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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: Measuring Poverty 

November 29, 2013 — By Ruth Levine

Have you noticed the recent churn in development policy circles over how to reconcile the meaning of poverty with the measure of poverty? Some, like our friend Lant Pritchett, argue for a higher threshold on individual income than the famous “dollar a day.” Others, like our friend Gonzalo Hernández, director of Mexico's National Evaluation Council (CONEVAL) and 3ie Board member, are looking for more complex understanding of poverty as having many dimensions—income, health, potential for social mobility, and more. At a recent meeting described by the Guardian newspaper, Gonzalo “likened the focus on economic measures to visiting a doctor who only takes a child's temperature to find out if they are ill. While temperature levels give an indication something may be wrong, further examination is needed to determine the illness and tackle it.” He was quoted as saying, “It is exactly what happens with poverty. Poverty is a complex issue… We need to measure it in various ways. Economics is important, but other aspects are important too. If we want to reduce poverty we have to measure it through a multidimensional way.” 


If I were to choose a camp, there’s no question it would be the multidimensional one, thinking about and representing poverty as including but not limited to low income, in either absolute terms or relative to others in the same community or country. In fact, when we were working on framing the discussion for the Hewlett Board about the Global Development and Population Program, several iterations of the write-up included a discussion of the multidimensional nature of poverty, with reference to Amartya Sen’s “human capabilities” concept. Somewhere along the way, that was edited out, perhaps because it was too abstract or academic-sounding. But whether it appears in writing or not, I think and hope that our work is animated by the notion that poverty is more than money—and so reducing poverty means more than raising incomes. (Toward that end, we have awarded a grant to James Foster at George Washington University, one of the creators of the multidimensional poverty index used by the UNDP’s Human Development Report, to develop a multidimensional index that could be used to measure progress toward the (eventual) post-2015 development goals.)