Are we really understanding poverty? Looking beyond income

Written by Martín Burt, CEO at Fundación Paraguaya

The Technical Planning Secretariat measures poverty using the so-called “poverty line”. This means that in order to be considered not poor in Paraguay a family must have USD 108 per person per month to buy food and the basics to live. In other words, a family of four people must earn USD 434 a month to avoid being considered poor.

At Fundación Paraguaya we believe that multidimensional poverty must be measured and not only income poverty, since the latter is misleading. In addition to income, we must measure employment, health, education, environment, culture, housing, infrastructure, organization, participation, interiority, and motivation. Paradoxically, the more indicators are used, the easier it becomes to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each family.

I want to tell the story of four women who earn more than the “poverty line”, but that still suffer many needs. Their names have been changed to respect their privacy.

Juana is 31 years old and lives in a Botrell company called Tacuapity with her husband and three children aged 16, 14, and 8 years old. She works as a cleaner at a local school where she earns USD 200 a month. In addition, she sells cleaning products door to door and earns about USD 33. Her husband works in the area as a bricklayer and earns about USD 334 a month. The total family income is USD 566 per month, which totals USD 113 per capita. Although this family is not considered poor, they cook on the floor and don’t have a refrigerator.

Elena, from 6 de Enero Settlement at Santa Rosa del Aguaray, is married and has two grandchildren of school age. With the support of her husband, she sells clothing and food, earning USD 500 per month. This means USD 125 per capita. The biggest problem is their latrine in poor conditions.

Julia lives in Cruce Liberación. She has her own house and a small convenience store with her husband, and two adult children and a grandchild. Her monthly income is USD 334. Her husband and son earn USD 300 between the two of them. The total family income is USD 634 per month. The income per capita is USD 126. The problem is the lack of an adequate cooking place in their home.

Lastly, Estela is 55 years old and lives in Potrero del Carmen with her husband and six children of 24, 21, 19, 16, 13, and 11 years old. She sells clothes door to door and earns USD 533 per month. Her husband, who works as a carpenter, earns USD 320 per month. Her two older children, who work as car mechanics, earn USD 63 each per month. One daughter, who works as a housemaid, earns USD 166 per month. The family earns a total of USD 1146 per month. This means USD 146 per capita. Their problem is the latrine they use.

Measuring monetary poverty is easy, but it is incomplete since it leaves aside serious needs a family can suffer. As we have seen, many families have money, but they do not have basic comforts at home. In the same way, the “poverty line” leaves aside many great strengths that poor households do have, such as health, family union, integration in neighborhood commissions, sense of belonging, self-esteem, and respect for cultural traditions, among others. These things are equal or more important than money.

The issue is to make the invisible visible — that families and governments learn to see what is behind the walls of the houses and help each household have a family plan to overcome poverty.