Poor choices in program design in a poverty context

A fatal flaw in program design is to underestimate the abilities of those we are trying to assist. Programs that are designed to attack systemic challenges seek to realize long lasting improvements through behavior change but may misjudge what that challenge is. An example is the biases implicit in programs targeting poverty alleviation. Beyond the income definition of poverty what does it mean to be poor?

The irony of poverty is that it is really expensive being poor. Poverty isn't merely a lack of money it is a lack of access to safe quality affordable resources, goods, services and choices. Think about access in three ways; no access, inequitable access and unattainable access.

1) No access because it is the absence of something. Some resources simply are not there. For example "food deserts" are areas, typically in impoverished areas, that are devoid of healthful foods and healthy food providers. Supermarkets, farmers markets and healthful food vendors have no presence in a particular area.

2) Inequitable access because things are more expensive. The same good or service is more expensive in a poor area. This is not just product but services such as borrowing money.

3) Unattainable access to a benefit. This is a bit more nuanced because realizing benefits requires a prohibitively expensive choice. An example being the ability to buy goods in bulk. Buying in bulk the purchaser realizes the per unit cost savings over a period of use but pays for the savings upfront.

These circumstances can literally "trap" a person, family or community. Economists refer to this as the "poverty trap". As described by the World Bank, "under certain conditions, an economy, region or household can find itself in a "poverty trap." This is a stable equilibrium but at a low level of wealth and output, and it cannot get out of this low-level equilibrium (sometimes called a "low-level attractor") without a potentially large injection of external assistance. Similarly, with a sufficiently large negative shock, the economy or individual might fall into this low-level equilibrium. For an individual this may mean destitution."

Further complicating matters is that poverty is a moving target. It is localized, resilient and relative to the conditions on an individual, community and country levels. Therefore interventions to address poverty must be calibrated to conditions locally, consistent and persistent in their committed application yet have a measure of nimbleness that addresses poverty on a systemic level. The nimbleness begins with a rethink of biases toward the impoverished. Often there is an implicit assumption that a root cause for he poor's situation is that they do not make prudent spending and saving decisions. When in actuality it is not about behavior change it is about lack of means to make judicious choices. For example joining a buying club or services like Amazon Prime require a credit card to enroll. The unbanked and those using check cashing services to cash their checks are not likely to have a credit card and are already paying a fee to access their money. Compounding the income loss is the unbanked paying a fee to pay their bills whether it is a money order or a wire. In the developing world, research from Hand in Hand International shows that men spend significantly less, $0.40, on their families and communities than women, $0.90. Unfortunately, more often than not, women do not control the purse strings. In both scenarios the lack of options precludes financially savvy behavior. In the first instance they do not have the option and in the second the best decision-maker is not making the choice.

Another consideration is whether we are addressing the real constraint. We know that the lack of money limits choices but have we considered that it also requires more time to do things that could otherwise be paid for. Universal health care exists in some of the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa so the cost of access is not monetary but paid in time and their ability to control their time. If a person had the resources to see a private facility they would organize their day and be able to save time with an appointment. Time is money and the same constraint dynamic exists whether it is in Maputo, Mozambique or Chicago, IL.

Including assumption validation not just activity and outcome analysis should be part of the program design and program evaluation process. Testing our own hypothesis and underlying assumptions is exceedingly critical and difficult but addressing complex social problems, not just poverty, requires respectful observation and review.