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Public Administration Students Finding Out What Poverty Means

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laila El Baradei
June 30, 2023

In teaching about public budgeting in the MPA program at the American University in Cairo, in addition to discussing where the money comes from and goes, I also assign students to perform a simple exercise related to developing a budget at the household level. (The assumption is that many of the principles at the macro level may also apply to the micro level.) What is supposed to be a budgeting exercise turns into a lesson about what poverty really means and an opportunity for everyone to count their blessings and appreciate what they have.

The challenge in the assignment is that the students must figure out how to prepare a budget for a family of four with one breadwinner who works at the government of Egypt on minimum wage—EGP 3500 per month—with two school-aged children. Students must take into account real market costs of foods and services, may make any assumptions they wish and try to make ends meet. They present a one-page Excel sheet for their deliberations.

To be able to complete the assignment, students report that they had to interview several people around them to understand how they manage on a limited budget. They also visit low budget stores and markets to check prices. Many students also begin with several assumptions, including:

  • Rent: The family owns its own house or apartment, or lives with parents, so they do not pay rent—or that the family lives in an “old rent” apartment. (“Old rent” refers to the Socialist era in Egypt, where rents were fixed at very low levels. Over time this led to a severe housing crisis and no one was interested in building new apartment buildings or renting out apartments. The laws changed, but still few establishments follow the “old rent” policy.)
  • School: The children go to public schools, do not need private lessons, do not take lunch with them to school and there is no need for new uniforms or stationery.
  • Transportation: Only the father needs transportation to go to work during the workday; the mother does all of her errands on foot and the children walk to school.
  • Medical Expenses: The family has medical insurance and there are no emergency situations or chronic illnesses.
  • Recreation: The family takes walks together or the children may play in the street with neighbors.
  • Internet and Mobile Access: The father has a mobile phone that can be charged for a small fee to give him a set number of call minutes; the family has no access to internet. 
  • Personal Hygiene: There is limited or no budget for personal hygiene and no mention of hygiene products.
  • Food: Many assumptions are made about the cost and quantity of different food items needed to feed the family. Generally: no meat is included, perhaps one chicken a month, or chicken thighs and wings; the family has access to ration cards to buy bread and basic food items; they eat two meals per day instead of three; they buy from government outlets; they cook beans for breakfast, rather than buying; they eat lots of macaroni, second grade rice, artificial ghee and reuse oil for frying.

The idea that a family, specifically children, do not eat a full nutritious meal, means while they may not go hungry, it will lead to a variety of problems, including increasing incidences of anemia, obesity, stunting growth and general malnutrition.

Lack of access to the internet means possible deprivation from connecting to the world and having access to knowledge.

Poor hygiene leads to reduced immunity and more diseases spreading.

Limited recreation affects overall psychological and mental wellbeing.

Many of the assumptions made by the students to be able to meet the requirements of their assignment were too harsh. To make ends meet, and improve on quality of life, families with limited resources resort to different means to enhance their income. Options may include being on the receiving end of government assistance, being served by development and/or charity nonprofit organizations, a two-breadwinner household, receiving support from other family members, working more than one job, operating a micro enterprise and more.

Poverty exists everywhere. The World Bank has its mission “eradicating poverty;” so do many international development organizations. It is the number one United Nations sustainable development goal.

What was presented in the students’ assignments may be simplistic but is a reminder to all of us that poverty is not just a number and we should work harder on finding an end to it.

Author: Laila El Baradei, Ph.D. is a Professor of Public Administration at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. She is a regular contributor to PA Times Online. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

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