“Poverty is humiliation, the sense of being dependent on them, and of being forced to accept rudeness, insults, and indifference when we seek help.” —Latvia 1998
In the simplest term, poverty may be defined as a social condition where individuals do not have financial means to meet the most basic standards of life that is acceptable by the society. Individuals experiencing poverty do not have the means to pay for basic needs of daily life like food, clothes and shelter.
Poverty also staves people off from accessing much needed social tools of well-being like education and health requirements. The direct consequences stemming from this problem are hunger, malnutrition and susceptibility to diseases which have been identified as major problems across the world. It impacts individuals in a socio-psychological way with them not being able to afford simple recreational activities and getting progressively marginalized in the society.
The term poverty is interconnected with the notion of the poverty line/ threshold that may be defined as the minimum figure of income that is required in a particular country for maintaining the socially acceptable quality of life in terms of nutritional, clothing and sheltering needs. The World Bank has updated its international poverty line figures to 1.90 USD (Rs. 123.5) per day on October 2015 (based on prices of commodities in year 2011-2012), from 1.5 USD(Rs. 81) as a response to the changes in the cost of living across the world as per current economy. The organization estimates that – “Just over 900 million people globally lived under this line in 2012 (based on the latest available data), and we project that in 2015, just over 700 million are living in extreme poverty.”
Poverty is a worldwide cause of concern even in economically stable countries like the USA. Current statistics state that over half the populations in the world, about 3 billion people, are forced to live on less than 2.5 dollars per day. In India, as per 2014 government reports, monthly per capita consumption expenditure is Rs. 972 per person in rural areas and Rs. 1407 per person in urban areas. This data is currently being accepted as the poverty threshold of the country. As of 2015, 21.9% of the total population lives below the national poverty threshold, as per the data of Asian Development Bank, that’s a whopping 269.7 million individuals not having enough money.
Causes of Poverty in India
Factors contributing to the persistent problem of poverty in the country are many and they need to be identified in order to be addressed properly. They can be categorized under the following heads.
1. Demographic – the main factor that contributes to poverty-ridden state of the country from a demographical point of view is the problem of over population. The growth of population in the country has so far exceeded the growth in economy and the gross result is that the poverty figures have remained more or less consistent. In rural areas, size of the families is bigger and that translates into lowering the per capita income values and ultimately lowering of standard of living. Population growth spurt also leads to generation of unemployment and that means diluting out of wages for jobs further lowering income.
2. Economic –there are a host of economic reasons behind persistence of the poverty problems which are outlined hereunder:-
a. Poor Agricultural Infrastructure –Agriculture is the backbone of Indian economy. But outdated farming practices, lack of proper irrigation infrastructure and even lack of formal knowledge of crop handling has affected the productivity in this sector tremendously. As a consequence there is redundancy and sometimes complete lack of work leading to decreased wages that is insufficient for meeting daily needs of a labourer’s family plunging them into poverty.
b. Unequal distribution of assets – with the economy changing directions rapidly, the earning structure evolves differently in different economic income groups. Upper and middle income groups see a faster increase in earnings than lower income groups. Also assets like land, cattle as well as realty are distributed disproportionately among the population with certain people owning majority shares than other sectors of the society and their profits from these assets are also unequally distributed. In India it is said that 80% wealth in the country is controlled by just 20% of the population.
c. Unemployment – another major economic factor that is causative of poverty in the country is the rising unemployment rate. Unemployment rates is high in India and according to a 2015 survey data, at the all-India level, 77% of families do not have a regular source of income.
d. Inflation and Price hike – the term Inflation may be defined as an increase in prices of commodities coinciding with the fall in the purchasing value of money. As a direct consequence of inflation, effective price of food, clothing items as well as real estate rises. The salaries and wages do not rise as much in keeping up with the inflated prices of commodities leading to effective decrease of the per capita income.
e. Faulty economic liberalization – the LPG (Liberalization-Privatization-Globalization) attempts initiated by the Indian Government in 1991 were directed towards making the economy more suited to international market-trends to invite foreign investments. Successful to certain extent in reviving the economy, the economic reforms had detrimental effects on increasing the wealth distribution scenario. Rich became richer, while the poor remained poor.
3. Social – The various social issues plaguing the country that contributes towards poverty are:-
a. Education and illiteracy – Education, rather its lack thereof and poverty form a vicious cycle that plagues the nation. Not having enough resources to feed their children, the poor consider education to be frivolous, preferring children to start contributing to the family’s income rather than draining them. On the other hand, lack of education and illiteracy prevent individuals from getting better paying jobs and they get stuck at jobs offering minimum wages. Improvement of quality of life gets hindered and the cycle once again comes into action.
b. Outdated Social Customs – Social customs like the caste system cause segregation and marginalization of certain sections of the society. Certain castes are considered untouchables still and are not employed by upper caste, leaving very specific and low paying jobs that they can live off. Economist K. V. Verghese put forth the problem in a very lucid language, “Caste system acted as a springboard for class exploitation with the result that the counterpart of the poverty of the many is the opulence of the few. The second is the cause of the first.”
c. Lack of skilled labour – lack of adequate vocational training makes the huge labour force available in India largely unskilled, which is unsuitable for offering maximum economic value. Lack of education, much less higher education, is also a contributing factor towards this.
d. Gender inequality–the weak status attached with women, deep-rooted social marginalization and long embedded perceptions of domesticity renders about 50% of the country’s population unable to work. As a result the women of the family add to the number of dependents that need to be fed instead of being able to contribute considerably in the family income which might assuage the poverty situation of the family.
e. Corruption – despite considerable efforts from the government in the forms of various schemes to mollify the poverty situation, allegedly only 30-35% actually reaches the beneficiaries due to wide-spread practices of corruption in the country. Wealthy people with privileged connection are able to acquire more wealth simply by bribing government officials to maximize their profits from such schemes while the poor remain in a state of neglect for not being able to assert such connections.
4. Individual – individual lack of efforts also contribute towards generating poverty. Some people are unwilling to work hard or even not willing to work altogether, leaving their families in the darkness of poverty. Personal demons like drinking and gambling also leads to draining of the family income inciting poverty.
5. Political – in India, socio-economic reform strategies has been largely directed by political interest and are implemented to serve a choice section of the society that is potentially a deciding factor in the elections. As a result, the issue is not addressed in its entirety leaving much scope of improvements.
6. Climatic – maximum portion of India experiences a tropical climate throughout the year that is not conducive to hard manual labour leading to lowering of productivity and the wages suffer consequently.
Effects of Poverty
The resounding effect of poverty echoes through various layers of an India citizen’s life. If we try to have a systematic look at them, we should proceed under the three following heads:-
1. Effect on Health – one of the most devastating effects that poverty has is on the overall health of the nation. The most prominent health issue stemming from poverty is malnutrition. The problem of malnutrition is widespread in all age-groups of the country but children are most adversely affected by this. Limited income in larger families leads to lack of access to sufficient nutritious food for their children. These children over time suffer from severe health problems like low body weight, mental, physical disabilities and a general poor state of immunity making them susceptible to diseases. Children from poor backgrounds are twice as susceptible to suffer from anemia, nutrient deficiencies, impaired vision, and even cardiac problems. Malnutrition is a gross contributor of infant mortality in the country and 38 out of every 1,000 babies born in India die before their first birthday. Malnutrition among adult also leads to poor health in adults that leaches their capacity for manual labour leading to a decrease in income due to weakness and diseases. Poverty also causes definite decline in the sanitary practices among poor who cannot afford proper bathrooms and disinfectants. As a result susceptibility to waterborne diseases peak among the poor. Lack of access to as well as means to procure appropriate treatment also affects overall mortality of the population which is lower in poor countries than developed nations like the USA.
2. Effects on Society – poverty exerts some gravely concerning effects over the overall societal health as well. These may be discussed along the following lines:-
a. Violence and crime rate – incidence of violence and crime have been found to be geographically coincident. In a backdrop of unemployment and marginalization, the poor resort to criminal activities to earn money. Coupled with lack of education and properly formed moral conscience, a poverty ridden society is more susceptible to violence by its people against its own people from a sense of deep-seated discontent and rage.
b. Homelessness – apart from a definite drop in the esthetic representation of the country, homelessness affects child health, women safety and overall increase in criminal tendencies.
c. Stress – lack of money is a major cause of stress among the middle-class and the poor and leads to decline in productivity of individuals.
d. Child labour – one of the hallmarks of a poverty-ridden society is the widespread practices of exploitation and the worst of it comes in the form of child labour. Large families fail to meet the monetary needs of the members and children as young as 5 years are made to start earning in order to contribute to the family income.
e. Terrorism – proclivity of youth towards terrorism stems from a combination of extreme poverty and lack of education making them susceptible to brainwashing. Terrorist organizations offer poverty-ridden families money in exchange for a member’s participation in their activities which induces a sense of accomplishment among the youth.
3. Effect on Economy –poverty is a direct index indicating success of the economy of the country. The number of people living under the poverty threshold indicates whether the economy is powerful enough to generate adequate jobs and amenities for its people. Schemes providing subsidies for the poor of the country again impose a drain on the economy.
The measures that should be taken to fight the demon of poverty in India are outlined below:-
1. Growth of population at the current rate should be checked by implementation of policies and awareness promoting birth control.
2. All efforts should be made to increase the employment opportunities in the country, either by inviting more foreign investments or by encouraging self-employment schemes.
3. Measures should be taken to bridge the immense gap that remains in distribution in wealth among different levels of the society.
4. Certain Indian states are more poverty stricken than others like Odhisha and the North East states. Government should seek to encourage investment in these states by offering special concessions on taxes.
5. Primary needs of people for attaining a satisfactory quality of life like food items, clean drinking water should be available more readily. Improvement of the Subsidy rates on commodities and Public Distribution system should be made. Free high school education and an increased number of functioning health centers should be provided by the government.
A social problem has been defined as “a situation confronting a group or a section of society which inflicts injurious consequences that can be handled only collectively” (Reinhardt, 1952:14). Thus, no one individual or a few individuals are responsible for the appearance of a socially problematic situation, and the control of this situation is also beyond the ability of one person or a few persons. This responsibility is placed upon society at large. Walsh and Furfey (1961:1) have defined a social problem as a “deviation from the social ideal remediable by group effort” (Walsh and Furfey, 1961:1).
Two elements are important in this definition:
(i) A situation which is less than ideal, that is, which is undesirable or abnormal; and
(ii) One which is remediable by collective effort.
Though it is not easy to determine which situation is ideal and which is not, and there is no definite standard which could be used to judge it, yet it is clear that a social ideal is not something arbitrary and the term ‘social problem’ is applied only to that ‘issue’ which social ethics (which describes human conduct as right and wrong in group relations), and society (which is concerned with the promotion of the common good or the welfare of its members and the preservation of public order) consider as unfavorable.
The ‘issue’ should also be such as is beyond an individual to handle it by himself. If an individual wants a job and has to compete with others for getting it, then it is merely an individual problem. Likewise, if an individual has become addicted to drugs and has to seek admission to a psychiatric institute or a community centre for dead-diction that is his personal problem.
On the other hand, if 35 million persons are unemployed in villages and cities in a country, and no single individual can do anything effective about it, what is needed to solve the problem is an organized group or social effort. Thus, a problem may be an individual problem under one set of circumstances and a social problem under another.
But social problems change with the passage of time. What was not considered a social problem a few decades ago may become a crucial social problem two decades hence. For example, the population explosion in our country was not viewed as a social problem up to the late 40s of the twentieth century but from the early 1950s it has come to be perceived as a very crucial problem.
Social change creates new conditions in which an issue comes to be identified as a social problem. Similarly, youth unrest in India was not a problem up to the 1940s but in the 1950s and the 1960s it became a problem and in the 1970s and the 1980s it became a very serious one and continues to be so in the 1990s. Let us examine a few more viewpoints on the concept of ‘social problem’. Fuller and Myers (1941:320) have defined a social problem as “a condition which is defined by a considerable number of persons as a deviation from some social norms which they cherish”.
Merton and Nis- bet (1971:184) hold that a social problem is “a way of behaviour that is regarded by a substantial part of a social order as being in violation of one or more generally accepted or approved norms”. This definition may apply to some problems like alcoholism, corruption and communal- ism, but not to problems like population explosion. Some problems are created not by the abnormal and deviant behaviour of the individuals but by the normal and accepted behaviour. Raab and Selznick (1959:32) maintain that a social problem is “a problem in human relationships which seriously threatens society or impedes the important aspirations of many people”.
According to Carr (1935:306), “a social problem exists whenever we become conscious of a difficulty, a gap between our preferences and reality”. Blumer (1971:19) writes that “social problems involve actions or patterns of behaviour that are viewed by a substantial number of persons in the society as being deleterious to the society or in violation of societal norms, and about which ameliorative action is seen as both possible and desirable”. Landis (1959) is of the opinion that “social problems are men’s unfulfilled aspirations for welfare”.
Case (1976:310) has said that “a social problem refers to any situation which attracts the attention of a considerable number of competent observers within a society and appeals to them as calling for readjustment or remedy by social (that is, collective) action of some kind or other”.
Horton and Leslie (1970:4) write that a social problem is “a condition affecting a significant number of people in ways considered undesirable, about which it is felt that something can be done through collective social action”. Though this definition emphasizes that a social problem is a condition “affecting a significant number of people” it does not give the exact number of people who must be affected. It only points out that ‘enough people’ should be affected so that notice is taken of it and people begin to talk and write about it.
One way of ‘measuring public concern’ about a condition is to assess the number of articles devoted to it in popular magazines. Thus, the problem of ‘environmental pollution’ in India was not taken up earnestly till the beginning of the eighties, manifested by the fact that not many articles appeared on this issue in newspapers and magazines. The appearance of numerous articles in the last ten years or so indicates that the condition has attracted widespread consideration, and has become a social problem.
Another element in the definition which needs attention is “in ways considered undesirable”. The custom of sati in India was no social problem as long as most people thought it was desirable. When Raja Ram Mohan Roy took initiative and a considerable number of people came to support him and started criticizing the practice as harmful and awful, only then did the custom of sati turn into a social problem.
In recent times, it was only after the incident of Roop Kanwar, a 21 year old Rajput girl, who committed sati on the funeral pyre of her husband in Deorala in Sikar district in Rajasthan in September 1987 that this practice came to be condemned, and an Act was passed in February 1988 by the state of Rajasthan prescribing serious penalty for persons forcing a woman to commit sati.’
A social problem, thus, involves a value judgment, a feeling that a condition is detrimental and requires change. Political corruption came to be viewed as a social problem only in the 1970s and the 1980s of the twentieth century, though it was prevalent in our country earlier too. Issues like wife-battering and child abuse are yet to be accepted as serious social problems.
Conditions that cannot be changed or evaded are also not accepted as social problems. Thus, famine was not considered a social problem until recently because of the widespread belief that the scantiness of rains was the result of the wrath of the rain-god. Today, famine in states like Rajasthan is viewed as a social problem and is seen to be the result of the failure to complete the Rajasthan canal because of the scarcity of economic resources.
The scarcity of drinking water became a social problem in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, only when it was realized that it was not a misfortune to be endured but “something could be done” to remove this scarcity. Thus, it is the belief and hope in the possibility of prevention and treatment that causes people to consider situation as a social problem.
The last portion in the definition of Horton and Leslie is ‘collective action’. A social problem cannot be solved by an individual or a few individuals. All social problems are social in treatment, that is, it is believed that they can be tackled only by public concern, discussion, opinion formation and pressure.
According to Weinberg (1960:4), social problems are “behaviour patterns or conditions which arise from social processes and are considered so objectionable or undesirable by many members of a society that they recognize that corrective policies, programmes and services are necessary to cope with them”.
Weinberg gives six characteristics of social problems as under:
1. Social problems arise by being collectively defined as objectionable by many members of the community. Thus, adverse conditions not defined by the community as reprehensible are not considered as social problems. For example, if taking alcohol is not regarded as objectionable by society, it is not considered a social problem.
But as society recognizes and discusses the problems inherent in alcohol consumption, studies its consequences and devises a plan of corrective action to control it, it comes to be defined as a social problem even though the original situation may not have changed.
2. Social problems change when the concerned behavioural patterns are interpreted differently. For example, till a few decades ago, mental illness was viewed as insanity and it was considered so disgraceful that the families kept the member’s mental illness a secret. Now the behaviour of a mentally ill person is seen only as one type of ‘deviant behaviour’ which requires psychiatric and social treatment. Thus, the problem of mental illness today is met more realistically and effectively.
3. Mass media (newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies) play an important role in creating awareness about the scope and urgency of social problems.
4. Social problems have to be viewed in the context of society’s values and institutions, for example, the problem of racial conflict in the United States is different from the problem of untouchability in India.
5. Social problems need to be analyzed in terms of the influences upon them by group processes and social relationships.
6. Since social problems vary historically, contemporary social problems are the society’s concern, that is, the problem of refugee settlement in India in 1947-48 was different from the problem of settling refugees from Assam in 1968, or the Tamils from Sri Lanka in 1988-89, or the Indians from Kuwait and Iraq in September, 1990. Similarly, the problem of immigrants in the United Kingdom in 1988 was different than it was in 1967 or 1947.