The paradox of the hunger-poverty trap

There is a sweeping notion on popular development literature that if you give aid to the poor, specifically giving money to the poor, you will automatically save them from hunger. The hunger-poverty trap is there, but to what extent is this notion true? Does the poor really spend their income mainly on food?


There is a sweeping notion on popular development literature that if you give aid to the poor, specifically giving money to the poor, you will automatically save them from hunger. The hunger-poverty trap is there, but to what extent is this notion true? Does the poor really spend their income mainly on food?

My friend shared an article from Foreign Policy which explains why this is not true. An example from this article showed how Pak Solihin, an agricultural worker in West Java, Indonesia, is unable to find work because farmers – his employers – wont hire him due to rising fertilizer and fuel prices, they simply need to cut costs. If he’s not working, he won’t have money to buy food, as he is now dependent on his family and the government’s rice handouts. If he barely eats, it makes it even harder for the farmers to hire him again because they fear that his starvation would lead to his lack of capacity in the field.

Pak Solihin’s case is the classic example of a nutrition-based poverty trap. As written by the article:

The human body needs a certain number of calories just to survive. So when someone is very poor, all the food he or she can afford is barely enough to allow for going through the motions of living and earning the meager income used to buy that food. But as people get richer, they can buy more food and that extra food goes into building strength, allowing people to produce much more than they need to eat merely to stay alive. This creates a link between income today and income tomorrow: The very poor earn less than they need to be able to do significant work, but those who have enough to eat can work even more. There’s the poverty trap: The poor get poorer, and the rich get richer and eat even better, and get stronger and even richer, and the gap keeps increasing.

But here’s the paradox, Pak Solihin lives in Java, where it is considered more prosperous than any other region in Indonesia. Why isn’t anyone giving him enough nutrition for him to work?

Well, don’t we have food subsidies? My problem with food subsidies in Indonesia, such as the government’s subsidized rice program (Beras Miskin or Raskin, for short) is the question on how do you decide who’s eligible. Who are you calling the poor? Are you sure that the non-poor don’t get the subsidized rice? Even if they are eligible, how do you ensure that the poor gets it and the food subsidies are not being corrupted instead?

In addition, there is this assumption that if you give money to the poor, they will spend it wisely, such as buying food for the family and ergo, problem of hunger is solved.

Not that simple in reality.

I went to a scavengers area during my undergraduate studies in University in Indonesia as a part of a community development program. I went inside one of their houses, and I was saddened by their condition. The houses are very small, no basic water and sanitation facilities, and I can see that their children don’t eat that much. However, to my surprise, I saw a TV and a DVD player inside their house. Their electricity? Stolen from the nearby neighborhood grid.

Tobacco addiction is also a problem. Another friend of mine who is a doctor gave counseling to the fathers of poor families, explaining that if they saved the money used for buying cigarettes, they can use it for buying a more nutritious food for their children – but to no avail. Alas, for a country that have the least amount of tobacco regulation in the world, Indonesia would have never put a crackdown on the cigarette industry – it contributes at least 10% of the government revenue and provides millions of jobs. It is upsetting to know that since cigarette prices are so cheap, so easily accessible and affordable, most of the poor buys them instead of using their income for something more productive.

Paternalistic views are in play with the government’s conditional cash transfer program, the Family Hope Program (Program Keluarga Harapan – PKH). Poor families are given cash transfers but with some conditions, i.e. they need to utilize basic health services and their children must go to school, conditions in which the government think is the best choices for the poor families. For health and education, I have no disagreement. I have yet to see any evaluation of this program, but I’m interested to see whether the amount of nutrition intake for their families could also be one of the condition for cash transfers replacing the food subsidies policy.

Alleviating poverty and hunger is no easy task for any policymaker. I’m just not sure why DPR members go abroad to study poverty alleviation programs in China and Australia for a ‘study trip’ instead of seeing what is needed in the reality back home in Indonesia. Surely the Rp. 1,4 billion funds used to finance their trip could be better used for the poor instead, no?

*H/t to Reuben for the article.

2 thoughts on “The paradox of the hunger-poverty trap”

  1. …and to top it off the rice handouts and the rice people find most palatable is the type of rice that yields very little nutrition, white rice. Rather uncommon now for Indonesians to chose or want to eat brown rice, let alone any other grain. “Belum makan nasi, blum kenyang” is a symptom of a poverty and of a poor, limited diet…

    1. Funny when you mention paradigm. Rice is often seen as a prestigious good, you’re not wealthy if you’re not eating rice – and white rice is seen as more prestigious although brown and red rice have more nutrition.

      I went to a talk on rice research and food security the other day, and I commented that if food security is the issue, why not diversify your staple food, i.e. wheat and maize since rice production is very water intensive. Areas such as in the eastern part of Indonesia, where water is relatively more scarce, could focus on producing crops other than rice.

      The very problem on consumer behavior of “belum makan nasi, belum kenyang” is not only limited to the poor apparently, because it was encouraged by the government, Soeharto’s if I’m not mistaken. Now, I don’t know know whether the current government is willing to promote the diversification of other staple food other than rice.

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