Dollar a Day
Monday, April 9, 2007
[E]ven the poorest find the resources to let their hair down. Duflo and Banerjee, looking at economic surveys of the very poor from 13 different countries, conclude that about one-third of household income is spent on stuff other than food. The alternatives to simply trying to consume more calories include shelter, of course, but even the poorest find some money to spend on things such as tobacco, alcohol, weddings, funerals, or religious festivals. Radios and televisions are also popular. Looking at food spending itself, although the very poor do focus on the cheapest grain?millet?they also spend on wheat, rice, and even sugar. This is expensive and offers little nutritional benefit, but it certainly makes lunch taste better.
Guntur, southern India, is a city short of money but not of entrepreneurs. Stroll through the main thoroughfare of the largest slum at 9 in the morning, and outside every sixth house you will pass a woman sitting behind a kerosene stove, ready to prepare dosa?rice-and-bean pancakes?for passersby with a rupee to spare. An hour later, each woman will be onto her next job. One woman earns cash by sewing fancy beads onto cheap, plain saris. Others are laborers, rubbish collectors, or pickle-makers.
The scene is described by two MIT economics professors, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, in their recent article, “The Economic Lives of the Poor.” They set themselves the task of explaining how very poor people make money and how they spend it.
The “very poor” are those who live on less than $1 a day. That benchmark?a rare piece of brilliant marketing from the World Bank?is both more generous and more frugal than it seems. Generous, because the benchmark dates from 1985 and has since been adjusted to take account of inflation. But frugal because the dollar is adjusted for purchasing power. In other words, a Kenyan farmer might have 50 cents a day to spend but still not count as “very poor” because 50 cents in Kenya buys more than $1 would in the United States. However you look at it, a dollar a day is a tiny income.