Is Poverty the Cause of Illiteracy?

In a previous post we had discussed whether illiteracy was the cause of poverty. A number of readers have enquired whether poverty can be the cause of illiteracy. We explore the argument in this post.

At one level the proposition can come across as valid. The poor would not have the income to afford education for their children and would, by necessity, keep the latter out of school. The very poor would need to supplement the household income with the earnings of children giving rise to the prevalence of child labor. The very, very poor would not even have enough to afford the upkeep of their children and be forced to give them up to madrassas providing free care.

This line of thinking would lead one to conclude that countries with widespread poverty would have widespread illiteracy.

How then would one account for the very wide variation in literacy rates across groups that suffered from more or less similar levels of poverty at one time? If readers look up the data they would note that Sri Lanka and Pakistan must have had similar per capita incomes at some point in the past. Yet today Sri Lanka has over 90 percent literacy compared to just about 50 percent in Pakistan.

In India, Kerala has the highest literacy rate while being nowhere close to the richest among the states. So it is clearly not poverty alone that holds back literacy.

The flaw in relating illiteracy to poverty is that there is no overriding necessity for primary education to be available on a fee-for-service basis. Why should parents have to pay for the basic education of their children? Why shouldn’t parents be paid to have their children educated?

Two arguments can be made for this point of view. First, literacy is a fundamental human right and it should be the obligation of the state to make it available on a priority basis out of general revenues. Second, it has long been known that social returns to basic education are very high (i.e., the gains to society from educating its population far exceed the costs of the education because of the increased productivity of labor). Therefore rational societies should invest public resources in educating their citizens.

So the question is why did some societies (East Asian countries, for example) do so and others still don’t?

We can think of an interesting case that can provoke a lot of thinking. Balochistan is the most lightly populated province in Pakistan with about 10 million people. Of these only about half are ethnic Balochis. It is well known that some Balochi tribal chiefs have had an income in the millions of dollars as payment for the use of natural resources extracted from their lands. The question is why have these tribal chiefs not used this income to provide basic education to their followers?

We will let readers answer this question. But one conclusion should be obvious – there is more to illiteracy than just poverty or lack of resources or lack of political will. Surely it should be clear that some societies have an incentive to educate their citizens and others don’t.

The real clues to the continued prevalence of illiteracy would be found in thinking through the incentives. The low political priority to educate citizens in some places is a story waiting to be told.

For the contrary argument, see Is Illiteracy the Cause of Poverty?
See also, Is Overpopulation the Cause of Poverty?

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  • Kiran Varanasi
    Posted at 10:28h, 10 May Reply

    Second, it has long been known that social returns to basic education are very high (i.e., the gains to society from educating its population far exceed the costs of the education because of the increased productivity of labor).

    There exists no such actor called “society” (just like there doesn’t exist an animal called “environment”), so it doesn’t help talking about whether it is a rational actor or an irrational actor.

    In a society, there are always several actors who have the important attributes of being independent to take decisions and act on such decisions. If spreading literacy amongst the people is in their interest, they will act for it. Otherwise, they won’t. In fact, literate populace is a threat to several important actors : feudal lords, religion, military dictators so on. The status-quo does not change if the social and economic monopoly that is enjoyed by these actors doesn’t get threatened by alternatives.

    I think you are being unfair in singling out Baluchistan. The problem is rife in several other areas of Pakistan, particularly NWFP. The extremist Balochs are against the Pakistani union, where as the extremists in NWFP are not.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:32h, 10 May

      Kiran, You are right. However, computing social costs is an analytical device that is commonly employed in public policy. The purpose is to first determine if an initiative would be beneficial to its relevant universe. If so, one then proceeds to the political analysis of determining which groups in that universe would be for or against it and devising strategies to win over the ones opposed.

      Such is the situation in the case of literacy. Society would gain in the aggregate but many groups oppose it to protect their vested interests. For an analysis spelling out this political economy for South Asia, see a post on this blog – Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?

      The same is the case for the environment. The public policy case is that global warming would hurt the entire world. However, the US did not sign the Kyoto Accord because it felt that that costs of avoidance were not allocated fairly.

      Balochistan was just mentioned as an example. You are right that there are many other illustrations of the phenomenon and you will find them in the post mentioned above. The post on which you have commented did not extend to the politics of Baloch or Pashtun nationalism.

  • shubhangana
    Posted at 16:15h, 30 April Reply

    the data analysis is correct and the thought about poverty not being one of the major factor of illiteracy is true.

    the society is facing a two faced serpent one which has a hiss for those who are backward and in countries like india where cast ism is a common problem in rural.
    they treat education a source of reaching god and people of high society do not want any of the lower caste to manifest that experience.

    on the other hand the other head of the snake has a blame game which till today no country is able to justify whose responsibility is literacy : government or we who form the government

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:53h, 10 October

      Shubhangana: Re the two-faced serpent, I agree with the observation about the hiss. In the case of the head, there seems room for further discussion. If we are talking about a democracy, like India, the distinction between the government and the people is hard to sustain – at least in theory.

      The government is the representative of the people and therefore the people can set the agenda for what the government should be doing. So, either the people have not made literacy a key plank of their agenda OR there is some failing in the operation of the democratic system. The illiterate do not have enough say in the operation to make their votes count in the outcome.

      Which of these two alternatives is the case in India? This would certainly be worth discussing.

    Posted at 09:11h, 19 October Reply


  • Selina Banda
    Posted at 10:08h, 04 October Reply

    It is a question of equity in the provision of education to the people that really matters. Apparently, the poor are not treated the same as their counterparts who always get the lion’s share in many instances. It is true that the state is to blame for the prevalence of illiteracy among the poverty stricken people who seem to have accepted the situation and the state has taken advantage.
    There is need to fight for the human rights to education for the very poor.

  • Maryam
    Posted at 11:53h, 06 May Reply

    I believe the difference in the literacy rate is because of how the society perceives education, and how much importance do families give to education. For instance, some parents would bear hunger and poverty just to educate their child, while others will not.

    “Surely it should be clear that some societies have an incentive to educate their citizens and others don’t.” That’s true as well. Some families know that getting an education will certainly increase their offspring’s chances of employment and a better life, while others believe that it wouldn’t, so they don’t even try.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:07h, 06 May

      Education of children is a family investment decision. Societal perception of education is too broad a perspective to help in understanding all choices pertaining to this investment. Some aspects, e.g., gender biases are affected by societal values. But education of sons is more a function of ability to afford and expectation of returns to investment. This varies a lot over the various segments of a society. For such a reason many countries made school education free and mandatory because the social returns to education are considered higher than private returns. Of course, if what is taught in schools is useless, both social and private returns can be negative which is close to the case with many sub-groups in the subcontinent.

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