The Great Debate UK

How the world’s poor live on $2 a day


Jonathan MorduchJonathan Morduch is Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the Wagner School of Public Service of New York University and managing director of the Financial Access Initiative. He is the co-author, with Daryl Collins, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven of Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day (Princeton University Press, 2009).

In New York City, $2 is what you spend for a ticket on the subway or to buy a coffee. But for billions of people around the world, $2 or less is the average amount of money you have to put food on the table every day, pay medical bills, keep children in school, and seize business opportunities. It seems impossible.

Foreign aid experts, policy makers, and even celebrities have a lot to say about the population living on $1 or $2 a day. The group we don’t often hear from is the poor themselves. As a result, most of us have little clue about how the poor manage to live on so little—so we fall back on our guesses and assumptions, and that then informs the way we think about foreign aid.

A few years ago, my colleagues Daryl Collins, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven set out to learn how poor families in Bangladesh, India and South Africa really manage to live on so little. Research teams spent a year getting to know families and recording their challenges, ambitions, strategies, failures, and successes.