Raising low aspirations is vital to reducing poverty

17 November 2011

Poor man rich woman By Phil Thornton

Policymakers must intervene to raise aspirations and expectations to lift people out of poverty and social exclusion, according to ESRC-funded research. This intervention is vital to break the vicious cycle that keeps more than 440 million worldwide trapped in chronic poverty, as raising low aspirations must complement the delivery of aid and assistance on the ground.

"Living in poverty impacts peoples’ expectations and aspirations. This in turn makes it more difficult for them to escape from poverty," say researchers Dr. Patricio Dalton, Professor Sayantan Ghosal and Dr. Anandi Mani of the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at the University of Warwick. The researchers have established a theoretical framework that models the feedback loop between initial disadvantage and aspirations, choices and achievement.

Evidence suggests that both rich and poor underestimate how their aspirations evolve over their lifetime as a consequence of the effort they make. However, poverty imposes an additional constraint on the poor, which means they face much greater downside risks than the rich in their lives. Professor Ghosal says: "A good example is a poor farmer who is worried about whether she will get a good enough crop to feed her family. If her child is under-performing in school, she may wonder whether it is worth using more scarce resources to get him to catch up and do better at school. However making sure the family does not starve will seem more important."

"Lower parental effort in this regard increases the odds of low performance by the kid - but worse, low performance feeds into lower aspiration for how well he can do in school, and diminishes his long-term education achievement well below what he may be capable of," he says.

In light of this, the researchers have begun to investigate whether raising aspirations can help raise levels of achievement among the poor. In one case study in Kolkata, India, researchers examined the use of 'dream-building sessions' aimed at raising the aspirations of a socially excluded group - sex workers. A recently concluded pilot study has yielded promising results. The next stage of the research will produce evidence of the impact of 'dream-building' on altering choices such as increased condom usage and changing behaviour related to saving.

A second planned case study, Orchestras for Children and Young Students in Buenos Aires, will examine whether the aspirations of children from very deprived backgrounds are raised by their participation in classical music orchestras. The researchers will examine whether their regular participation has spill-overs in other dimensions such as educational performance.

Professor Ghosal says the research will lay the groundwork for developing the techniques required to raise low aspirations that must in time be part of the essential toolkit of any policy intervention designed to tackle problems such as poverty and social exclusion. "It is not enough to spend money to raise educational standards in schools," he says. "Children must also aspire to attain those standards. You need intervention on both fronts."