Adding a legal dimension to multidimensional poverty

Last month, the Metropolitan Policy Program and the Center on Children and Families at Brookings released a study on multidimensional poverty and race in America. The study shows why it’s important to look at poverty through the dimensions of low household income, limited education, lack of health insurance, concentrated spatial poverty, and unemployment, and why we should consider ways to de-cluster and reduce the links between them.

For the last couple years I have been conducting research on the relationship between the justice sector and poverty. More recently my research has focused on the links between legal problems and poverty.  Why a focus on legal problems? Because they are often a symptom of a combination of poor policy, inadequate legal and regulatory frameworks, and weak delivery of public services.

In this context, it becomes quickly evident how legal problems are an integral part of poverty. Our most recent research explores the role of legal problems in pushing the vulnerable into poverty, and in preventing households from escaping poverty. Research is currently being piloted in three upper-middle-income countries—Jordan, Colombia, and Peru.

Household survey and administrative data from Jordan and Colombia suggest the near poor, poor, and extreme poor households are more likely to experience legal problems. They are also more likely to be involved in the same type of conflicts and disputes, and less likely to have access to resources for resolving them. These findings are roughly consistent with the more extensive data available from high-income countries. 

What is more striking is the extent that poor and near poor households report the same legal problems, suggesting a more direct legal aspect to poverty. 

For example, poor and near poor households in Jordan accounted for the following levels of reported legal issues: child custody (90 percent); access to alimony or child support (83 percent); inheritance (80 percent); assault (78 percent); domestic violence (77 percent); divorce/separation (72 percent); labor (70 percent); and landlord-tenant (68 percent). In Colombia, the extreme poor were considerably more likely to report legal problems related to family relations, displacement and disappearances linked to the armed conflict, and discrimination. 

Local context is important in interpreting this data. In Jordan, the gender-based personal status code and the low labor force participation of women, especially married ones, likely drive problems related to family issues. In Columbia, the long-running armed conflict, which was fought heavily in poor rural areas, and a history of racial inequality contribute to legal problems. 

Legal problems also affect, and are affected by, other dimensions of poverty such as health, income, and employment.  For example, a household survey in England and Wales showed that limited income and health problems were primary causes of civil legal problems, with households involved in disputes reporting adverse consequences, such as stress and physical health issues, as well as loss of both confidence and income. And those respondents eligible for legal aid services, a proxy for poverty, were more likely to report these types of repercussions. This is consistent with survey findings in Colombia, where the extreme poor were more likely to report higher perceived impact from legal action.

A survey to be conducted in Jordan will provide us data on how divorce, access to alimony and child support payments, labor disputes, and crime impact poor households. Impact will be measured across a broad range of development indicators, including access to health and early childhood education, income and expenditures, and domestic violence.  

Legal problems will obviously not replace income, employment, and health as the primary dimension of poverty. But nonetheless, they play an important role and should be included in the conversation around de-clustering and reducing disadvantage.