Once poor, always poor?

Aug 23, 2018|Olanrewaju Rufai

Lara Ojo is the mother of two little girls. By even the lowest standard, Lara's family is poor. Raised by a single mother, Lara now lives in a one-room shanty and works as a roadside trader. Growing up, the odds were always stacked against her as her mother could not afford to educate her beyond junior secondary school. Like many before her, Lara carried her childhood poverty into adulthood, and although she dreams of giving her daughters a better life, they already seem locked into a life of poverty just like their mother.

Lara is just one among millions of Nigerians seemingly destined to bequeath poverty to their many children. It is a sad and little-known reality that poverty tends to persist through generations. Lara's daughters are (statistically) unlikely to ever escape poverty. And as the Nigerian economy continues to falter, there is justifiable fear that more families will continue to fall into poverty, and remain trapped in it, perhaps for more generations, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty.


The Vicious Cycle of Poverty

Closely related to the Culture of Poverty, the Cycle of Poverty depicts the situation where poverty, once started, is likely to continue unless there is outside intervention. Simply put, it is a phenomenon where people become impoverished and continue to remain poor.  

Like the Ojo family, poor people have little access to the economic and social resources—education, financial services, etc.—that can help lift them out of poverty. So without any external help, they remain rooted to the bottom of the income pile.

Poverty cycles are an indication of government failure. Despite a plethora of government-funded poverty eradication programmes, the number of impoverished Nigerians has continued to increase. In fact, six Nigerians become impoverished every minute. The chances that a child born into poverty in Nigeria will escape poverty remain unremarkably low.

Sometimes, government policy inadvertently oils the wheels of poverty cycles in Nigeria. For instance, the federal government ban on rice importation, designed to encourage local farmers, has only succeeded in making a food staple consumed by many poor Nigerians more expensive.

Other times, the failure is from omission. The shambolic state of Nigeria’s public education system and the cost of quality private education keep poor people trapped in poverty. 

 A child born into a poor home is condemned to attend an inadequate public school, already creating a poor academic foundation. Worse, this child may be compelled to leave school to help support the family. In the absence of a decent education, he grows into an adult with limited skills to compete in today labour market and ends up in a low-paying job. Thus, the chances that he fares better than his parents are slim.

Cultural norms can also encourage poverty cycles. The Nigerian culture of a primary bread-winner caring for a large extended family, sometimes called the Black Tax, often results in that individual also falling on hard times. 

Felix struggled through university—the only child out of seven to attend—and now works as a teacher in a private primary school. He also bears the Black Tax as he takes care of his family, his siblings, and their families. This makes it difficult for him to save or invest, leaving him vulnerable to adverse shocks to his income.

Finally, on a broader scale, civil unrest and violence also entrench poverty in Nigeria. It is unsurprising that regions which have suffered the most violence are also the poorest. As the Nigerian state remains embroiled in civil strife all around the country, it is not inconceivable that poor families in these regions might stay impoverished for generations to come.


Breaking the Cycle

To break poverty cycles in Nigeria, we need a combination of direct poverty alleviation measures and broader economic development strategies. One example of this is the Federal Government school feeding programme that tries to increase enrolment rates while helping poor families. While this policy may fly under the radar, it could potentially help break poverty cycles. A similar initiative in Brazil—the Bolsa Familia— gave cash handouts to poor families that sent their children to school. Such programs achieve the twin objectives of encouraging education and providing resources to the poorest families. This is important as access to quality education is one of the most reliable ways of escaping poverty cycles. 

Other safety net programmes including the provision of unemployment benefits, social health insurance schemes, etc. can also be explored. 

Investment in infrastructure is also key to breaking the cycle of poverty in Nigeria. Decent public infrastructure will engender higher productivity and encourage industrialisation which will reduce unemployment and poverty.  

Also, given that Nigeria has the highest number of female entrepreneurs globally, provision of microcredit facilities is an especially important tool for Nigerian women who are also the breadwinners of the poorest households. Cursory to this, female entrepreneurship and education have been proven to provide financial stability to entire families and, by extension, larger communities.

Intergenerational poverty in Nigeria is an indicator of the nation’s past failures. The persistence of poverty in coming generations would represent our failure to help lift our countrymen out of poverty. 


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