"Before the pandemic, people saw that we were afloat. People knew that we could eat, support our households. We were more or less okay before the coronavirus pandemic. That is why people did not help us and we could not hold out our hands," said Rashed, summing up perfectly how the lower-middle-income families were in between a rock and a hard place during the health crisis.

Rashed's household is a new poor— households that were afloat before Covid-19 but faced severe difficulties in making a living after the pandemic hit.

To understand how the new poor were trying to recover, we undertook a study where we tracked 39 new poor households in the Khulna district that were still struggling even after almost three years since the outbreak of the pandemic.

One of the dimensions of the study was to explore the adopted strategies of the new poor in their pursuit of recovery. Unsurprisingly, they reduced their expenditure on food consumption, education and health. In extreme cases, they skipped meals, dropped their children out of school and endured diseases without seeking healthcare.

They borrowed extensively from their relatives and microfinance institutions while trying to get engaged in multiple income-generating activities, even deploying members who were not working before Covid-19.

Trying to access social protection was another key strategy for the new poor. They actively reached out to the local representatives and a range of intermediaries, including local influentials and political leaders, to secure enlistment in programmes or receive one-off cash or in-kind transfers from the government. However, a significant portion of the new poor households was overlooked since they were considered "not poor enough."

Our interviews with the local representatives indicate that these households were attempted to be covered by the TCB (Trading Corporation of Bangladesh) family cards through which they could buy some necessary food items at subsidised prices.

It is quite apparent that individual efforts came much more to the fore while the new poor sought to recover, pointing to a glaring absence of state support. Naturally, the question of "why" comes to mind. One possible explanation could be the focus of the state on reducing poverty, particularly extreme poverty, in the immediate future as stressed in the National Social Security Strategy (NSSS). The existing social security system emphasises the "hardcore poor" and the most disadvantaged by design, therefore, leaving out the non-poor but vulnerable section.

While one can easily understand the case for giving precedence to the extreme poor, it puts the low and lower-middle-income workers in the informal economy at severe risk of being unprotected from crises, such as the one the country is experiencing now. In fact, it can defeat the purpose of poverty reduction through social security since households floating just above the poverty line can (and do) end up becoming poor within a very short time.

This is where the concept of "vulnerability" in addition to "poverty" begs for attention. Traditional measures of poverty lines based on income or expenditure remain very popular in the national and global arenas due to their simplicity in measurement and understanding. Thus, they dominate the global spaces of discussion around poverty where states try to showcase how they are contributing to eradicating extreme poverty. However, they miss vital aspects of deprivation including risks, distress, assets, dignity, access to healthcare or education, leading to a gradual global shift toward focusing on vulnerability.

Putting emphasis on vulnerability along with poverty can spotlight the multidimensional facets of deprivation and help identify and safeguard populations at risk during crises such as the new poor.

The NSSS recognises the importance of vulnerability and the necessity to provide support to the crisis-affected population to facilitate their recovery. However, the dominant narratives in the state's policy spaces are still revolving around the concept of poverty and thresholds, rendering the vulnerable non-poor "not poor enough" to receive state support. The time is nigh to reconstruct our vision. Otherwise, the bid to become a developing nation, and more importantly, sustain that status will be in serious vulnerability.

The author is a research associate of BRAC Institute of Governance and Development.


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