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Portfolios of the Poor: How the World's Poor Live on $2 a Day Hardcover – May 10, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Veterans in economics and microfinance scrutinize the finances of the poor in India, Bangladesh and South Africa. Following their 250 subjects for a year, the researchers compile family financial diaries and report on how the poor spend money and the myriad resources that function like portfolios. A confluence of circumstances the authors term a triple whammy (low and unreliable income, irregular cash flows and financial instruments ill-suited to the needs of this population) makes saving essential, and the poor depend on savings clubs, insurance clubs, money guarders or microfinance institutions. It is often a piecemeal approach, and any emergency can have disastrous consequences. With the advent of Muhammad Yunus's Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1976 and Grameen II in 2001, the growing global profile of microfinance might give the population more access to funds through reliable, flexible means—but the majority must turn to family, friends, neighbors or moneylenders. While the book's methodology and conclusions are fascinating, it is a complex and technical analysis best suited for those fluent in economics and public policy. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

Ten years ago, the authors of this unusual study began collecting detailed yearlong “financial diaries” from households in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa, with a focus on those living on less than two dollars a day per person. They found, to their surprise, that none of the families lived hand to mouth; even the poorest relied on complex combinations of financial strategies, including joining savings clubs, buying funeral insurance, and acting as “money guards” for neighbors. The diarists did things that might seem irrational—borrowing in order to save; paying interest on savings—but that made sense given their unpredictable incomes and limited options. While the authors do offer prescriptions for how to expand those options, it’s their scrupulous attention to actual behavior that makes this book invaluable.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (May 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691141487
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691141480
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #224,508 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I opened "Portfolios of the Poor" feeling dubious: multiple-authored works usually feel like the proverbial camel stitched together by a committee. And what's this about the world's poorest--who we all KNOW don't have anything resembling financial savvy--having "portfolios?" Within a few pages I was completely hooked, and since finishing this masterful work I can't stop pondering--and talking with friends & colleagues about--its many powerful insights.

Rather than the usual 30,000-foot opining about The Poor, the authors spent more than a year actually living in, and closely observing residents of, some of the earth's most wretched slums. Their experiences, as reported honestly and respectfully here, will profoundly affect your views of poverty--and of what we can do to help. I won't scoop the authors' ably-told tales, nor their eminently sensible recommendations. This is the first book I've read in a long, long time that has fundamentally changed my thinking on questions of international development. Read it!
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Format: Hardcover
I have to disagree with a previous reviewer: this is a very easy to read book. I was going to say a high school student could read this, but really, with just a few exceptions, a middle school student could follow this, and that's a compliment.

I imagine the first thoughts people in the "First World" have when they hear how many people survive on $2 (or less) per day is how overwhelmingly impossible and desolate that must be. If they get past that, one of the next thoughts might be, "who's paying them that every day?" It's easy to puzzle out that the very poor do not, most likely, get that money on a regular basis, and then the question of how they survive becomes even more unfathomable.

This work goes a long way toward answering that question. After following over 200 families in Bangladesh, India and South Africa, the researchers made a number of surprising conclusions. First, contrary to what we might assume, the very poor do not live hand-to-mouth, immediately consuming all of their very small resources as soon as they arrive. They are able to pay for participation in festivals, weddings, funerals, emergencies and education, just to name a few. Second, and most importantly, the poor are able to do this through a variety of financial instruments- formal, semiformal and informal- that show a level of sophistication that most wouldn't expect.

However, as one can easily imagine, both the small total amount of income and the irregularity with which it arrives creates stressful situations when those sums have to be raised. In many cases, they are raised, but most have to make more use of loans than savings. While many of those loans are even interest-free, the financial and social anxiety they create have costs of their own, which many are eager to avoid.
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Format: Hardcover
Having worked in economic development for some time now, I have grown accustomed to studies concerning the use of capital by the global poor being stated in simply academic terms. Portfolios of the Poor though, brings the human element back into economics and gives a more intuitive understanding of the financial challenges that people face in their daily lives. Funerals, weddings, failed health, loss of employment, religious celebrations, purchase of a new home... all of these require significant investments and require diverse access to capital. This book not only describes how people react to those challenges, but also how they prepare for them beforehand with multilayered portfolios of equity and debt. Whether it be personal assets, rotating savings groups, or relationships with informal lenders, people all over the world use thoughtful and complex approaches to accessing capital when formal financial services are inaccessible. The authors' use of financial diaries prepared by struggling families in Asia and Africa proves that millions of individuals are prepared for the risks and rewards of financial services if they were only tailored to their needs. There is so much more that financial institutions can do, and this study is a significant building block in understanding how to develop financial products for even the poorest of the poor. Thanks for such a great book, and I hope to see more work like this.

One last comment - I don't think there's a single equation in the whole book! Finally, economics without algebra... it's like heaven.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book makes a major contribution to our understanding of global poverty.

Portfolios of the Poor reports the findings of a series of detailed, year-long studies of the day-to-day financial practices of some 250 families in India, Bangladesh, and South Africa, including both city-dwellers and villagers. The authors conducted monthly, face-to-face interviews with each family, focusing on money management and recording every penny spent, earned, or borrowed in ¡°diaries¡± that formed the principal source for their observations. In the process, they made discoveries that will surely be surprising to some readers:
¡öThe poor rarely live from hand to mouth. ¡°[N]o matter where we looked, we found that most of the households, even those living on less than one dollar a day per person, rarely consume every penny of income as soon as it is earned. They seek, instead, to ¡®manage¡¯ their money by saving when they can and borrowing when they need to.¡±
¡öLack of money is just one of the financial characteristics of poverty. It¡¯s equally important that poor people¡¯s income is both unpredictable and irregular. Crops come in two or three times a year, yielding whatever the weather may permit and the market may bear; between-times a family may have no cash income at all. A son might get a job for a day but not again for a week or a month. Illness or injury may interrupt a family¡¯s income. And so forth.
¡öRather than helpless victims of their poverty, the authors found, the poor are remarkably sophisticated about the financial circumstances of their lives. ¡°We came to see that money management is, for the poor, a fundamental and well-understood part of everyday life.
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