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Do Poverty Traps Exist? Assessing the Evidence

Author

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  • Aart Kraay
  • David McKenzie

Abstract

A "poverty trap" can be understood as a set of self-reinforcing mechanisms whereby countries start poor and remain poor: poverty begets poverty, so that current poverty is itself a direct cause of poverty in the future. The idea of a poverty trap has this striking implication for policy: much poverty is needless, in the sense that a different equilibrium is possible and one-time policy efforts to break the poverty trap may have lasting effects. But what does the modern evidence suggest about the extent to which poverty traps exist in practice and the underlying mechanisms that may be involved? The main mechanisms we examine include S-shaped savings functions at the country level; "big-push" theories of development based on coordination failures; hunger-based traps which rely on physical work capacity rising nonlinearly with food intake at low levels; and occupational poverty traps whereby poor individuals who start businesses that are too small will be trapped earning subsistence returns. We conclude that these types of poverty traps are rare and largely limited to remote or otherwise disadvantaged areas. We discuss behavioral poverty traps as a recent area of research, and geographic poverty traps as the most likely form of a trap. The resulting policy prescriptions are quite different from the calls for a big push in aid or an expansion of microfinance. The more-likely poverty traps call for action in less-traditional policy areas such as promoting more migration.

Suggested Citation

  • Aart Kraay & David McKenzie, 2014. "Do Poverty Traps Exist? Assessing the Evidence," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 28(3), pages 127-148, Summer.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:28:y:2014:i:3:p:127-48
    Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.28.3.127
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    References listed on IDEAS

    as
    1. Oriana Bandiera & Robin Burgess & Narayan Das & Selim Gulesci & Imran Rasul & Munshi Sulaiman, 2013. "Can Basic Entrepreneurship Transform the Economic Lives of the Poor?," STICERD - Economic Organisation and Public Policy Discussion Papers Series 043, Suntory and Toyota International Centres for Economics and Related Disciplines, LSE.
    2. Michelle Adato & Michael Carter & Julian May, 2006. "Exploring poverty traps and social exclusion in South Africa using qualitative and quantitative data," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 42(2), pages 226-247.
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D31 - Microeconomics - - Distribution - - - Personal Income and Wealth Distribution
    • I32 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty - - - Measurement and Analysis of Poverty
    • I38 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty - - - Government Programs; Provision and Effects of Welfare Programs
    • O15 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - Economic Development: Human Resources; Human Development; Income Distribution; Migration
    • R23 - Urban, Rural, Regional, Real Estate, and Transportation Economics - - Household Analysis - - - Regional Migration; Regional Labor Markets; Population

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