Impact of poverty on life



Poor people need to be resourceful because they often live in hostile physical environments completely lacking amenities.

The poor usually live in the most undesirable areas - in deserts, in swamps, along storm-ridden coasts, on hillsides prone to landslides and avalanches, near garbage dumps or in industrial zones.

Some live on city streets in makeshift houses of cardboard or discarded wood. For much of the year they may be underemployed or completely unemployed. When they can find work it is low paid. Many survive on a diet that is inadequate for at least part of the year. They have very little money for other necessities such as education, family planning, medical care and transport.

The following profiles from different parts of the world are typical of the daily lives of poor families.

GNP per caput, 1993
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Rural family: Bangladesh

A typical poor farm family in Bangladesh has six members and lives in a dilapidated thatched house with earth floors. Their water comes from a well shared with about 150 other people. There is no sewage disposal; families share pit latrines, or use the waterways.

The family grows two rice crops a year on a tiny 0.1 hectare plot, but the meagre harvest meets only about one-fifth of the family's food needs. Members of the family must work on neighbouring farms to earn money to buy the rest. Nearly 90 percent of the family's spending is on food; what little remains is used for clothing, medicines and schooling. With the passage of time their wages have bought less and less rice.

On average, the family members eat approximately 1 700 calories each per day. As a result they are well below normal weight and height. Two children had died before reaching their second birthdays.

In times of crisis such as famine or flood, the family would first sell household possessions, then tools and finally their land. It would then join the growing number of the landless.

Those families who can hold on to their land do not necessarily fare better; they often fall deep in debt to money lenders - a treadmill from which it is very hard to escape.


Industrial labourer's family: Colombia

This urban family of six lives in a shared, rented house in a shanty town on the edge of Bogota. The house has electricity and running water, but no sanitation.

The father's work, manual labour on construction sites, is heavy. The mother takes care of three school-age children and a baby, as well as doing domestic work. Their total income rarely exceeds the minimum wage: 20 percent of it is spent on rent, 70 percent on food, and the rest on transport, education, health services and recreation.

The family gets 29 percent of its dietary energy from cereals (rice, wheat and maize), 18 percent from sugar and 10 percent from potatoes and cassava. The family eats 8 400 calories of food a day, unequally shared, with the father eating most because of his heavy work.

The children are all short for their age and underweight because they do not eat enough food. And they suffer from diarrhoea, respiratory infections and parasites.

The minimum wage has kept only slightly ahead of the cost of living, but food prices have risen faster than inflation as a whole.

The father is frequently unemployed because work in the building industry is irregular. When the father is out of work the rent still has to be paid and the family has to buy food on credit at a high-priced local store.


Small-scale fishing family: Tanzania

The fisherman's family lives on Kerebe Island, on Lake Victoria. There are six children. Small-scale farmers and landless farm labourers and their families migrate to the island in the fishing season, which lasts from May until the rains come in September. The men fish, while the women earn money by processing the catch.

The family lives in a flimsy grass house and shares a pit latrine. There is no electricity or running water.

Bananas are the major food grown on the island and families often raise goats and poultry. Most of the island's staple foods - maize, cassava flour, rice and beans - must be brought in from the mainland. The fisherman eats two meals a day of a simple bean and banana porridge flavoured with fish sauce made from a small sardine called dagaa from the lake. Dagaa is considered a "poor man's food" but is highly nutritious because it is eaten whole and so supplies calcium and iron as well as other essential micronutrients.

The family's nutrition ranges from adequate to marginal, depending on income from fishing: when there is no money, they can buy no other food. Money can be borrowed and later repaid with cash or fish, but this often gets fishing families deep into debt. In normal circumstances the income is enough to buy food and some goods and to save to buy inputs for farming during the rest of the year. But frequent fishing accidents and AIDS have killed or weakened some of the most productive in the community and cut many families' incomes.


Landless family: the Philippines

This landless family of six lives in a small bamboo and palm thatch house. They have no electricity or running water and few possessions other than clothes, cooking utensils and a radio. They use kerosene for lighting and pay a monthly fee to get drinking water from a shared tap. Their farm equipment is a sickle and a mat for drying jute.

They grow vegetables and keep a pig and a few ducks on their rented home plot. Weeding a landowner's plot gives them the right to a share of its harvest (usually one-eighth to one-sixth of the crop). This increases their security, but means that they have no income for two or three months before the harvest as there is no agricultural work at the time.

Farm work is their sole source of cash income. The entire family works at harvesting, threshing and winnowing during the two main rice harvests. In a typical year, 65 percent of income comes from crop-share payments, 15 percent from cash wages and 20 percent from the sale of a fattened pig.

Two-thirds of the family's total spending is on food. Nearly half of their food is rice, mainly from crop-share payments, but they also eat vegetables, salt, milk, fish and, rarely, meat. The family's average dietary energy intake is 10 200 calories per day.

Their low, irregular income frequently forces them into debt: where possible they borrow from friends and neighbours to avoid the 1925 percent monthly interest charged by money lenders. A serious illness could easily bankrupt them.


Pastoral family: Mali

A pastoral family of six lives on the parched plains of Mali in round huts built of dried stalks, which are water-resistant when new and can be erected easily. This Fulani family has a herd of 24 cattle and 10 goats and grows a crop of millet during the rainy season. .

In the wet season they camp around rain ponds, which dry out by November. During the cold, dry season (November-February), the young men take most of the cattle in search of grazing. The rest of the household, with their goats, weaker animals and a few milk cows, camp on the edge of a village, and buy or barter for water.

During the hot, dry season, they move camp to a permanent water hole.

Among the Fulani, adult men are responsible for the main herd and for most of the millet cultivation. Boys tend goats and calves. The women and girls collect fuel wood and water for domestic use, help with the harvest, pound millet and prepare meals.

The household's maximum dietary energy intake, which is in October after the harvest, is 14 700 calories per day, enough to meet their dietary needs. It is at its lowest, between 7 840 and 8 820 calories per day, from December to June. The weight of both adults and children varies with the seasons.

Selling livestock accounts for over 90 percent of the family's cash income, while half of their spending is on cereals. Prolonged drought spells disaster. In 1973, after five years of drought, 100 000 Malians perished, along with about half of their animals.


Farm family: Central African Republic

Living in a humid, subtropical climate, this family of six survives on the shifting cultivation of cassava. They live in a rudimentary hut, fashioned from mud and thatch, with no running water, electricity or sanitation. The family has no access to social services. Among such people infant mortality rates are as high as 160 per 1 000 live births and life expectancy is no more than 40 years.

Once the soil becomes unproductive after a few years of cultivation, the family moves on to clear another part of the forest. Sometimes, larger, community-level moves are organized by the village elders. The family shares the workload; it cannot count on any external help.

The family grows bananas, yams and some vegetables, which partly cover their vitamin needs. It owns no livestock other than a few chickens and perhaps a goat or two. Most of its meat comes from hunting and fishing. The average food consumption is around 2 000 calories per person per day.

Overall, the total availability of calories is adequate, but the family is continuously at risk of severe malnutrition because it depends heavily on cassava, lacks animal protein and its members suffer frequent attacks of debilitating diseases.


Farm family: Nepal

A typical hill farmer in Nepal has a family of six and lives in a small hamlet of about 30 households on terraced slopes in the lower hills of the Himalayas. The family home is made from mud, bricks and straw, and has dirt floors. There is no running water or sanitation. The farmer owns his land - about half a hectare fragmented into seven or eight plots at different elevations. He owns some simple farm tools, some livestock and one draught bullock.

Most family members share the heavy workload, but the women in the community tend to work longer than the men- 11 hours as compared to 8 hours per day. Even children aged 10-14 work between 4 and 7 hours doing household chores and weeding.

The family grows maize and millet on rain-fed uplands and rice and wheat on low-lying, irrigable land. How much low-lying land a family has depends on its wealth. Crops are grown intensively, using much labour and organic manures.

The farmer produces almost 60 percent of his family's food. He earns money to buy the rest by selling his labour, either within his village or far away in Katmandu, or even India. The family's daily food consumption amounts to around 2 100 calories per person.

Food production in Nepal's uplands has declined significantly over the past two decades. Since sons inherit equal shares of land, per caput farmland has declined; many remaining farmsteads are too small to support families of six or more individuals. Their future is bleak.


Forest family: Viet Nam

A typical family living in the Yen Lap cooperative in the remote area of Yen Houng Province, northern Viet Nam, has six members, three of whom work as labourers. Both men and women work in the rice paddies. The family also keeps pigs and buffaloes, fed and cared for by the women of the household. Its main foods are rice, cassava, cabbage and pig fat.

The production system is based on shifting cultivation, and rice productivity is low. The average yield of hill rice at only around 650 kilograms per hectare per year, is less than half that of lowland rice. Typically, the family earns only 35 percent of its household cash income from the sale of agricultural crops.

The family's food production meets just over half of their nutritional needs (58 percent). It depends on the nearby forest to provide it with the remainder. A wide selection of forest products is used, including 60 species of plants, fruits and wild animals. Five wild plant species substitute directly for rice, particularly during the three to four month "hungry" season prior to the harvest each year. Forest foods make the difference between getting by and starving.


Family suffering from AIDS: Uganda

In Uganda, where 3 million people are expected to die from HIV/AIDS between 1991 and 2010, the disease has an impact upon both infected adults and those who depend on them.

Esther, 35 years old and widowed, is the head of a household consisting of ten women and girls. She looks after her own three children and her brother's three orphaned girls, her late husband's 17-year-old daughter by another wife and her young child, and her sick stepmother.

When her brother died, Esther inherited a hectare of land on which she grows maize, groundnuts, cassava and sweet potatoes for family consumption. She does most of the work herself as the children only work on the farm on Saturdays. Sometimes she hires casual labourers to help her, and pays them in kind.

Esther also brews beer. This is very labour intensive and provides only a small profit, but she has no other way of generating the cash she needs to buy necessities such as soap, salt and fish or meat.

The family eats leftovers for breakfast and sorghum, sometimes with potatoes and greens, for dinner. During the "hungry season" in March and April, Esther works as a casual labourer for US$ 0.45 a day, enough income to provide one daily meal for her family.

Esther's own three girls are at school, but she cannot afford to continue paying the fees for the orphans, and is pessimistic about their future.