Intergenerational transmission of poverty and escaping the poverty trap

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Last weekend I watched a delightful movie on something quite close to my heart. ‘Nil Battey Sannata’ depicted a mother and daughter’s journey through life. There were several moments which I could totally identify with. It was superb acting by a very able cast and although the subject was very down to earth, of a mother’s trials to provide a good future for her daughter, the cinema did do justice to balance all emotions very well. The teenage daughter had already resigned to the fact that her mother wouldn’t be able to put her through an expensive higher education, and had gone ahead and explored options of choosing a career as a nanny, something within her realms and ability.

A few days ago I was involved in a project dealing with intergenerational transmission of poverty and some of the dialogues in the movie brought back thoughts from work. The mother depicted in the movie was a daily wage earner, working in the informal sector. In India and many other lower and middle income countries, there is a huge section of population working in the informal sector and most survive on day to day earnings. Some don’t have enough to meet their daily needs and most do not have anything to save for the future. And this brings in another worry of a huge population of elderly people resulting from the same informal sector, without any sort of retirement savings.

I strongly feel that every human has a right to dream a rosy future and somewhere when one is consumed with thoughts solely of how they/their family can survive the next day, life is not completely justified. There is some information from research and mostly from the field of economics that intergenerational poverty is transmitted from parent to children especially in those living below the poverty line (BPL). Somewhere, there is a little mismatch, since the huge middle class strata of India, which extends from those just above the poverty line to those doing very well, often times demonstrate examples of children capable of attaining their dreams through hard work and education loans and scholarships and being able to climb from one strata to that higher. This is somehow extremely difficult for the poorest of the poor (BPL), even though many of the schools have very similar opportunities for growth. Additional aspects such as health and nutrition have been implied to add to lower school attendance in children and the reasons for being unable to escape the poverty trap become complex with multiple compounding factors.

What has been seen to work to some extent is conditional cash transfers (CCT). And more evidence from research is needed in this area. Pilot projects where cash transfers were made to the BPL families, tagged with compulsory school attendance, or availing government immunization/health programmes were seen to effect family nutrition and quality of life in a positive manner. School attendance also improved due to better nutrition and health. This would probably be a mechanism to escape the poverty trap. However, much more needs to be done in a proper structured manner. Also the process for CCT needs to be efficient without involving too many intermediaries that can raise avenues for corruption or bureaucracy or both (one stop mobile money transfer has worked well in Kenya). Community cooperatives also work to some extent, however, a strong community engagement, community participatory action methods are needed to be explored.

I am often frustrated that researchers do not come together to build sustainable projects. Grants are mostly driven with motivation for a few publications, or a PhD degree or obtaining a faculty position. Sustainable projects can be made possible only by a multidisciplinary team and until researchers stop working in silos where an economist only works with another economist and a qualitative researcher only with their own folks, it will be very difficult to achieve anything meaningful on the ground. One can generate multiple models of why things are not working, but ground level realities require tangible practical solutions and most importantly, ones which are sustainable in minimum resource settings.

Picture acknowledgement- Asian Development Bank