Urban vs rural poverty: a simplified example

I was talking to my mom last night and she said she enjoyed yesterday’s post. The last part of it wasn’t totally clear to her, so I tried using an example, which I’ll share here. I find it easier to think in terms of numbers that make the math easy and then use algebra to generalize if I need to, instead of going directly to the algebra. Here we’ll stick to arithmetic.

Let’s say we have a country, Fakelandia, with 100 million people. Let’s say it’s 80% urban and 20% rural and that the urban poverty rate is 25% and the rural poverty rate is 50%.

Okay, so the rate of rural poverty is twice that of urban poverty. That’s clear. That means that if we randomly select a rural individual that person is twice as likely to be poor and someone we randomly select from an urban area. This does not necessarily mean that more poor people live in rural areas.

If 80% of the population is urban that comes out to 80 million. If 25% of the rural population is poor, this comes out to 20 million poor people living in urban areas.

The rural 20% is 20 million people. Half of that is 10 million poor people living in rural areas. This comes to a total of 30 million poor people (30% of the total population). This means that the poor population is 2/3 urban and 1/3 rural. So a randomly selected poor person is twice as likely to be from an urban area.

That may seem weird, but a randomly selected person from the overall population is four times more likely to be from an urban area (80:20 reduces to 4:1). So poverty is still disproportionally a rural problem in this scenario.

So again, these two things are simultaneously true in Fakelandia:

  • A person in a rural area is twice as likely to be poor as a person from an urban area.
  • A poor person is twice as likely to be from an urban area as from a rural area.

My Brazilian friend Cris was the one who first explained this logic to me. Zero Hunger initially focused on rural hunger because there was a higher rate of hunger in those areas. However, since Brazil is so urban, there was a limit to how much impact rural programs could have on hunger and poverty as measured at the national level.

To be clear, none of this says anything about what should be done. The above isn’t anywhere near enough information to come to any kind of conclusion about what to do in a real country in a similar situation (and I’d argue there’s no reason not to tackle both, full on). I’m just trying to explain how poverty can look more rural or urban depending on what we’re talking about.