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Relative poverty alleviation turns toward multidimensional measurements

YANG ZHENGWEI | 2020-08-26
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Villagers of a camellia planting cooperative at Gumu Village in Luzhai County of Liuzhou City, south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, display their sprouts on May 10. Photo: XINHUA

At the fourth plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee in October 2019, it was reaffirmed that China would eradicate absolute poverty in rural areas by the end of 2020 and that it would set up a long-term mechanism to deal with relative poverty to meet people’s ever-growing demand for a better life.
There has been a consensus among all walks of life that upon building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, China would shift the focus of poverty alleviation work to tackling relative poverty. The first step is to reflect on the concept and its measurement, then consider how the new definition is likely to change the understanding of poverty and its dynamics in China. 
Definition of relative poverty
Poverty is not a one-dimensional phenomenon but a multidimensional issue that requires a wide range of solutions for a wide range of problems. Compared with absolute poverty, relative poverty is more persistent and less affected by economic growth.
At different stages of socioeconomic development and in different regions with socioeconomic disparities in the same period, the threshold of relative poverty varies. Therefore, our perception of poverty and setting of anti-poverty goals cannot ignore the context of the spatiotemporal circumstances, which means our goals and perceptions can neither be separated from the overall level of socioeconomic development in China, nor can they overlook the differences in the levels of development in different regions. 
For a prolonged period of history, China has been dedicated to eliminating absolute poverty, but there has always existed a certain degree of relative poverty. Upon building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, relative poverty will become the main form of poverty, whereas absolute poverty will also persist and exist in a sporadic manner.
The criteria of poverty identification change dynamically in line with the development of a society and its economy, and the definition of poverty should take into full consideration the local socioeconomic development at that time and the input of anti-poverty policy resources. 
In 2011, China adjusted the national poverty line to an annual per capita income of less than RMB 2,300 (at 2010 constant price). In recent years, the poverty line has grown year by year along with economic development and price surges, and the poverty line increased to RMB 2,995 in 2019. 
From 2020 onward, the understanding and definition of poverty should also conform to the characteristics of the new era and transition from absolute poverty to relative poverty. The World Bank considers members of a society whose income is less than a third of the average as a relatively poor population. In reality, China’s anti-poverty practice should not rigidly follow suit, but rather set the relative poverty standard in accordance with the local conditions of each region. 
The measurement of poverty is the basis of any anti-poverty effort. Theoretically speaking, there are many ways and indicators to measure poverty, such as the Engel’s coefficient, poverty incidence, the Sen Poverty Index and the income index. There is no perfect method or index for poverty measurement, because its application should take into account specific factors such as spatiotemporal variations and local cultural differences. 
Moreover, since 2011, the government’s poverty alleviation strategy has embraced the concept of the “two no worries” (liangbuchou) over food and clothing and the “three guarantees” (sanbaozhang) of housing, health care and education, which, in comparison with a clear-cut poverty line, appear to be more inclusive. 
At the same time, some places have introduced the strategy of “four requirements” (sikan) to see if a family falls under the poverty line regarding their access to housing, food, labor and education. There is also a “five priorities” (wuyouxian) approach that gives preferential support to wubao and dibao households (a cash social assistance system), those without housing or dilapidated housing, those with major disease and disability, and those pulled back into poverty due to illness, natural disaster, cost of education or old-age. 
In the future, China’s poverty thresholds are likely to become more diverse and the measurement of poverty more complex, which requires us to keep pace with the times and adjust our understanding and measurement of relative poverty continually.
Multidimensional  measurement
In recent years, a majority of scholars have agreed that the single income index is a flawed measurement of relative poverty in the context of the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects. Therefore, the multidimensional index has become the norm. 
In the measurement of multidimensional poverty, the Human Poverty Index, Human Development Index and Multidimensional Poverty Index are the most influential. In 2011, the United Nations Development Program adopted the Alkire Foster (AF) method to measure global multidimensional poverty, which captures many different aspects of poverty such as poor health, lack of education and inadequate living standards. 
On this basis, many countries and organizations have launched national multidimensional poverty measures based on the AF method. For example, since 2013, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund has adopted the Multiple Overlapping Deprivation Analysis methodology to analyze multidimensional child deprivation in contiguous poverty-stricken areas in Hubei Province, including such aspects as nutrition, education, water, roads and sanitation, shelter, information, and social protection. 
Compared with single income index measurement, the multidimensional poverty measurement method has its unique advantages because it can not only effectively measure different types of poverty, such as expenditure poverty and capability poverty, but also help monitor the outcome of poverty alleviation efforts. 
However, it is worth noting that multidimensional poverty measurement has its limitations. First, the design of various dimensions and indicators poses a great challenge for local governments. Due to differences in socioeconomic development and local conditions, it is not possible to rigidly apply foreign models or a unified approach like a single income indicator. In practice, this may be a long-term “building-and-adjustment” process. Meanwhile, it needs to be verified with the traditional poverty measurement method.
Second, the reliability issue in measurement still exists to some extent. Though more quantitative data are used in multidimensional poverty measurement, many indicators are still qualitative descriptions such as a sense of security and belonging that the surveyed claimed, which makes it difficult to avoid subjective bias in measurement. 
Third, multidimensional poverty measurement also brings new challenges to grassroots poverty alleviation teams and staff. If they cannot sufficiently accomplish the measurement of multidimensional poverty, they might have to hire a third-party agency, which adds cost and impacts the validity of measurement due to their unfamiliarity with local social realities.
Local explorations
In the practice of targeted poverty alleviation in recent years, Zhejiang, Shandong and Gansu provinces have made preliminary explorations based on the identification of local relative poverty. Some results have been found.
For example, the West Lake district of Hangzhou has established a local poverty index through a household survey, symposium and other data collection efforts to identify three weighted dimensions—balance of payments (60%), health and employment status (20%), and living conditions (20%)—and to list the household deposits, housing, vehicles, ships and other possessions as a condition of veto. 
A poverty index has different emphases in different regions, but the overall trend is to give more weight to objective, easy-to-quantify, easy-to-access dimensions while downplaying subjective democratic appraisal and hard-to-measure family property, making the index system a relatively objective one, so as to ease the people’s doubt over the scientific and fair nature of the measurement among the general public, especially among poor households.
Individualization and regionalization might be a feasible way to build a regional and even national multidimensional poverty measurement system to tackle the unbalanced development in poverty governance.
At the same time, it is foreseeable that upon building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, the problem of relative poverty in cities may become more prominent, and the poor groups in cities will need more attention. Some scholars have proposed that under the current poverty line, only a very small proportion of the urban population is identified as poor, which leads to the overlooking of relative poverty in urban scenarios. 
Going forward, the standard of poverty identification will continue to rise, and the relatively poor population in cities will gradually emerge, intensifying efforts to identify and provide relief services for these groups. With the acceleration of the urban-rural integration process, it is necessary to ponder whether to establish a regional urban-rural integration measurement system while building a multidimensional poverty measurement index system. That said, further exploration is needed in regard to dimension, weighting, indices and other aspects.
In short, after the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects, China’s poverty governance will enter a new stage. We should grasp the characteristics of relative poverty and strive to build a local multidimensional poverty measurement index system based on unbalanced regional socioeconomic development and urban-rural integration development, so as to lay a foundation for the identification of the poor population and the provision of poverty relief services.
Yang Zhengwei is from the Center for Studies of Sociological Theory and Method at Renmin University of China.
edited by YANG XUE