This op-ed was originally published in Project Syndicate.
Following the steep economic downturns brought about by COVID-19, policymakers should be asking or rethinking fundamental questions. None is more fundamental than whether rapid economic growth is the best way to drive development and help struggling communities escape poverty.
For good reason, economic growth has long been a top policy goal for countries around the world. But for millions of people living in poverty, growth is not enough. Specific, targeted social programs based on rigorous empirical evidence are equally important to prevent people from being left behind.
Fortunately, America’s new president, Joe Biden, seems to grasp this. Seeking to restore public trust in the US government, he has declared it “the policy of my Administration to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data,” including randomized control trials (RCTs). The challenge now will be to strike a balance between the persistent demand for robust growth and the need for broader economic and social inclusion.
In this respect, America is hardly unique. China’s GDP has grown by about 10 percent per year since 1978, lifting more than 850 million people out of poverty. And yet, according to the World Bank, 373 million Chinese remain “below the upper-middle-income poverty line of $5.50 a day,” and must reckon with food insecurity, joblessness, and lack of access to public services.
Similarly, India is now the world’s fifth-largest economy, yet tens of millions of its people still live in extreme poverty. Even in the United States, the world’s largest economy for the past century, 34 million people were living below the federal poverty line before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, with more than ten million food-insecure households and more than a half-million people experiencing homelessness on any given night.
Of course, it is important to remember that poverty is an inherently relative concept. There will always be people who are much less economically or materially prosperous than others, and to live in poverty will always mean something drastically different in some contexts than it does in others. For this reason, the definition of poverty must remain somewhat flexible, especially as regional trends in economic growth shift.
Nonetheless, the pandemic has brought jarring images of long lines for food and other critical supplies even in the US. We have been reminded that for vulnerable communities, the specter of poverty is always looming.
Other pieces of the puzzle
In recent decades, research has shed light on some of the reasons why poverty and its associated challenges (low education outcomes, poor health) persist even in rich countries and those experiencing rapid economic growth.
Consider the goal of universal, high-quality education, which is recognized as fundamental to achieving sustained economic growth and reducing overall poverty and inequality. Economic growth often spurs investment in education systems: construction of new schools, training and hiring of teachers, and purchases of school equipment and materials such as textbooks and laptops. But if the curriculum and pedagogy are not designed well, it does not matter if children have desks, textbooks, or computers: many students still will not master basic literacy and numeracy skills by the time they leave primary school.
In fact, although school enrollment has shot up dramatically in low- and middle-income countries over the past several decades, learning outcomes have been far more varied. For example, India’s 2018 Annual Status of Education Report found that only about half of fifth-grade students in rural schools could read a second-grade text, and assessments in many other countries showed similar results.
Even in a resource-rich country such as the US, learning outcomes are lower than they should be. On a national math exam in 2017, 30 percent of US eighth graders scored below a basic proficiency level, and that number has been increasing over the past decade.
Over the past 15 years, several researchers—including 2019’s Nobel laureates in economics, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer—have conducted a series of RCTs showing that school materials such as textbooks do not directly lead to better learning outcomes for students. But they have also identified an intervention that absolutely does deliver results: an innovative pedagogical approach called Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), which was pioneered by Pratham, a nongovernmental education organization in India.
TaRL emphasizes instruction at children’s current learning ability, rather than according to their age or their grade level, and it does not require expensive materials or technology. In fact, its main assessment tool can be created in a few minutes on a sheet of paper, and many of its activities are typically completed with students and teachers sitting on a classroom floor. Despite their low cost and simplicity, TaRL programs have proven to be very effective at improving learning outcomes in many countries. And a similar model of targeted instruction is now being implemented in the US, with positive results for students in Chicago and New York City.
Read the rest of Iqbal Dhaliwal and Samantha Friedlander’s article here at The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-Pal)