Deconstructing Poverty

Lakshman Yapa's approach to poverty begins and ends in paradox.

"I grew up in Sri Lanka," Yapa says, "where 20 percent of the population, by government estimates, is poor." Poor in this case, he adds, means hungry: unable to afford 2,200 calories worth of food a day.

man in glasses leans on books

"But this is a tropical country—with abundant rainfall, sunshine, and cultivatable land," says the Penn State associate professor of geography. "Why are people hungry? There is nothing in the physical geography of the place to indicate that this circumstance must be so. This is not Ethiopia—not the Sahara desert or the mountains. Why does poverty exist in a place like this?"

Or in the United States?

"Here we have the greatest wealth-producing machine in human history. Yet we have certain forms of poverty, a huge welfare economy . . . How does poverty exist here?"

Pondering these irreconcilables has led Yapa to an unconventional conclusion: That the real cause of poverty is the way we understand it.

"This is not to deny for a moment the existence of real material deprivation," he hastens to add. "We can see this with our own eyes. But I suggest that poverty is not an economic problem."

Economists, Yapa notes, define poverty abstractly, in terms of income—or the lack of it. In the United States, a family of four making less than $12,000 a year is designated poor. In the developing world, the corresponding figure is much lower, but the same criterion is applied. Poverty means lack of income.

When the problem is thus described, the solution becomes obvious: What is needed is to create more—more products, more jobs, more income. The solution to poverty is economic development.

Unfortunately, 40 years of development haven't made much of a dent. Yapa cites the 500 million Third World people who are "persistently hungry," the 30 million hungry in the U.S. It isn't that development hasn't worked, he contends. It's that it has worked all too well. By focusing all efforts on raising income, Yapa suggests, development has in fact become the cause of modern poverty.

In basic economics, scarcity is viewed as a general condition of society, caused by limited resources and unlimited wants. "That view of scarcity," Yapa says, "does not help to explain poverty. Children in Sao Paulo do not suffer from vitamin-C deficiencies becuase Brazil does not produce enough oranges. Brazil is a large exporter of soya beans—yet the poor in Brazil suffer serious protein deficiency. Scarcity is socially specific—it is particular groups in society that experience deprivation. And that deprivation is socially constructed by the devaluing of existing resources and the manufacture of new wants."

He cites for example the so-called Green Revolution, a massive international-aid campaign undertaken in the 1960s to increase Third World food production. The premise of the Green Revolution was to introduce high-yield varieties of hybrid seeds for wheat, rice, and corn.

By conventional measures, the campaign was a marked success. Use of high-yield hybrids is credited with averting widespread food shortages that were predicted for the 1970s. Per capita food production in Third-World countries (except in Africa) has jumped significantly in the ensuing decades. "But the impressive increases in food production," Yapa writes, "have not translated into less hunger." In many of these countries, as in Brazil, malnutrition and hunger persist despite actual food surpluses. Beyond the production statistics, he writes, the Green Revolution "has left in its wake a devastating trail of destruction, and an ecologically unsustainable mode of agricultural production which will aggravate problems of hunger and malnutrition in years to come."

High-yield varieties, Yapa explains, require prime growing conditions: intensive irrigation and heavy doses of commercial fertilizers. The need to buy fertilizer means poor farmers can't afford to grow these varieties for their own consumption; the crop must be exported. The replacement of a balanced crop of locally adapted varieties with an imported monoculture opens the way for pests, which creates a need for pesticides, which in turn leads to the destruction of natural predators, and eventual contamination of groundwater and streams. The treadmill of chemical farming, Yapa calls it. While the GNP rises, he concludes, the land is destroyed, and the poor farmer's diet actually gets poorer. "In Sri Lanka, the production of yams and lentils—important sources of protein—has gone down. The fish and crabs that used to flourish in the paddy fields have been eliminated by pesticides." The real beneficiaries of development, Yapa argues, are the large landowners who can afford expensive "inputs," and the petrochemical companies who make them.

As another example of how development goes awry, Yapa points to large-scale dam projects. Such works are seen as vital Third World infrastructure, providing cheap electricity, water for irrigation, and flood control. But dams, Yapa says, cause the displacement of tens of thousands of people who are forced to evacuate their homes as their villages come under water. Also submerged are vast territories of farm and forest land. (The Narmada project in India, he writes, will uproot a million people and submerge about 200,000 hectares of cultivated land and 350,000 hectares of forest.) The resulting ecological imbalance contributes to the proliferation of diseases including malaria and schistosomiasis. Perhaps the most serious problem associated with dams and irrigation, he adds, is the loss of cultivatable land to salinization and waterlogging, as irrigation of dry land throws off the salt-freshwater balance. Again, Yapa argues, farms under irrigation require capital-intensive farming in order to be economically feasible.

Mega-projects have undeniably contributed to growth in the gross national products of some Third World countries. Far from eradicating hunger or poverty, however, Yapa says, they have caused a worsening of these conditions, not only by their immediate effects but by the steady erosion of traditional methods of living. "The local farmer's knowledge is no longer seen as valid, because it is not scientific," he reports, adding: "If you destroy indigenous knowledge, you've destroyed a resource."

Economic activities, Yapa has written, "are too often evaluated by the quantity of commodities they generate." But "economic growth often conflicts with the food needs of the poor. . . . It is important to look at production from a holistic viewpoint."

The idea that economic development causes poverty is not exactly new. The social critic Ivan Illich voiced it almost 20 years ago, and a growing handful of writers and thinkers have been saying it off and on in the decades since. These few dissenters have basically been howling in the wind.

"There is near universal agreement among the elites of the world on the desirability of development," Yapa writes, "with support coming from all sectors of the political spectrum. Conservatives, liberals, radicals, and greens, who disagree with each other on a range of basic issues, find no disagreement on the need for economic development."

Even the poor, Yapa notes, believe in the development model—especially the poor. The rightness of development is so ingrained, he admits, "that questioning it seems crazy." That the argument against development still seems so flatly heretical, Yapa argues, goes to the core of the problem. We have been "massively socialized," he asserts, to think of poverty purely in economic terms, as a question of income. We have been looking at poverty exclusively through an economic lens for so long that we no longer recognize it as a lens—one lens among many—a choice that comes with a set of pre-existing values which preclude our being able to see some aspects of the poverty problem. Chief among these values, he says, is the belief that an ever-increasing level of economic production is the natural order of things. By focusing on the march of production, he argues, economics leaves out—and so conceals—how development creates scarcity.

Yapa believes that the problem goes beyond the economic development model, and has its roots in the epistemology of social science—how we know what we know about society. "Social science is not a mirror of society," he says. Rather, "social science is deeply embroiled in the construction of society. In seeking to understand, we form definite notions about the social objects of our study—poverty, race, identity, insanity, crime, and so on—and we form ourselves from these reflections of the 'other.' Social science does not recognize the significance of this principle."

In the language of postmodernist theorist Michel Foucault, in whose work Yapa has found a way to make sense of this paradox, the development model has become a "hegemonic" idea, one whose rightness is beyond dispute. And this, Yapa says, has disastrous effects: First, because development tends to create new types of need where none existed, swallowing more and more precious resources to meet those needs. Second, he writes, "it turns the poor into 'problem,' and the subject that studies the poor into 'non-problem.' This conceals our complicity in the creation of scarcity." And third, the "economic logic" of development prevents us from looking for other, more effective solutions.

Yapa does not, strictly speaking, consider himself a post-modernist. What he draws from his reading of Foucault and other theorists is a skeptical attitude and a central premise: that knowledge cannot be value-free.

"There's a language that we use to talk about poverty," Yapa explains, "and that language is deeply imbedded in the society we are a part of. Now you might look at the material deprivation that people experience and say, 'What has language got to do with this?' I would say 'Everything.'"

The language we use, Yapa argues, determines the way we understand poverty. "We talk about a 'poverty sector' versus the 'non-poor.' We use words like 'living wage,' 'lack of capital, 'overpopulation.'. . . This is the language in which poverty is presented. But if you deconstruct that language those words have no intrinsic meaning. They crumble like brittle cookies."

Marketplaces in the Peruvian Andes, Yapa writes, "sell an incredible variety of potatoes. Each of these varieties represents a unique genetic adaptation to the complex ecological diversity of mountain environments. The genetic diversity of the native Andean potato is a product of both the mountain ecology and the cultural ecology of selective breeding practiced by Andean women over thousands of years." In sum, he argues, "the genetic diversity of the Andean potato is a resource. But what is the commercial value of this resource? Can it be quantified? And where precisely does the resource reside?" To say that such a place has no resources, Yapa contends, is not an objective description of the Peruvian Andes; "it is an academic representation of that place relative to a particular way of knowing the world."

He describes, as another example, a Sri Lankan project begun in the 1970s to build a fertilizer factory, funded through the World Bank.

"With the factory they hoped to produce some thousands of tons of nitrogen fertilizer per year. Supposedly, they lack the resources to produce it, so they had to import all this naptha [a petroleum product] and the equipment to process it.

"Now there are any number of simple, locally applicable technologies for producing nitrogen as fertilizer. One of them is the building of biogas plants, for using human and animal waste. But human waste is not considered to be a resource—rather it's something to be got rid of. In the capital city, Colombo, all human waste goes into the ocean. It pollutes the groundwater, the fisheries . . . Meanwhile, when I visited there two years ago, this fertilizer factory had already become a white elephant. It was closed down, and the equipment was sold for scrap.

"This is what I call the social construction of scarcity. It is not true to say that Sri Lanka does not have resources. They don't have petroleum and steel, but they do have other kinds of resources. If we don't value these other kinds, it is not because they are intrinsically worthless, but because our understanding is embedded in how we have been socialized."

Speaking of a "poverty sector," Yapa suggests, creates a simplistic understanding in which the problem—as well as the poor themselves—can be located (and separated) in physical space. In order to attack poverty effectively, he argues, we must first "unpack" this kind of language. Thus, he has devoted some of his efforts to debunking basic geographic tools like the GNP-per-capita map, whose widespread use in classrooms and textbooks "contributes to the myths of poverty and development."

Yapa's objections to the GNP-per-capita map are manifold. First, he writes, "Treating [each] nation as a homogenous unit conceals the destructive aspects of development," and sets up a dualistic view of the world, with "poor" and "non-poor" as mutually exclusive territories. "Through the 'silence of omission' we are not taught to see poverty as a 'relation'—between First and Third World nations, and between classes within a Third World nation."

The map's hierarchical nature—its purpose being to rank the nations along a measure of economic progress—subverts another harsh reality, Yapa asserts. The implication—that Third World nations need to "catch up" with the living standards of the West—"is patently irrational," he writes. "Economic development as we know it today in the West is not a realistic goal for nations of the Third World." To match U.S. levels of per capita energy consumption, according to World Bank figures, India would have to boost her energy production by a factor of 35, black Africa by a factor of 38. "It is clear," Yapa writes, "that minerals, materials, and energy are simply not here for the majority of people in China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Pakistan to emulate Western styles of living."

In order to combat poverty realistically, Yapa suggests, academics must submit the rest of the current discourse to a similarly close inspection. Once this work of deconstruction is done, he says, we will see that poverty occurs "within a nexus of interrelationships," social, political, and economic, that cannot be separated out. To speak of a poverty sector is to fail to see this essential interconnectedness.

In other words, Yapa contends, "Poverty has no root causes." Rather, material deprivation is created by choices made at many different "sites": nutrition, food production, healthcare, housing, transportation, etc. But if the question of scarcity is far more complex than we have generally acknowledged, he adds, this is not reason for despair. A willingness to look at the true complexity is the first step to solving the problem.

Until recently, Yapa's work on poverty was limited to the Third World. Recently, however, he has turned his attention closer to home.

"About two years ago," he says, "I came to the conclusion that the arguments I had been making about poverty overseas were also applicable to poverty in the U.S. In both cases, what is involved is the social construction of scarcity. And in both cases, this construction is reinforced by the conventional discourse."

He pulls out the Atlas of Pennsylvania, a mammoth compendium of information on the state published in 1989, and turns to the section concerned with economic activity. On a page of maps dealing with income characteristics, Yapa points to one that depicts rate of poverty by county as measured by the percentage of people living below the poverty level. "This," he says, "is the standard way poverty is presented—the standard 'geography' of poverty."

This particular breakdown, Yapa suggests, "leads to certain suppositions. That poverty in Pennsylvania is located mostly in the north and west. Apart from inner-city Philadelphia, the southeast appears to be without poverty. What it says is that there are poor places—places where the poverty problem resides, as opposed to non-poor places, which presumably are locations of the non-problem.

"But what if instead of mapping the rate of poverty we mapped the number of poor in each county. Now a whole new geography emerges. We find that there are a large number of poor people who reside in exactly those counties we deem as high-income and non-problem.

"If the entire geography changes according to what index we use, what then is the geography of poverty in Pennsylvania?"

Turning to a more detailed low-income map, depicting census tracts in Philadelphia county, Yapa asks, "What have you actually mapped here, anyway? This is a map of the places where incomes are consumed. It gives no information as to how, how much, or where that income is generated. Such a map offers no insights as to the causes of poverty.

"What has been done is to take this map and correlate it to other maps—the number of blacks, the number of female-headed households, broken families, teenage pregnancies, and so on. The openly stated assumption is that these things are linked together in a tight causative nexus. But such a discourse is both misleading and unhelpful. All you have really mapped is the place where the poor live—the area of most affordable housing.

"What I want to do is develop a discourse that is more useful in looking at the problem."

The only way to do this, Yapa acknowledges, is to provide some hard evidence—enough to make his colleagues as wary of what he calls "economism" as he is.

Call it applied postmodernism. Yapa and graduate student Casey McCracken have begun an ambitious series of ecological audits, using very fine computer data to create their own set of maps describing poverty in Pennsylvania—maps that demonstrate what Yapa calls the relations of poverty. The powerful tool that allows them to do this is Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a computer technology which allows the layering of map atop map, instantly providing complex correlations between any number of characteristics.

As a starting point, Yapa and McCracken focused on housing, scrutinizing at first the suburban single-family home. Using GIS, he and McCracken are calculating the precise amounts of various resources—water, energy, building materials, paved roads—required to sustain this model of living. "Deconstructing the suburb," Yapa calls it.

"What we expect to find," "he says, "is that this is an exceedingly costly way of housing people." And getting more so. "There's a constant escalation of what is desirable, a constant upping of the ante in new houses—so that what was good enough 20 or even 10 years ago is no longer good enough. It has to be bigger, fancier, in order to make the grade.

"This is the dream presented by the current discourse. Once we have these figures, we must ask, 'Is this a dream that can be delivered to poor people? Are the resources there to do it?' And my hypothesis is that it can't be done.

"Then we must ask, 'How does the choice of this life style—its constant promotion as the ideal—contribute to poverty? We need to make the connections. This is something that current economic analyses aren't doing."

After housing, Yapa plans to move on to transportation and look at how certain choices—continued dependence on automobiles, lack of planning and infrastructure—contribute to the creation of scarcity in that area. Then, on to energy consumption and public health and a dozen other points in the nexus. His numbers, he hopes at last, will "smash the concept of poverty with a hammer," opening the way for a new and more useful understanding.

"The difficulty," Yapa acknowledges, "is how to write and talk about this without seeming to blame anyone. I'm not blaming the people who live in the suburbs. I live in the suburbs. And I'm not interested in attacking my colleagues. But I do believe that the University has the power—and the responsibility—to create a new discourse about poverty.

"Here is the real sadness for me: I see nothing in the present discourse, nothing on the horizon, that is going to prevent even the grandchildren of today's poor people from living in the same predicament which they now face. There is no suburban answer for these people."

A new understanding of poverty, "at least gives me hope," Yapa says, of new opportunities for solutions. Not one big economically fixated mega-solution, but scores of smaller answers in as many different realms. "These answers will not be left to poverty experts," Yapa says. "In fact, we will no longer be talking about 'poverty' at all, but about housing and transportation and nutrition and education. . . .

"Once you start thinking this way, your mind explodes with possibilities. There are a thousand sites at which we can address the problem of deprivation."

Lakshman Yapa, Ph.D., is associate professor of geography, 321 Walker Building, University Park, PA, 16802; 814-865-1187. Casey McCracken is a Ph.D. student in the department of geography.

Yapa's article "Theories of Development: The Solution as Problem," appeared in National Geographic Research & Exploration in Summer 1991. "What are improved seeds? An epistemology of the Green Revolution" appeared in Economic Geography in 1993. "Building a case against economic development," with co-author Ben Wisner, Ph.D., was published in GeoJournal in February 1995.

Last Updated June 01, 1996