The Complex Ties between Poverty and Exclusion

Conference theme quotation

To what extent does poverty contribute to social exclusion? How can the exclusion of particular groups be reduced?

These were just two of the questions scholars addressed at the Social Inclusion and Poverty Eradication Workshop on November 17–18, 2016, a two-day event co-sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the Center for European Studies, and the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP). The conference was convened by Weatherhead Center Director Michèle Lamont, Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and professor of sociology and of African and African American studies at Harvard University; and Hilary Silver, professor of sociology and urban studies and professor of public policy at Brown University.

Though the related challenges of poverty and exclusion have been exhaustively studied individually, their mutual interplay, in their socioeconomic and historical contexts, have rarely been mapped in a nuanced way.

As Lamont and Silver emphasized in their remarks, only by subtle analysis of these interactions can responsive strategies be designed to alleviate the impacts of either factor. Lamont addressed the theme of intersection by calling for the reintroduction of the concept of “culture” into the study of poverty and social exclusion. Supporting this frame, keynote speaker Vijayendra Rao, lead economist for the World Bank’s Development Research Group, emphasized working within a local culture to help citizens arrive at their own solutions for more social engagement.

Image of Rohini Pande as a conference discussant

The workshop brought together scholars from developed and developing nations to present studies conducted across Europe, the Americas, India, China, and several African nations. Discussants were drawn from Harvard faculty, across the disciplines and schools, from African studies and the social sciences to public policy, law, and public health.

Looking at impoverished groups in China and India, for example, several presenters uncovered a more nuanced view of exclusion. Though still high in both countries, the poverty rates in China and India have been falling in the past decade. The worst poverty still persists in rural areas and among women, the politically disconnected, and lower castes. The research presented at the conference was unique in its focus on the cultural and social mechanisms that separate or isolate the neediest from civic engagement or even social support.

In an illuminating presentation about the take-up of social assistance in rural China, Robert Walker, professor of social policy at Oxford University, theorized that shame and stigma work in conjunction to block the most needy from applying for aid. Remarkably,dibao, the social welfare program in China, reaches only about 10–16 percent of the eligible population. The vast majority of recipients are wealthier, from larger family networks, and usually have good standing with local village cadres via political favoritism. For example, an eligible person may be denied dibao if their own children did not follow the one-child-only policy. Hence, in China, the awarding of assistance becomes a tool of social control. Through interviews with people in a remote village, Walker discovered that the poorest avoid asking for dibao due to the shame of being needy, while the better-off and politically compliant are encouraged by various sources to apply—and they invoke entitlement to justify their awards.

Sukhadeo Thorat, professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, detailed evidence of the ongoing economic discrimination against those in the lower castes, the dalits or ex-touchables, in spite of constitutional provisions designed to protect and advance these groups. In listing various social theories for caste discrimination, he noted that caste has a basis in Hindu religious philosophy, where “graded inequality” is seen as having divine origin. Thorat noted that when an inequitable system has religious underpinnings, it is very difficult to reform.

Keynote speaker Vijayendra Rao gave an account of an inspiring program in India that has empowered women villagers and given them stronger voices in their communities and families. They have found that excluding women and lower castes from participating in the community contributes to poverty, but including these stigmatized groups in local decision-making enables them to pursue their notion of the good life.

Infographic from the World Bank

The program, called Jeevika, enlists women in six villages in Bihar to design, collect, and analyze their own data and develop policies and systems that support daily life. Participants develop survey questions and conduct interviews themselves on a tablet computer, then upload responses to a cloud server. The notion of what constitutes a life improvement is determined by the respondents. Once a Jeevika group is established in a village, then other programs can be rolled out through the network, to support nutrition or education, and other benefits.

Rao explained that this “deliberative development” approach takes longer to effect change, but that it creates ritualized activities and networks that are permanent, which is a contrast to the ad hoc institutions that are often set up by outside agencies, which then disappear. By working toward collective solutions, the program eliminates the paternalistic notion that the poor are too busy with basic needs to make important decisions—and therefore the government should take control.

The early results in the Bihar villages have been promising, and include a higher savings rate and access to low-cost credit, increased literacy, and a stronger sense of agency and voice among participants. The women in Jeevika use the slogan, “We are not bound by caste, we are bound by poverty.”

The experience with Jeevika reflects one of the guiding principles of the conference: the belief that “anti-poverty policies work better when adapted to the beliefs, values, and practices of poor people themselves.”

By the end of the workshop, the participants had mapped out cross-national dynamics of exclusion and impoverishment and offered insights into targeted interventions for disentangling one from the other and then ending them both. The organizers hope that this conference will set the path for a growing field of research at the intersection of poverty and stigma.

Lucie White, Louis A. Horvitz Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, and Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

For more information on the Social Inclusion and Poverty Eradication Workshop, read the full conference details here. The Harvard Gazette wrote about the workshop in their piece titled, “Taking the Stigma Out of Poverty,” which ran on November 17, 2016.

Weatherhead Center Director Michèle Lamont is the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and professor of sociology and of African and African American studies at Harvard University.

Hilary Silver is a professor of sociology and urban studies and professor of public policy at Brown University.

Photo Captions

  1. Rohini Pande, Mohammed Kamal Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, was the discussant for a paper on caste discrimination in India during the conference "Social Inclusion and Poverty Eradication" in November 2016. Credit: Minda de Gunzberg Center for European Studies, Harvard University
  2. Through the Jeevika program, created by the World Bank, community designed data visualizations can be found at This opening interactive graphic allows the user to select from several sets of survey data gathered from women in villages throughout Bihar. Each village can be selected and compared via drop-down menus at the top of the graphic. Then the user can select from several icons representing datasets of various life-factors, such as asset acquisition, access to food, sanitation, decision making power within a family, and more. Credit: World Bank