China has lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty since the 1970s. However, the government must adjust its poverty-alleviation policies and show more foresight in the relevant social policies, so as to solve the knotty poverty issue of the last 70 million people by its target date of 2020.
Two-thirds of the world’s people lifted out of poverty in the past 30 years are from China. In 1978, 250 million rural residents in China lived under poverty line, creating a poverty incidence rate of 30.7 percent. In 2005, the two figures were 24 million and 2.5 percent respectively.
However, the effect of economic growth on poverty alleviation has progressively decreased since 1990. Statistics show the poverty-stricken population in China fell 13.2 million with every percentage point of GDP growth in China from 1978 to 1990. The figure dropped to 3.8 million in the 1990s, and 1 million early in the present century.
This is in line with the international experience. The development of agriculture plays an important role in the early phase of poverty reduction, and non-agricultural factors, such as social policies, gain increasing weight later on.
Some social policies may reduce the impoverished population in the short-term, but will actually produce more people returning to poverty in the long run, or cause new social problems leading to new poverty if the policies are not adjusted.
Some places in China, especially western parts, have even experienced worsening of poverty after 20 years of poverty alleviation efforts.
The Chinese government vows to eliminate poverty by 2020. To lift the last 70 million people out of poverty, the authorities need to reflect on the shortcomings of its past social policies, conduct more detailed studies on the impoverished groups, and reform its poverty alleviation policies accordingly.
China has enforced a family-planning policy since the mid 1970s, estimated to have reduced the overall population by about 300 million. By relieving family living expenditures, the policy can be seen as one reducing poverty. However, China has at least a million families who had lost their single child as of the end of 2012. Many of them, especially in the backward countryside, become impoverished because of lack of extra hands for labor.
The poverty-stricken people in the urban areas have also extended from the “three-no’s” (the people having no working ability, no income and no other means of support) to a larger group of people after the 1990s, including laid-off workers, migrant workers, the residents living in resource-depleted cities, etc.
The appearance of these poor people is partially, if not completely, related to the side effects of some government social and industrial policies. Moreover, with the wakening of people’s awareness of their rights in the 1990s, understanding grew among them that the income gap also exposes the gap in rights and status. Hence, poverty alleviation work should not only focus on subsistence, but also on social fairness and justice.
Granting farmers their overdue freedom to work in cities is real progress. Yet, denying them urban residential welfare, even if they work and live in cities for a long time, has the de facto effect of splitting society, and many social problems have since developed in cities and villages.
Although the migrant workers effectively increase family income, their long-term absence from home causes many social and family problems. The left-behind children, women and senior residents in backward rural areas constitute the main body of the impoverished group of people today. The suicide rate among left-behind senior citizens is high. And the lack of family care and education of the left-behind children only serves to pass on the social problems to future generations.
The Chinese government should pay more attention to improving its social policies’ influence in the long run, and avoid sacrificing long-term interests for immediate gains.
As for the poverty alleviation work, the government should focus more on the causes of poverty than setting a poverty standard, comparative poverty than absolute poverty, and spiritual poverty than material poverty.
There should be evaluation of effects of policies and policy implementation. And the policymakers in the government need draw lessons from previous setbacks, and actively consult with more people from institutes, think tanks and relevant sectors in the society.
Poverty alleviation is a legal obligation of a responsible government involving minimum social cost.