Surviving the Pandemic: A Two-Decade Study on Poverty Resilience in Southern India

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This study follows households in southern India to assess COVID-19’s impact on poverty levels. Researchers were particularly interested in structural poverty (longer-term) and the more lasting impacts of the pandemic.

The study builds on previous research conducted in 2002, which examined the poverty levels of 35 diverse Indian villages. In July and August 2021, researchers followed up a smaller sample of seven villages (due to pandemic restraints) to see how poverty levels had changed. Researchers first met with a group of elders representing each village and worked with them to define levels of structural poverty.

In August, they interviewed 185 of the original households, using these community-developed definitions. They found that in the two decades before the pandemic (2002-2020), people’s structural positions had improved vastly, with long-term poverty falling from nearly half to less than 20 percent of households. These gains in resilience helped people cope with the pandemic. While the majority of households suffered deep income losses between February 2020 and August 2021, there is no evidence of a rise in structural poverty.

Researchers hope that undertaking additional regional studies of grassroots impacts will help to understand poverty trends and create more effective and pinpointed responses to emergencies.

Methods and Results

The 2002 and 2021 studies both used definitions of poverty developed by the villagers themselves. Upon entering a village, they assembled a community group of elders and others belonging to the different caste and religious groupings of the village. They asked the group not to identify who was poor but used a Stages-of-Progress exercise to create a multi-stage definition of poverty and progress. For instance, the first two stages were 1) obtaining food on a regular basis and 2) sending children to school. These and the other parameters developed by the villagers were used in both studies, which allowed researchers to make more direct comparisons between the time periods.

The goals of the 2021 study were to assess the poverty trajectories of village households between the last observation (2002) and the present time (2021) and to examine any changes during the 18-month pandemic period. As in the earlier study, the approach was participatory and community-based, with a focus on eliciting turning points and associated event histories and gathering data on household education levels, incomes, and assets.

From 2002 to 2020, overall, they found a great improvement in living conditions had been experienced. Only one household (less than one percent of the total) of all households had fallen into poverty, and a much larger share of households, 31.25 percent, experienced the opposite (and happier) transition. Comparing these findings to recall data from 1977-2002, households in this region had clearly become more resilient, as the pace of escapes has remained about the same, but the rate of descents into poverty had fallen sharply.

While the pandemic had a massive impact on these villages (focus groups estimated that as many as 60 percent of all households had lost between one-third and two-thirds of their cash incomes for as long as six months), less than one percent actually experienced structural decline.

These results give researchers hope that the resilience gained in this small sample could be evident elsewhere and that studying these trends will help to bolster this resilience going forward.



Anirudh Krishna (Duke University) and Tushar Agrawal (Indian Institute of Management, Udaipur)

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Economic Governance, Governance, Health, Economics, Poverty, Rural, Wealth Measures