in the 2006 Encyclopedia of World Poverty (Muhutdinova, 2006). The figure is still being quoted 20 years after it appeared. For example, it was quoted by Carly Fiorina (former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard) in a 2014 TV broadcast (Greenberg, 2014).

The origin of this number remains a mystery. Soon after the UNDP report appeared I tried to figure out the source, including asking the report’s statistician, but no source was identified. Blog posts by Oxfam’s Duncan Green (2010) and Politifact’s Jon Greenberg (2014) ask where the figure came from, and report that they could not find its source either. The figure is still being quoted as the truth over 20 years later, but it has no known basis in fact!

There have been other efforts to count poor women. A 1992 IFAD report, The State of World Rural Poverty, gives estimates of the number of rural women living in poverty by country (Jazairy et al., 1992). That has to be estimated, since it is not data from any standard household survey. The IFAD report does not say how the numbers were estimated, but it does say what variables were used and one can easily figure out the formula (as I did in my review of the report; see Ravallion, 1994). The IFAD numbers for poor women by country are exactly equal to half the number of people living in poor households plus one-quarter of those living in female-headed households, whether poor or not. The rationale for the latter step is a mystery. The IFAD calculation tells us that 60% of the world’s poor are women. At least we can figure out where the IFAD number comes from, even if we do not believe it.

Another approach is to use incomes from survey data but only consider single-person households. The World’s Women report for 2010 presents such estimates, mainly for Europe (United Nations, 2010, Box 8.4). Using a relative line set at 60% of median income, poverty rates are higher for women in 24 out of 28 countries. Using a lower poverty line, at 40% of the median, the pattern reverses, with higher poverty rates among men for most countries.

Yet another approach is to look at key dimensions of poverty for which individual data are available. Nutritional status is a case in point. An example is found in Brown et al. (2019) who use anthropometric data on individual nutritional status in 30 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to see how well household-level poverty predicts individual nutritional status for women and children. Their answer is “not very well.” Indeed, they find that three-quarters of underweight women and undernourished children are not found in the poorest 20% of households, and around half are not found in the poorest 40%. Intra-household inequality accounts in part for these results but other factors appear to be important, including common health risks.

Brown, Caitlin, Martin Ravallion and Dominique van de Walle, 2019, “Most of Africa’s Nutritionally-Deprived Women and Children are Not Found in Poor Households,” Review of Economics and Statistics, in press..

Green, Duncan, 2010, “Are women really 70% of the world’s poor? How do we know?” From Poverty to Power, Oxfam Blog, 3 February.

Greenberg, Jon, 2014, “Carly Fiorina: 70% of World’s Poor are Women,” PunditFact Blog, 15 January.

Muhutdinova, Raissa, 2006, “Feminization of Poverty,” in Mehmet Odekon (ed) Encyclopedia of World Poverty Volume 1, London: Sage.

Ravallion, Martin, 1994, “Book Review: The State of World Rural Poverty: An Inquiry into its Causes and Consequences,” Journal of Economic Literature 32: 1276-1278.

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 1995, Human Development Report, New York: Oxford University Press for the UNDP.

United Nations, 2010, The World’s Women 2010. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations.


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