Vulnerable Groups versus Households: Re-tooling policies to tackle chronic poverty


Longitudinal poverty studies find that a significant proportion of households in poverty face conditions which ensure poverty persist over time.  The Chronic Poverty Report 2004/5 estimates that as many as 40 percent of poor households in the South are in persistent poverty.

Poverty persistence should be a matter for concern among policy makers. Long term poverty is associated with malnutrition, chronic illness, asset depletion, and breakdown in support networks. Imagine a country with 20 percent poverty could find the means of distributing poverty spells equally among the population. Everyone would be poor for 20 percent of the time, but able to replenish their nutrition, assets, and networks during the remaining 80 percent of the year. Now compare this with a country in which poverty concentrates among the most vulnerable 20 percent of the population, who are stuck in poverty with limited exit routes.  Few would disagree if we say that poverty is much worse in the latter country.

Unfortunately, in most countries poverty tends to concentrate among the most vulnerable.  Poverty persistence ought to be a policy priority.

In the past, policy responses to persistent poverty focused on groups perceived to suffer from acute vulnerability: older people, people with disabilities, widows, landless labourers. In low income countries with limited capacity, a focus on ‘vulnerable groups’ has some appeal. Older people are ‘easier to find’, direct assistance to them finds considerable support among policy makers and especially tax-payers, and there are few concerns over work disincentives.

It is important to acknowledge the limitations of this approach. Aside from older people living alone, a minority in the South, most people facing persistent poverty are part of a household. This is where decisions are taken. Who goes to work? Who goes to school? This is where agency lies. This is where the productive capacity of households, current and future, is shaped.

Tackling persistent poverty requires strengthening the productive capacity and agency of households. It requires an understanding of how household members interact, of the role of gender and the rights and responsibilities of children and older people.

Increasingly, antipoverty policies are moving away from their focus on ‘vulnerable groups’ and are developing household-based interventions.  This is part of a much-needed process of re-tooling policies to tackle chronic poverty.


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