Poverty, Vulnerability and Social Protection Jomo Kwame Sundaram

According to the World Bank, the MDG target of halving the share of the poor was achieved by 2008, well in advance of 2015, the target year. However, increased unemployment and lower incomes in recent times remind us that poverty is not an unchanging attribute of a shrinking group, but rather, a condition that billions of vulnerable persons risk experiencing.

Despite the various shortcomings of money measures of poverty, they nevertheless reflect the extent of vulnerability. For example, the estimated number of poor globally in 2012 more than doubles from 902 million to 2.1 billion when one raises the poverty line by 63% from $1.90/day to $3.10/day per person, suggesting that a very large number of those not deemed poor by the World Bank are very vulnerable to external economic shocks or changes in personal circumstances, such as income losses or food price increases.

Of the world’s poor, three-quarters live in rural areas where agricultural wage workers suffer the highest incidence of poverty, largely because of low productivity, seasonal unemployment and low wages paid by most rural employers. Vulnerability and economic insecurity have increased in recent decades with rising insecure, casual and precarious jobs involving part-time employment, self-employment, fixed-term work, temporary work, on-call work and home-working – often mainly involving women.

Such trends have grown with labour market liberalization, globalization, and declining union power. To make matters worse, macroeconomic policies in recent decades have focused on low inflation, rather than full employment, while limited social protection has exacerbated economic insecurity and vulnerability.

Additionally, lower economic growth rates, following the global financial crisis, would push 46 million more people into extreme poverty than expected before the crisis. This figure was later revised to 64 million, implying over 200 million people fell into extreme poverty due to food-fuel price hikes and the global financial crisis.

While some of these figures were subsequently revised downward, they suggest widespread vulnerability and economic insecurity, due to the inability of governments to respond with adequate counter-cyclical policies and in the absence of comprehensive universal social protection measures. During the East Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, the official poverty rate in Indonesia shot up from 11% to 37% in just one year following the massive depreciation of the Indonesian rupiah.

Working poor

The working poor are defined as those employed, but earning less than the international poverty line ($1.25 a day in 2005 and $1.90 a day in 2011 in purchasing power parity [PPP] terms). Despite working, they cannot earn enough to get out of poverty. In most developing countries, most poor adults have to work, if only to survive, in the absence of adequate social protection.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), an estimated 375 million workers lived below the international poverty line in 2013. The number of working poor rises dramatically to close to 800 million when a $2-a-day poverty line is used. Women comprise the majority of the working poor, accounting for about 60%. It also found that progress in reducing the number of working poor has slowed markedly since 2008.

An estimated 1.42 billion people globally were in vulnerable employment in 2013, still increasing by around 1% in 2013, well above the 0.2% average increase in the years prior to 2008. The number was projected to exceed 1.44 billion in 2014, accounting for 45% of total world employment.

Social Protection

Most people who fall under the international poverty line are vulnerable, with no basic social protection. The lack of comprehensive universal social protection is a major obstacle to economic and social development, exacerbating high and persistent levels of poverty, economic insecurity, and inequality. Most countries do not have unemployment insurance or other similar social protection. In the most vulnerable countries, more than 80% have neither social security coverage nor access to health services.

The ILO’s World Social Protection Report, 2014/15 found a high or very high vulnerability in terms of poverty and labour market informality. Only 27% of the global population enjoy access to comprehensive social security systems, whereas 73% are only covered partially, or not at all. This means that about 5.2 billion people do not have access to comprehensive social protection, and many of them – in the case of middle- and low-income countries, nearly half their populations – live in poverty. About 800 million of them are working poor, of whom most work in the informal economy.

Although 2.3% of GDP worldwide is allocated to public social protection expenditure for income security during working age, there are wide regional, national and local variations, e.g. ranging from 0.5% in Africa to 5.9% in Western Europe. Only 28% of the global labour force is potentially or legally eligible for unemployment benefits. Yet, only 12% of unemployed workers worldwide actually receive unemployment benefits, with effective coverage ranging from 64% of unemployed workers in Western Europe to just over 7% in the Asia and Pacific region, 5% in Latin America and the Caribbean, and less than 3% in the Middle East and Africa.

Globally, about 39% and more than 90% of the population living in low-income countries have no right to healthcare. About 18,000 children die every day, mainly from preventable causes. On average, governments allocate 0.4% of GDP to child and family benefits, ranging from 2.2% in Western Europe to 0.2% in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

Fiscal austerity measures since the 2008-2009 global financial and economic crises have exacerbated the situation. Such measures are not limited to Europe; many developing countries have also adopted such measures, including reducing or ending food and fuel subsidies; cutting or capping wages; more narrowly targeting social protection benefits, and reducing public pension and health care systems.

These are contrary to the pledges countries made in adopting Agenda 2030 for the Sustainable Development Goals which include achieving universal protection and health care. Not surprisingly, fiscal austerity measures, including cuts in social protection expenditure, have not helped economic recovery, but instead, have exacerbated inequality