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A 'broken ladder': Anirudh Krishna studies complexity of poverty and how people escape it

Poverty is more complex than you might think, according to Anirudh Krishna, Edgar T. Thompson professor of public policy in the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Krishna’s research focuses on the way people fall into poverty and how they can escape it. Recently, he established a network of “social mobility promoting organizations" (SMPOs) across India to address the barriers facing impoverished children. SMPOs encourage youth to get involved in careers they otherwise wouldn't pursue by fostering professional and personal development.

He began his research in the early 2000s and after ten years of work in a variety of countries, Krishna found that several factors contributed to people becoming impoverished—most of which were out of their control. 

“[For] the most part, it was because of things like several people in the family falling ill or having an accident and there being inadequate health coverage,” Krishna said. 

For one, selling assets to pay for treatment—which can range from a herd of cattle to a house depending on the country—is a path to poverty. 

Krishna also found that, for someone who is already impoverished, there are a number of barriers to achieving success. It might not be enough to improve education in a poor community—children also need role models with high paying jobs to motivate them to push for success. 

He recalled that, in his own life, he was inspired by family and family friends who had “great careers.” 

"For a kid growing up on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, there’s no one like uncles or cousins or friends or parents’ friends or anybody in their social network to provide them with the same information,” Krishna said.  

Instead, these children aspire to have lower-paying jobs that are valued in the community, such as teaching. 

Krishna likened this multitude of barriers to a “broken ladder.” It is not enough to fix one rung. Instead, multiple interventions are necessary at various points in someone’s life. 

Krishna was inspired to do something about this problem when a student at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, India’s top management school, wrote to him and asked if she could help with his research over the summer. At the time, Krishna was looking for other organizations who were working on social mobility, and he tasked her with finding such groups. 

The team eventually identified about 15 organizations in India and reached out to them. Today, there are about 45 SMPOs in Krishna’s network, which works with more than 100,000 children.

Their work includes helping high schoolers prepare for the college admissions process, mentoring children, supporting young entrepreneurs and educating children in specific areas such as computer skills and the English language. 

“When I started telling [each SMPO about the others], they were going wild,” Krishna recalled. 

He helped organize the National Federation of Social Mobility Promoting Organizations of India, which has elected an interim council to help structure the organization. 

The work has not all been easy—Krishna commented that it was often difficult to convince each organization that working with others was worthwhile.

“These are all very new, very young, very fast-growing organizations,” he said. “To ask their CEO or someone senior to spare a couple of days or even a couple of hours for the common good is almost like pulling teeth.” 

Despite the challenges, Krishna has hope for the future. 

“The hope is vibrant,” he said. “The hope is that the India federation will demonstrate the utility of having such outreach in every country.” 

He added that the effects of social outreach are visible in a country like Sweden. Despite the nation’s small population, there are Swedes in every area of public life, from athletics to science to literature. He theorized that this is because every Swedish child has the resources necessary to develop his or her talents. 

“The system has a place for them to rise, a viable route—a viable ladder—for them to rise," Krishna said.

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin was editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 116th volume.


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