Hidden indicators of poverty — Part 1

While poverty is widely recognised as a multifaceted phenomenon, hidden indicators within it significantly contribute to perpetuating cycles of deprivation.


Published by AstroAwani, image by AstroAwani.

Beyond the glaring statistics and economic reports that outline the state of poverty in our societies, lie its hidden indicators that significantly contribute to perpetuating cycles of deprivation.

While poverty is widely recognised as a multifaceted phenomenon extending beyond mere economic deprivation, often depicted through visible indicators like monetary poverty, education, and basic infrastructures, there are dimensions seldomly explored but quietly shaping the struggles of individuals and communities.

The recent Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) applauded Malaysia’s progress in ‘Goal 1: No Poverty’ (see “The Malaysian SDG Progress”, The Star, Dec 18, 2023), focusing on the proportion of the population living under and close to extreme poverty.  This achievement is notable, but it beckons us to consider the dimensions potentially overlooked in the report.

Let us delve beyond mere income levels and explore the very nuanced aspects that profoundly add to the complexity of poverty—the often overlooked and hidden dimensions.

Climate vulnerability: unraveling environmental threads

The impact of environmental changes on already weakened and marginalised communities is often disregarded. From erratic weather patterns disrupting agricultural cycles to the increasing frequency of natural disasters displacing vulnerable populations, climate change tightens its grip on those already teetering on the edge of poverty.

Vulnerability is defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes.

For instance, one critical aspect of climate vulnerability is the sea rise level, a consequence of global climate change.

In studies of the Impact of Climate Change on Sea Level Rise in Malaysia, conducted by the National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia (NAHRIM) in 2010 and 2017, sea level rise projections for the Malaysian coast by 2100 indicated an acceleration from 2.5 – 5.2mm/year to 10.5 – 10.9mm/year. This fourfold increase signals a more rapid elevation than initially anticipated, raising serious concerns about mitigation measures.

Furthermore, the maximum value, previously anticipated for low-lying areas along the Northeast and West coasts of the peninsula (Kelantan and Kedah) is now projected to occur on the East coast of Peninsular Malaysia (Johor, Pahang, Terengganu & Kelantan).

Given the annual challenge of flooding during the monsoon season, particularly the Northeast Monsoon, Malaysia’s East Coast states (Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, and Johor) are already susceptible to inundation. Thus, revised sea level rise projections suggest the heightened risk of displacement and distress to already vulnerable communities.

In the shadows of traditional poverty, climate change’s impact is most acutely felt by individuals in poverty, exacerbating existing disparities between the wealthy and the underprivileged. For those already in serious economic hardship, the socio-economic consequences of heightened climate vulnerability are amplified, pushing them further into the abyss of destitution as they face disproportionately more painful setbacks from the effects of droughts, floods, or storms.

In such crises, families already lacking financial reserves and grappling with day-to-day challenges may find themselves compelled to sell assets at whatever price they can salvage, deepening their economic struggles. Meanwhile, those with deep pockets often capitalise on crises, widening and perpetuating the gap between the affluent and the disadvantaged.

In other words, poverty maps expose our vulnerabilities by revealing susceptibilities in regions experiencing poverty, making them likely targets for a multitude of risks and challenges.

Digital divide: navigating the technological gulf

In a time of rapid digital progress, the digital divide emerges as an inconspicuous yet powerful barrier that strengthens poverty’s grip. Beyond income and education metrics, the ability to navigate the digital landscape now plays a crucial role in shaping one’s socioeconomic trajectory.

The digital divide delineates the chasm between those with seamless access to digital technologies and those left in the shadows of technological exclusion.

The digital divide manifests through geographical disparities, with those in rural and remote areas facing limited access to information and communication technologies (ICT) infrastructure. Additionally, an educational divide arises from limited or no access to education, leaving individuals without the necessary skills and knowledge to use digital technology effectively.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) Internet Users Survey 2022 highlights concerning statistics. In urban areas, 59.8% of the population are internet users, down from 75.6% in 2020. However, in rural areas, only 39.0% have internet access compared to 24.4% in 2020. Despite some progress, there is still a significant 20.8% gap persists in 2022, underscoring the urgent need to address the disparities in ICT infrastructure.

The close relationship between the digital divide and poverty is widely acknowledged. As outlined by the Digital Poverty Alliance, digital poverty is the inability to fully engage with the online world at the necessary time, place and manner for an individual.

This divide’s repercussions extend far beyond mere missed opportunities for online education or job searches; they permeate the core of poverty, exacerbating existing inequalities.

Moreover, the digital divide encompasses access to information. Extreme digital poverty affects not only economically disadvantaged individuals but also those who are not economically poor. For instance, unreliable internet connectivity in rural areas with limited infrastructure can constrain the ability of not economically poor individuals to engage in online education or access certain services.

The digital divide adversely affects educational outcomes, contributing to the disparities by hindering access to crucial online learning resources.

Limited access to digital resources also becomes a barrier, hampering one’s ability to seize brighter economic and employment prospects, thereby perpetuating the cycle of poverty and creating a systemic disadvantage for those on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Stunted growth: deciphering causes, consequences, and vice versa

Stunting, defined as below-average height for a child’s age, serves as both a symptom and a perpetuator of poverty.

Stunted growth, encompassing both physical stature and developmental milestones at an individual level, also shapes society at large. It forms a cycle where malnourished children face educational challenges and lifelong health issues, solidifying the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Rooted in malnutrition, particularly inadequate nutrition during critical developmental years, stunted growth finds its origins in poor maternal nutrition, limited access to nutritious food, and recurrent infections. These factors are further compounded by limited resources and inadequate healthcare in impoverished communities.

As a telling indicator of poverty, stunted growth among children becomes a crucial element in assessing the degree of poverty within a population, as highlighted in the previous EMIR Research article, “Battle against the unseen enemy of stunted growth”.

Beyond its manifestation as a nutritional concern, stunted growth encapsulates broader socio-economic disparities. Research consistently highlights the correlation between poverty and the prevalence of stunted growth.

For instance, a study by Rahman et al. (2021), observed that children from the poor and poorest families are more likely to experience stunted growth. In contrast, the odds of stunting are lower for children in well-off families within the same age group. In a different study by Mansoob and Masood (2018), children and teenagers from economically disadvantaged households exhibited a higher prevalence of stunting (52.8%) compared to their counterparts from more affluent households (47.7%).

Stunted growth’s consequences extend beyond the physical realm. Children experiencing stunting often grapple with cognitive impairments, delayed motor development, and weakened immune systems. In turn, these factors hinder their educational attainment and limit future economic potential.

In essence, a vicious cycle exists, where poverty and malnutrition fuel and reinforce each other. Stunted growth and poverty share a cyclical relationship: poverty contributes to inadequate nutrition and healthcare, leading to stunted growth, while individuals with stunted growth face increased challenges in breaking free from the shackles of poverty due to cognitive and physical limitations imposed upon them.

In conclusion, poverty, despite its traditional economic metrics, extends beyond it and recognising and acting upon these hidden indicators is crucial for creating inclusive policies that truly address the diverse challenges faced by those living in poverty.

In its upcoming article, EMIR Research will present comprehensive policy recommendations aimed at effectively tackling the issue of hidden indicators of poverty.

Farah Natasya is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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