Believe it or not, more than a billion people worldwide subsists on less than one dollar per day. At the same time, the world is expected to have another three billion people by 2050, a majority of which are going to come from the poorest areas (Merrick, 2002).
Do poverty cause population growth? Or is it the other way around? This paper would look more closely at the relationship between poverty and population growth, and how to alleviate it.
* * *
The World Bank writes that poverty has many faces: It’s not having a job.
Hunger. Not having access to medical services and schools. It’s fearing for the future. It’s surviving one day at a time. It’s powerlessness (World Bank, undated).
Bernadette Proctor, citing census data figures from 1993 writes that 39.3 million people were officially poor in the United States, 15.1% of that were earning a below the poverty level income. This means that while most of these people worked, there were still not earning enough for their daily needs.
The situation was not any better in 2002, with 34.6 million American still living below the poverty level. Lynette Clemetson at the New York Times quotes liberal economists as saying that any increase in poverty in the country was “too high” considering that the U.S. is viewed as a very prosperous country (Clemetson, 2003).
Outside the United States, statistics on poverty paints a grimmer picture that affects far more people in a far devastating degree. Anup Shah says that there is a distinguished disparity in income, with 80% of the world’s people living in countries where there is widening differences in income between the rich and the poor. In fact, only 5% of the world’s total income are generated by almost half of the world’s population (Shah, 2008).
Out of 2.2 billion children in the world, 1 out of 2 are living in poverty, 1 in 3 do not have adequate homes, 1 in 5 do not have access to safe water, while 1 in 7 have no access to health services. Many more do not have access to education and proper nutrition (Shah, 2008).
Worldwide, a billion people are illiterate. Diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria claim millions of lives. People have no access to clean, potable water (Shah, 2008).
While it is difficult to pinpoint exact and complete causes of poverty, the Earth Institute at Columbia University lists three causes of poverty: the social and economic displacement due to civil wars, or local conflicts affecting million of people; the inequitable distribution of land and wealth, and man-made policies like inadequate access credit assistance and adoption of unsustainable technologies (The Earth Institute at Columbia University, undated).
Anup Shah asks the empirical questions regarding the causes of poverty. It could be personal, like wrong decisions made, laziness, or it could be a matter of governance and public policy. Shah, however, looks deeper into the global causes.
Structural adjustment policies have caused cutbacks in vital human services like health and education worldwide. Ironically, the policies have been instituted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as loan and repayment conditions. Shah also blames globalization in developing nations, after these countries opened their economies and found themselves competing with more powerful and industrialized nations. It became a battle of who could provide cheaper wages, resources and lower standards, and has worsened poverty and inequality for most people. Shah also mentions corruption as a cause of poverty (2008).
The Doors to Diplomacy Project, sponsored by the U.S. State Department and Global Schoolnet, agrees but adds that overpopulation is another major cause. The project defines overpopulation as the situation of having big numbers of people in too little space, with too few resources (2006).
Rapid population growth worsens inequality, impedes economic growth, and exacerbates poverty (Alonzo et. al., 2004). Poverty is caused by many contributing factors, and thus is seen as a complex phenomenon. While rapid and unsustainable growth alone cannot fully explain poverty, it can help worsen the poverty situation in any given area (Alonzo et. al., 2004).
Researchers at the University of the Philippines, citing a 2004 study that used data on 80 countries, states that a growing population exerts a “negative and significant” effect on the growth of the economy (Alonzo et. al., 2004).
A Vicious Cycle
Debates on population, poverty and its causes are very similar to the childhood question: which came first the chicken or the egg? Thomas Merrick writes that the popular view in the 60s and 70s held that fertility decline would show population growth and eventually poverty came under fire in the 80s and the 90s (2002).
Merrick, however, clarifies that recent studies and thinking have shown that demographic trends do play a role in poverty studies. Merrick states that the potential benefits of a lower population, however, rests on the timing and degree of demographic change, the focus of economic policies, the social and economic status of women.
There are two contrasting views about population and poverty. One says that higher population growth results in poverty, so lower fertility is the key to alleviating poverty (Merrick, 2002).
The other holds that economic policies determine poverty reduction, disagreeing that family planning is all you need. This view argues that poverty causes the people to want more children because they can help around the house and take care of their parents in old age (Merrick, 2002).
Merrick also cites recent research that have found that when fertility declines, there is increased personal savings and investment becomes possible. The scenario also gives rise to the situation wherein there are more workers responsible for fewer children. Merrick, however, recognizes that this benefit is temporary, and soon, there will be a situation, when the opposite is true, more retirees will be depending on the working class.
Merrick also says that a higher population growth increases poverty by retarding the growth of the economy, and worsening the distribution of additional income created by the growth (Merrick, 2002).
Clemetson puts it succinctly: the policy shifts that resulted in the reduction of benefits and welfare structure for the poor are to blame.
- Peter Timmer agrees. Timmer writes that the different views on the private and social returns of having many children paves the way for government interventions, hopefully something that extends beyond the simple family planning schemes to broader economic development policies (Timmer, 1994).
Timmer advocates for learning more about the dynamic behavior of poor households within the context of their environments. This would lead to a sound policy that can break into the vicious cycle of worsening poverty and declining productivity (Timmer, 1994). Timmer suggests economic development policies that addresses nutrition, health, and education, as well as policies that bring about a reduction in “income poverty” can help alleviate poverty (Timmer, 1994).
Timmer also says that it would be wise to raise domestic food production, which addresses nutrition further, and also offers a way to control food prices and income distribution by increasing access to food (Timmer, 1994).
Merrick adds that family planning alone will not necessarily reduce poverty. What’s needed to alleviate poverty is the combination of slower population growth, sound economic development, and the reduction of gender inequality (Merrick, 2002).
Public policy should promote the woman’s right to choose for herself how many children she wants to bear and when. Public policy should inform and educate– and perhaps, subsidize –women about fertility regulation (Merrick, 2002).
At the heart of the debate including poverty, public policy, and population growth, there is one common thread: empowering women. The United Nations Population Fund explains that poor women who do not have access to family planning services will not be able to participate in income generating activities because they cannot time or space their children adequately. A woman who is empowered to choose their family size will slow population growth and help alleviate poverty. The UNFPA reiterates that reproductive health, women’s empowerment and equal right can help break the poverty cycle (United Nations Population Fund, 2004).
Empowering women also extends to getting paid employment and education. The Population Problem: Theory and Evidence as cited by Atanu Dey in his essay The Population-Poverty Trap, states that the lack of education and subsequent paid employment can hinder a woman from making decisions on her own, for herself. Both imparts a degree of self-confidence (Dey, 2004).
* * *
More than a billion people are scarcely surviving worldwide. Another two billion are not much better off. Poverty is taking countless of lives, and making countless more miserable. Whatever the reasons, poverty and its eradication, or at least, alleviation should be top of anybody’s list. A growing body research have pointed to population growth as one of its leading causes. A vicious cycle is apparent: population growth causes poverty, poverty causes population growth.
This time, two things are clearer. Public policy should be formulated only after a thorough understanding of poverty and its causes in a particular locale and milieu, and that policy should take to heart the role and importance of women if it should even go near succeeding.
In effect, the way to combat poverty is to put in policies and programs at the grassroots level that would curb the rapid growth of population, coupled with sound public policy and the active and informed participation (coming from education) of women. Without any one of these elements, any measure will be doomed to fail.
Alonzo, R., Balisacan, A., Canlas, D., Capuno, J., Clarete, R., Danao, R., de Dios, E., Diokno,
B., Esguerra, E., Fabella, R., Bautista, S., Kraft, A., Medalla, F., Mendoza, M.N., Monsod, S., Paderanga, C., Pernia, E., Quimbo, S., Sicat, G., Solon, O., Tan E., and Tecson G. (2004). Population and Poverty: The Real Score. University of the Philippines School of Economics. Retrieved on 14 April 2008. <http://www.econ.upd.edu.ph/respub/dp/pdf/DP2004-15.pdf>
Causes of Poverty. (2006). Doors to Diplomacy Project. Retrieved on 15 April 2008.
Clemetson, Lynette. (2003). More American in Poverty in 2002, Census Study Says. New York
Times. Retrieved on 14 April 2008. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E04E7D9133DF934A1575AC0A9659C8B63>
Dey, Atanu. (2004). The Population-Poverty Trap. Retrieved on 14 April 2008.
Focus on global poverty. The Earth Institute at Columbia Univeristy. Retrieved on
14 April 2008. <http://www.globalshare.org/focusonpoverty.html>
Merrick, Thomas W. (2002). Population and Poverty: New Views on an Old Controvery.
International Family Planning Perspectives, Vol. 28, No. 1. Retrieved on 14 April 2008. <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/2804102.html>
Poverty, Population and Development. (2004). United Nations Population Fund. Retrieved on
14 April 2008. <http://www.unfpa.org/about/report/2004/poverty.html>
Proctor, Bernadette. Poverty: Population Profile of the United States. U.S. Census Bureau. Last
Updated 8 February 2008. Retrieved on 14 April 2008. <http://www.census.gov/population/www/pop-profile/poverty.html>
Shah, Anup. (2008). Poverty Facts and Stats. Retrieved on 15 April 2008.
Shah, Anup. (2008). Causes of Poverty. Retrieved on 15 April 2008.
Timmer, C. Peter. (1994). Population, poverty and politics. The American Economic Review
Vol. 84. No. 2. pp 261.
Understanding Poverty. World Bank. Retrieved on 14 April 2008.