The Six Legs of Poverty Policies

Poverty policies are built on six legs: knowledge, strategy, resources, organization, assessment, and realism. Too often, national poverty programs are implemented with little attention to many of these underpinnings, courting disaster.


To establish and implement effective poverty policies, a nation needs accurate knowledge about poverty and the poor since such knowledge affects what the public, politicians, and analysts think should and can be done to reduce poverty. First, a sensible and persuasive definition of poverty that avoids extremes is required. Too broad a definition that includes a large segment of a nation’s population can lead to a sense of futility or to the conclusion that only general economic growth can alleviate poverty so nothing special should be done to help the poor. But too narrow a definition can result in underestimating what has to be done to make a significant change.

Second, a reliable means of counting the poor and ascertaining their location is needed, including whether most poor people live in high-poverty areas or in locales where they do not predominate. In a number of Western nations, a surprising finding has been that most poor people do not live in high-poverty areas and that many who are not poor live in high-poverty areas. This is less likely in non-Western nations.

Third, it is crucial to learn the economic and social backgrounds of the poor and the reasons for their poverty. Explanations for the causes of poverty are often politically controversial; a frequent tendency is to blame the poor for their poverty, as occurs today in the United States.

Fourth, it is essential to determine the resources and structures available to help poor people. We should not assume that poor people live without connections and structures that might either help or hinder improvement of their plight. In fact, profiling local communities to document such informal ties may reveal structures that can be built upon or connections that could constrain antipoverty action, such as the prohibition by public agencies of poor people’s involvement in improving their own situations.

Further, because the search for knowledge is an endeavor that does not necessarily produce unanimous or uncontroversial conclusions, forums -verbal or written, public or not – may be needed to bring to light and resolve disagreements.


Creating a strategy is an important aspect of poverty policies, but implementing a strategy is likely to be more challenging than stating it. For one thing, most poverty programs have multiple objectives. For example, where participation of the poor is a goal, the objective might be employment of the poor in a program, involvement of the poor as socio-therapy, educating the poor through participation, offsetting bureaucratic tendencies through grassroots roles in decision-making, and so forth. Such objectives do not always overlap, and the aim of a program may shift unnoticed, modifying or derailing the original strategy. Having many goals is not a strategy. My rule is: if a program has more than three objectives it has no objectives, just hopes.

Frequent issues regarding strategy are opportunity and resistance. In the course of enacting a policy or program, new possibilities may emerge that seem useful to pursue, but taking advantage of too many of such opportunities may change the strategy. The opposite problem is that resistance to actions required to follow a strategy can make it difficult to pursue. For example, local leaders may be reluctant to see their power jeopardized by local participation. Acknowledging resistance is insufficient. What is needed are ways of coping with it that are incorporated into the strategy.

Often funders – legislators and high governmental officials – expect and demand early visible or, at least, reportable success from programs they enact or for which they have responsibility, resulting in changes in regulations or funding that impede adherence to a strategy.

Therefore, formulation of a strategy is insufficient. Focus on its implementation is crucial. My test of whether or not a stated strategy can be and has been followed is asking this question: would an outsider reviewing this program’s allocation of resources and staff time draw the same conclusion about what the strategy is that the program leaders believe it is?


Both economic and political resources are needed for effective poverty programs. An important indicator of the role of economic resources is allocation control: what level of government or administration determines how much is spent on poverty programs and, almost equally important, how it is to be spent. In the absence of adequate economic resources, calling for local participation by the poor can become a dead end, offering them few benefits.

Political resources are also required for successful poverty programs. That is, important groups and leaders must be supportive of poverty programs for them to have sufficient impact in local communities. Attracting both local and national allies and gaining public support for local participation are significant but often neglected activities.

In addition, economic and political resources have to be proportionate to goals and strategies. Underfunded programs are severely limited, whereas politically unprotected programs are vulnerable.


How poverty programs are carried out affects their impact. A policy is not a program; a program is about modes of organization and execution. Poor organization can vitiate a well-formulated, well-funded program, while effective organization can optimize a less well-defined and minimally funded program.

We should not assume that local involvement always works out well. How that involvement is organized – with what checks and balances – significantly affects its success. Such grassroots involvement is susceptible to corruption and autocracy, as is all economic and political participation.

It is important to remember that private enterprises operating in poverty programs are seldom oriented to secure widespread involvement. While they may sometimes seek to build a workforce that has a considerable decision-making role, the same firms usually do not extend that interest to their customers or encourage them to organize groups with power independent from the firm. Thus private enterprise and grassroots governance are in conflict unless some participation requirements are placed on private firms providing aid to the poor.

Although nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) gain considerable attention, especially in United Nation circles, it is not always recognized that the term “NGO” is used rather indiscriminately in connection with a wide variety of organizations involved in many different kinds of activities. One way of classifying uses of the term is to distinguish between organizations that advocate for the poor and organizations of poor persons. Organizations that advocate for the poor usually originate with the non-poor, but express the plight of the poor, offer policy recommendations, and speak for the poor in political circles. Organizations of the poor are usually established with the poor at a grassroots level, present the outlook of the poor, and press for action on their behalf.

However, a great variety of organizations fall between these two poles. Advocacy organizations can involve some poor persons; grassroots organizations often are led or influenced by non-poor organizers. The way organizations are developed and operate largely shapes their focus, characteristics, and effectiveness.


Assessment is another significant aspect of poverty policies. To better understand what assessment involves, it is useful to distinguish among assessment, monitoring, and lesson-drawing. Assessment refers to the evaluation of how well a program has done. The paraphernalia of social science and epidemiological statistics are used to compare the outcome of a program with what would have happened if the program had not existed. The use of control groups is important for estimating this.

Solid assessments are difficult to pursue, usually expensive to conduct, and may take a long time to complete. But without them, beliefs and conjectures often govern decision making. We should not assume that politicians and administrators embrace assessment results; frequently they select results that they want to highlight or ignore findings completely.

Monitoring is concerned with judging how well programs are keeping to their stated objectives by posing such questions as the following. Is the program doing what it set out to do or has it been modified in important ways? Are funds being spent in ways that support the program’s objectives? Is the money being spent wisely, efficiently, and honestly? Are people (staff, clients, suppliers) benefiting from the program in ways that do not conform to its purpose and to the terms of the funding? One challenge of monitoring is discovering misuse of funds, while another is avoiding inflexibility that may limit a program’s capacity for adjusting to changing conditions.

Lesson-drawing concerns learning about programs to improve the design of future programs. While assessments frequently determine whether or not programs have a certain impact, lesson-drawing relates to how and why programs do or do not have particular effects. At one level, lesson-drawing can occur during a program – unlike an assessment, which usually cannot be completed until after a program has ended – with the objective being to allow for more effective operation of the program in its remaining time. At another level, lesson-drawing seeks to discern strategies and modes of operation that can be used in other programs.

In short, lesson-drawing is like a prescription, making a program better, while an assessment is more like a thermometer, telling how healthy or unhealthy a program is or was. Although this distinction is a simplification since assessments could also be used to identify issues and alternatives, in practice, assessments do not usually lead to the art and actuality of lesson-drawing.


Realism, which is about recognizing possibilities and limitations, is an essential component of poverty policies. To be realistic about poverty programs, we must first recognize their complexity. Since poverty has many dimensions, not just low incomes, one program cannot focus on all of a nation’s concerns about the poor. For example, social exclusion may continue for a racial or ethnic group despite improvement in income. Also, poverty programs usually have multiple objectives, whether or not they are publicly stated or even recognized by their adherents. Such objectives can include deterring unrest, diminishing crime, reducing public expenditures on the poor, or even winning votes. Seldom can all the objectives of a poverty program be equally achieved; indeed, some objectives may conflict with others.

Multiple objectives and limited funding are a dangerous mix likely to lead to focusing only a little on many different activities, with the result that not much of value is achieved overall. Consequently, there is a need to be realistic about what can be accomplished to maximize effectiveness. Unfortunately, to win support for poverty programs, much more is usually promised than can be realized, especially when a program has limited funding. However, overpromising undermines continuing support for a program.

Also, overpromising can affect the poor. They can be encouraged to believe that an underfunded, under-mandated program will do much to improve their conditions. They may initiate activities in the hope that this time a program will make a difference, only to find themselves frustrated once again.

To be realistic about poverty programs, we must comprehend their limitations. As economic conditions change, the economic well-being of some people is threatened. As economic, political and social trends reshape the understanding of what constitutes poverty, poverty itself is also transformed. Poverty, then, is a recurrent issue that we must acknowledge, face realistically, and continually attempt to overcome.