Refugee status and subjective perceptions of poverty in the WBG

Posted: October 18, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, West Bank
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The World Bank has just released a very interesting study on poverty in the Palestinian territories, entitled Coping with Conflict: Poverty and Inclusion in the West Bank and Gaza. It has a number of interesting things to say about the distribution of poverty, the impact of Israeli occupation, Palestinian health, education, and nutritional standards (all well above expected averages for a developing country), the quality of PA social services (good in many sectors, although weaker targeting of social assistance), and a range of related issues.

The report also has some interesting observations between subjective and objective levels of poverty, noting that the difference between the two is quite substantial in the West Bank and Gaza (namely, some of those below the poverty line don’t consider themselves as the poor, and some of those above it do consider themselves poor). Refugee status appears to be one of those factors associated with a greater propensity to consider oneself poor:

5.43 In 2009 in Gaza, for instance, almost 20 percent of the population is below the poverty line but does not consider itself poor, while 7 percent are not poor but do consider themselves poor. In the West Bank, these percentages are 11 and 6, respectively. These figures are non-negligible. Overall, of all the subjectively poor in Gaza, one-third are above the poverty line, while in the West Bank, among those households who report themselves as poor, about half are above the poverty line.

What Characteristics Drive Households to have Contradictory Subjective and Objective Poverty Status?

5.44 Why do subjective assessments of poverty status differ so much from consumption based poverty measures? In the following analysis, we use a multinomial logit model to understand this question.

5.45 The results suggest that poor households whose heads have at least a secondary education are more likely to consider themselves not poor, especially in the West Bank. In both territories, non- refugee status, larger household size and having an employed head of household are all characteristics that make poor households more likely to not consider themselves as poor. Conversely, households who are above the poverty line with better educational attainment, employment, job security and larger families, are less likely to report that they are poor. Some characteristics are more important than others in each of the territories. Consistent with the higher returns to education in the West Bank as discussed in Chapter 3, education plays a more important role in poor households evaluating themselves as non-poor relative to Gaza. Not surprisingly, having a job is equally important in both regions and is strongly associated with a more favorable assessment of their poverty status. Refugee status is more pertinent in Gaza where non-poor refugee households are more likely to consider themselves as poor. Finally, poor households with larger families are more likely to report themselves as non poor in the West Bank, perhaps reflecting the greater potential for work opportunities in the West Bank relative to Gaza.

5.46 Taken altogether, these results are strongly suggestive of the dimensions that households value beyond consumption. Even when current consumption conditions are unfavorable, households value other dimensions such as education, non-refugee status, large families, and employment. These are important measures of broader capabilities and are important drivers of consumption poverty itself. In fact, these characteristics may be valued by households because of their very potential as mechanisms to move out of consumption poverty.

Why might this be? The report doesn’t say, but off the top of my head I can think of several possible explanations:

  • The study uses an income measure of poverty, not an asset measure. Refugee camp households (although not others) may feel that housing conditions are inferior, or that they don’t enjoy full asset ownership.
  • Refugeehood is associated with a general sense of deprivation, related back to Israeli property seizure and forced displacement.
  • The provision of UNRWA services to refugees is associated with a subjective sense of poverty, even if the objective effect of those services is to alleviate poverty.
  • Refugee camp residents share and identity that, in part, involves a sense of collective exclusion and disadvantage.

The effect is weaker in the West Bank than in Gaza, which suggests some weight be attributed to the “UNRWA service” and “refugee camp residence” explanations (since a far higher proportion of refugees live in refugee camps in Gaza). On the other hand, there are lots of other differences between the West Bank and Gaza that might explain that difference too.

Unfortunately the report doesn’t analyze whether camp residence has a stronger or weaker effect than refugee status, which might quickly clear up the mystery.

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