Sri Lanka’s poverty line: More than just a number
A recent media report indicated that the national poverty line is to be increased from Rs. 3,500 to Rs. 5,000 per person per month, signalling a much welcome willingness by the government to take a serious look at poverty, which is linked to a wider set of ‘reforms’ in social welfare and protection. The proposed change will increase the number of persons living below the poverty line from 6.8 per cent to 22 per cent of the population. That a 63 per cent increase in the poverty line leads to a 300 per cent increase in the number of people classified as poor underlines the degree of vulnerability in Sri Lanka.
But, how was the figure of Rs. 5,500 arrived at? What was the basket of food and other non-food basic needs used in the calculation and how were they priced? Making sure that this basket is realistic and sensitive to variations in preferences and prices as well as the quality of both the food and non-food components, especially basic services, across the country poses a major challenge. Fundamentally the problem is that this relies on existing levels of consumption rather what the poor really need. For example, what a low income urban household of five people spends on renting a single room or two, which lacks security of tenure and adequate hygiene and sanitation, is no indication of the money actually required to meet their real housing needs.
Reasonably high growth rates and rising per capita income tend to hide the fact that a large number of people are poor or ‘near-poor’. It is important to consider the question, “who is poor?” alongside a decent living wage, especially given the proposal to set Rs. 10,000 per month as a national minimum wage. Nevertheless, limiting poverty to monetary or absolute measures is insufficient and can even be misleading. For instance, data shows that income poverty in the estate sector has fallen significantly in recent years but yet most of its population lags significantly behind in terms of access to education, water and sanitation, and adequate housing.
Hence multi-dimensional and relative measures of poverty are critical to understand poverty. Expanding public services to ensure access to health, education, water and sanitation and public transport is crucial. But despite Sri Lanka’s impressive record on some of these fronts, it is well known that these services are not always equally accessible; nor are they always ‘free’ in an absolute sense, as there are many hidden costs involved. Central to poverty estimates is reliable data which calls for data spanning a breadth of time, i.e. longitudinal studies in which the same households are visited over the years. This is necessary to understand chronic and transitory poverty, which would enable improvements to poverty alleviation strategies.
The poverty line as a monetary measure is more than just a number. It is a threshold that has important consequences, especially when it is used to determine eligibility for social safety net programmes. And the exclusion of those just above it, the near-poor, is a major concern with using it as a cut-off for access to entitlements. The question of measuring poverty and inequality is a question too significant to be left to experts alone. It warrants a robust public debate because the stakes are very high, and ongoing discussions around restructuring the social welfare system-Samurdhi and beyond-render this question even more significant. Thinking about poverty as an injustice implies considering questions of dignity, well-being and rights along with access to basic entitlements, employment and a living wage.
It also means thinking about how poverty is experienced differently by those disadvantaged due to the intersection of gender, caste, class, ethnicity, location, age, ability, or exposure to disasters, conflicts and war. The first step in grappling with poverty is taking the scale and depth of the problem seriously and that is why the proposed change in the poverty line is significant and welcome. The need of the hour is to work towards developing robust, grounded and complex understandings of poverty and vulnerability and designing appropriate programmatic responses. The key to this is a close partnership between and across various agencies of the state, independent experts, academics and researchers, advocacy groups, and most importantly, those living in poverty.