Economist Philip Jefferson Says to Dismantle Poverty, First Understand its Abounding Causes

Philip Jefferson

“There’s an unwillingness of society to confront the structures that limit people’s options and an unwillingness to dismantle these structures,” Jefferson says.

The number of children living in poverty worldwide is 385 million.

It’s a staggering figure with causes so wide-ranging that, despite humanitarian efforts to alleviate it, many avert their eyes to its ubiquitous presence. But in his newly released book, Poverty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press), Centennial Professor of Economics Philip Jefferson offers a systematic examination of the layers and roots of poverty and argues for the need to understand it.

“Living in poverty limits opportunities and possibilities for human beings,” says Jefferson, a former research economist at the Federal Reserve Board who teaches on poverty and inequality. “This is a book for you if you’re concerned that people living in poverty are constrained from the opportunity to live their lives to their fullest.”

A complex issue that manifests in a multitude of dismal forms, poverty persists despite the spectacular advances of humankind, and Jefferson deftly explains its origins—as well as efforts to alleviate—its grip on society.

The poor include 767 million people living below the extreme poverty line, or the equivalent of roughly $2 a day. But absolute and relative poverty play out in a multitude of daily toils and tragedies, says Jefferson, from limited access to education and health care to stunted growth, addiction, and homelessness. Families often lug poverty’s weight for generation after generation, affecting at least five dimensions of well-being: family structure, health, education, environment, and assets.

You can’t isolate reasons for poverty, and “there’s no simple fix,” Jefferson says, explaining that poverty is often contextual with what we own. In India, a family with a wood stove, emitting carbon and negatively affecting health, would be considered poor. A modest electric stove without a digital clock would be a marker of poverty in the U.S. But in sub-Saharan Africa, lack of access to firewood because of conflict and violence could mean families might not eat at all.

“What societies can do is [enact] multidimensional policies that lower barriers for individuals such as unequal access to education and health care,” he says.

Poverty rates are also connected to gender discrimination in the labor market, he says: “Women are not paid equally and are channeled into lower-paying occupations. As a society, we do not provide for child care, and as a result, women do a disproportionate amount of unpaid care work.”

Because poverty is such a complicated problem, creating an accessible narrative to inform readers about a global problem presented a unique challenge for Jefferson. “There’s an unwillingness of society to confront the structures that limit people’s options and an unwillingness to dismantle these structures,” he says.

The consequences of ignoring poverty are disparate and can be seen in global hotspots, says Jefferson, citing current examples of Venezuela, South Sudan, Syria, Nicaragua, and Yemen. “As societies become less organized,” he says, “more people become vulnerable.”

Among Jefferson’s key messages: There are degrees of poverty worldwide, and many people are at risk of falling into the strata of being poor. Random circumstances related to gender, education, onset of war, and even neighborhood all impact one person’s relationship to poverty.

“We don’t have to look far to see evidence of how neighborhoods are segregated by racial lines,” says Jefferson. “That’s a legacy we have to deal with on a residential front as we try to reconstitute our neighborhoods to be more diverse.”

But there are conditions that can help combat poverty, he says, including a growing economy that is performing well overall and, most critically, good governance. “In the U.S., our society is relatively well-organized,” says Jefferson. “Our principles of rule of law, respect for property rights, protection under the law, and rules against discrimination are all protections that constitute a well-organized society and so contribute to a reduction of poverty.”

Still, many of those principles are being challenged today, Jefferson says. “It will be interesting to see whether we can, as a society, persist in the face of headwinds against the traditional values we have as a democracy,” he says, “values that are known to be good for reducing poverty.”

The pervasiveness of poverty can be explained, understood, and deconstructed, argues Jefferson. He hopes Poverty: A Very Short Introduction contributes to an ongoing conversation and ignites interest in ensuring that people everywhere are empowered to live without the inequitable constraints of poverty.