Urban Poverty: Tackling the Roots
of Future Poverty ?

Published Jan 2011 - Updated May 2012

Extreme inner city poverty

A worldwide problem

Urban poverty exists everywhere, although with different intensity, from poor to rich countries, and is recognizable in substandard living conditions and incomes along with deficient provision of basic services.

For centuries and centuries the world has been urbanizing, building and extending cities, and that makes this problem a central one as more and more people become concerned by this problem. It makes urban planning, city building and resources management some of the most central components of the fight against urban poverty.

Ever growing cities

As nearly 1/2 of African and Asian populations are becoming urbanites, and more than ¾ of that of Latin America already is, inner city poverty and urban poverty in general will soon turn out to be the core of the issue.

The biggest and fastest-developing cities in the world are also located in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But the bulk of the people (600 million) fueling that growth lives in temporary shelters, slums, areas where their lives and health are constantly under the pressure.

The problems of congested and inadequate housing along with limited (if not dangerous) access to water, sanitation, and other city services like garbage collection (which can provoke massive epidemics if left uncared for) are only part of that pressure.

On top of that, a lot of all that makeshift housing is – as its name suggests it – not made with proper construction materials and makes it very vulnerable to storms, typhoons, and other natural disasters that hit many regions across the globe. A city then becomes a great place for the poor... to only get poorer.

Underestimation of urban poverty

Family poverty in shanty towns

Poverty lines are often set too low compared to the real cost of life, in particular housing and transport expenses, in urban areas. If set according to an average income level, they will (sometimes on purpose) overlook these essential differences between urban and rural populations.

The rurals' income being much lower than that of urban residents', it brings the average income level down. Aspects of urban life like the cost of water, especially for those out of the piped systems, to children expenses are also not taken into account. In that sense poverty lines are deeply flawed. They should be set to help understand what households really need for their subsistence, rather than that what they spend on “non-food needs”. Obviously if you’re poor you already lack the means to afford basic goods and services.

So one can’t possibly establish an allowance based on, for example, the one textbook a family buys for each of its children while it needs in fact a dozen for each child. Nonetheless it is most often the case poverty allowances are set. The result is that the huge lack of data concerning the extent of urban poverty leads to extensive use of rules of thumb to create poverty lines that underestimate the scale of the problem. This is aggravated by insufficient data and general knowledge of specific districts and suburbs.

This creates situations where the poverty statistics provided by state-run institutions are completely disconnected with what is really going on in the streets. Absence or lack of awareness from officials and even the people on the importance to redefine and measure poverty helps maintain the status quo. Yet the people should be the first to put the issue on the political agenda…

Another data-related issue is that of the huge number of city dwellers that are homeless or live in informal, unregistered houses. That makes the results of surveys and any estimations of urban poverty incredibly biased and … false! One more reason to include the poor in the process of gathering information on their population and living conditions. The absence of maps, addresses and any kind of official records for private businesses or households makes it all the more necessary.

National institutions should be working to help local authorities and the people, not only their governments and international organizations. By encouraging urban poor organizations, local governments and NGOs to get involved in the data collection process they are more likely to gather much more reliable results. Plenty evidence of such collaboration has proven this partnership’s efficiency, not only in building solid and well-grounded sources of information, but also in involving the whole population in initiatives to tackle urban poverty.

Urban poverty and environment

Wastelands & shanty towns in India

If there is little proof that urban poverty damages the environment in itself, on the other side a poor urban environment endangers the lives of many urban residents. Most environmental degradation is in effect due to how the middle and upper classes usually over-consume, along with issues of industrial production, both of which result in discharging huge amount of waste that damages natural resources, water and land in particular.

In many cases, the problem is not even an environmental one, but simply political as the poor are denied access to fresh, uncontaminated water when governments refuse to invest in proper non-massively-leaking water supply and treatment systems. As for overcrowded areas, it seems most cities do have in fact enough unused or underused land to accommodate the excess of low-income people. That is, as long as social housing is planned. Of course all these aspects refer to a good governance and management process that are quite difficult to achieve in unstable and/or poorer countries.

Since much citizen participation is needed in most cases, be it merely to know how many people you need to accommodate. It also means that a more democratic, transparent and accountable management is needed. But that touches the sensitive issue of the political regime of many impoverished countries.

Moreover many international agencies have not really taken any active step (for a mystical reason) to improve access to water, provision of sanitation, health care, garbage collection, etc... The reason is in fact their obsession with projects rather than partnerships. It's always about immediate results rather than the building of something that will last.

A chronic approach of urban poverty

Symptoms of chronic urban poverty

Taking into account chronic poverty sheds light on an important factor: just how long does a person or a household undergo a period of poverty? For many, it is just a temporary situation, but it can also span from months to years. Also important, it helps identify those who simply never get out of the poverty trap. People fall easily under the burden of additional problems (e.g. health issues), often due to their living conditions, risky or hazardous jobs (e.g. anything involving fumes without protection).

Add to this a good old fashioned problem of discrimination and you've got a great recipe for inner city poverty. Being above the one-dollar-a-day poverty line means peanuts to urbanites if what they really need is something more like $10 a day (or $20 depending on where you live).

With a new growing trend towards less planning for social housing in big cities, officials and city developers know very well they are trying to move the poor to the outskirts. Not only is that pure discrimination, that’s also making things worse insofar as these people generally work in the cities (since they used to live there) and therefore find themselves with huge transportation costs. More studies on chronic urban poverty would help observe the variation of poorness in the population and what groups are most vulnerable in times of economic crises.

Citizen action against urban poverty

Despite the meager successes of the standard state-run tactic to reduce urban poverty in developing countries, not much has been done yet to include key local residents in the overall strategy. Who would that be? Mostly local officials and local poor organizations who know best how things work in their area.

This is true both at the national- and international-levels, even in the more developed and democratic countries, where you might expect that popular pressure could have helped in any way. But no. The problem might be that in the end the democratic process is still very much insufficient, inefficient and... still maturing, still in development. Same is true in the new fast growing economies like China or India; in Mumbai for example, around half of the population lives in slums.

We can distinguish about three kinds of initiatives started by local inhabitants:

1) Action taken independently and autonomously from the government;

2) Putting pressure on the state to demand improvements, be it housing, upgrading services of systems, preventing the exploitation of workers or children, etc…

3) Direct cooperation with governments and international agencies in a flexible way to reduce poverty. This way, local groups can negotiate with the state, be involved in the design, management and implementation of projects.

This last form of cooperation, even if not very common yet, is thriving nowadays with coalitions of slums organizations working together with much bigger institutions. One thing is sure… they know better than anyone else what their specific needs and situations are. Also, improved citizen participation is great practice to better the democratic system and decision-making process, with a greater share of participatory democracy that helps respond to local needs.

Even if locals manage to get a lot done on their own, there are nonetheless significant limits to their scope of action in urban environments. Those impoverished areas need sound infrastructure to get water, transportation, health care centers, schools and other vital services without which the locals will have to keep on relying on expensive alternatives.

The state plays a central role here also because it’s rare to reach a consensus in many of those areas, as they are inhabited by an incredible (ethnic) diversity of people. It’s not unusual to have to overcome conflicting ethnic ties along with religious or linguistic barriers. In that sense the state should do its best to represent and underpin the interests of the whole population. That’s the reason it exists after all.

The benefits of urbanization

What are the benefits of urbanization?

About ¾ of the poor in the developing world still live in rural areas and yet poverty is undoubtedly becoming more urban. There are concerns that fight against impoverishment in cities has been very slow paced, especially in comparison to that against rural poverty.

However the great decline in rural poverty happened at the expense of the urban poverty, since more and more people continuously migrate to the cities. Out of 150 million the poor worldwide who left the countryside to go to the city, only an additional 50 millions poor were observed in urban areas.

If this may be due to the lack of data on urban poverty, part of this reduction in 100 million poor is also due to the urban environment. Urbanization does play a part in giving new opportunities to rural migrant workers. In turn, once their financial situation improves, they regularly send a portion of their salary back to their home villages. This creates a virtuous circle whereby urbanization also reduces rural poverty.

Nevertheless the issue is not that simple, for the countries that have “urbanized” their populations a while ago (e.g. in Latin America) therefore find themselves with the bulk of their poor living in urban areas. In sub-Saharan Africa too, countries with very weak governance and political skills (and will) have not managed to reduce urban poverty even as they know their cities are growing year after year.


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