In Jo's Blog

So how poor is poor? And what factors go into deciding who is and who isn’t?

Father and two children in an Indian hospital corridor

The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative – a UK based think tank dedicated to reducing poverty – recently published a study on the multi-dimensional aspects of poverty and it’s more important than its bureaucratic description might lead you to believe.

Because two families can have the same income but drastically different standards of living, depending on education or health, just to name two critical factors.

And academics can try to tease out which factor may be more important in reducing poverty overall: does improving access to water make more of a difference or does it make more sense to educate children well?

The “Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index” is a list of just ten very specific questions, grouped in three categories. Education and Health get two questions each while Living Standard gets six.

In Education, the indicators for poverty are that no one in a family has completed more than five years of school and/or that a school-aged child (6-14) is currently not attending school.

In Health, a married woman or a child under three being malnourished or a child under five having died are predispose to poverty and in Living Standards, the predictable lack of electricity or drinking water are side-by-side with “Lives in a kacchaa house” or “Cooks with cow dung or crop husks.”

I was curious to see where disability came into the picture and was surprised (yet not) to find that it appears only obliquely. Since most children with disability do not go to school in India, their existence does figure as a factor in the education question, yet without awareness or analysis; similarly, since many are malnourished, they would be counted as factors in the health questions too.

But this doesn’t even begin to do justice to the tumbling into poverty which disability almost guarantees for all but the most secure families.

My family is secure. In fact, I consider us reasonably well-off. Both Ravi and I have good jobs, we own a house (and it’s pucca), our kids have all attended school for years and years and no one is malnourished.

Yet Moy Moy’s disability consumes more than 2/3 of my salary and most of my free time. Were it not for the medicines, the tubes, the special feeds, the nebulizer, the wheelchairs, the diapers, the extra household help, the frequent illnesses her condition creates and the lack of spare time for me to pursue my writing as a second career, we might be rich.

We are lucky enough to be able to afford all that Moy Moy needs to live a life of comfort and dignity while still maintaining our own health and well-being. For most people, especially in countries like India, that simply isn’t possible.

Poverty is hard on everyone who lives in it, but for people with disability it is much, much worse. Think about toileting when you physically cannot get to a bathroom, no matter how close it is to where you are sitting. Imagine hunger when you cannot feed yourself or if you cannot swallow? Try to picture yourself thirsty, in a hot room, with water in a jug on the table but with arms that don’t have the strength to lift that jug and pour it out.

Young woman looking up


We are incredibly lucky not to ever have to imagine these scenarios for Moy Moy. But when I am dealing with a tube-feeding crisis (a simple bout of coughing sends her lunch flying all over the kitchen) or a case of constipation, I think about how it would be if – on top of all that we are already coping with – we were also poor.


The Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index should include disability as an indicator. 15% of the world’s population – according to the WHO – live with special needs and are, by definition, predisposed to being poor. They need more resources to achieve the same standards as typical people, yet they have fewer, if any, ways to earn. And they get very little understanding, let alone sympathy from their better-off fellow citizens.  My friend Nicola reminded me of Amartya Sen’s insight: “It is amazing how smug and inactive most societies are about the prevalence of the unshared burden of disability, from which purely income-based views of poverty … only distract attention.”

The MDPI is not purely income based, and that’s a promising step. But clearly we still have a lot more to do before we can understand the true nature of poverty.

Just think it all the way through. It’s bad if you are poor. But if you are poor and disabled? Do the math.



Showing 5 comments
  • Manmohan Rai

    Jo….have you sent this to the OPHI?

  • Nathan Grills

    Thank you for this excellent post. It’s very insightful. I often think how blessed we r to have money to look after our girl with Disabilty.

    • Jo Chopra McGowan

      Thanks, Nathan. It’s so true, isn’t it? So much easier to see the blessing in disability if it doesn’t grind the rest of your life to a halt.

  • bhavishya

    Hi…Just curious to know …does the man and kids in the picture above are aware about their picture here and in what context? Or it doesn’t make a difference?

    • Jo Chopra McGowan

      Sorry, Bhavishya, I just saw this today. I asked his permission to take the photo, but at the time I didn’t have a plan as to how I would use it. He was happy for me to take it, and asked me to take a few more.

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