An Intersectional Approach to Poverty and Inequality

There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.” These words spoken by Audre Lorde, aptly capture the quintessence of intersectionality.

The experience of poverty cannot be disentangled from wider structural inequalities that shape society in the modern world, including along the lines of gender, race or ethnicity, disability, and nationality – having intrinsic roots to economic disadvantage. The intersection of such socioeconomic factors contributes to how different people face multifaceted inequalities in their day-to-day life. These factors have real consequences that shape how and where wealth is concentrated in society and how poverty becomes a pervasive theme in communities struggling with intersectional inequalities. Many of our social justice problems such as racism and sexism are often overlapping, engendering multiple blankets of oppression and social injustices. Intersectionality relates to the idea that these different identities are not separate, but rather interdependent and interconnected forms of injustice, dividing the society along distinct experiences of privileges and oppression.

The term intersectionality was coined by an American lawyer, scholar and activist Kimberle Crenshaw. The phenomenon was born as a way of refuting the idea that inequality and power should be dealt with in a siloed way, for instance, only considering dimensions of racism, gender, and class, in isolation from other themes. Instead, Crenshaw argued that intersectionality is a “lens for seeing how various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate one another.” The interactions of such intersections and their outcomes in terms of power are at the heart of how the intersectional approach operates as a prism providing new angles of vision to reflect wider structures of inequality and injustices.

To visualize what it entails, Crenshaw offers illustrations of intersecting roads: “Racism road crosses with the streets of colonialism and patriarchy, and ‘crashes’ occur at intersections. Where the roads intersect, there are double, triple and multi-layered blankets of oppression”, she wrote.

When it comes to fighting extreme poverty, intersectionality means looking at the factors that fuel the various issues that potentially exacerbate economic inequalities such as health inequity, climate change, racism etc, deeply rooted in the social, economic and political structures of society. The focus of Global Goals to eradicate poverty by 2030 as highlighted under Goal 1, which targets to “End poverty in all forms everywhere”, can only be achieved by applying intersectionality as an analytical lens to interrogate how systems and processes create and sustain inequality not as separate, but interconnected. It would help understand how various strands of socio-economic, political and cultural injustices experienced by people from different backgrounds are woven into an interlocking system of inequality by looking within the marginalized groups disproportionately affected by underlying social inequity.

Target 1.2 of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Goal 1, aims to reduce poverty by 50 percent among men, women and children of all ages in all its dimensions, by 2030. However, failing to look at poverty and the driving forces behind its prevalence across various sectors of society without consulting multiple perspectives would itself become an impediment to providing equal social justice and jeopardize the achievement of Global Goals 2030 by perpetuating inequalities in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Intersectionality helps us dive deep into the multi-dimensional nature of poverty and other forms of inequality. As Oxfam scholar Fenella Porter put it “No one is just poor, or just working class, or just a woman, or just disabled.” Poverty is derived through unequal structures of power which leads to inequalities of various kinds giving rise to oppression and lack of opportunities exacerbating the plight of marginalized groups in society.

Intersectional poverty has manifestations across multifarious strands of society inhibiting the potential of the poor and marginalized in achieving equitable and sustainable development. Labor market inequalities highlight the various gaps that exist due to intersectional inequalities such as Labor force participation between white and minority ethnic workers, between men and women, and substantive pay gaps that exist along the lines of gender, ethnicity and nationality. The ethnic pay gaps are the largest for Black and Asian workers in Western countries as compared to the white citizens working the same jobs.

Intertwined racial and gender barriers also impede in progressing and accessing new opportunities at work, with Black and ethnic women being affected the most, where they had been overlooked for promotion opportunities as a result of racial prejudice or bias at the workplace.

Child marriage is another example of how gender, poverty and age intersect to create oppression and injustice. Child marriage is more prevalent in developing countries and is directly linked to low levels of economic development and absolute poverty. Families see child marriage as a way to provide for the daughter’s future, or the girl child is sold to a wealthier household in exchange for money, and financial assistance, as the family is unable to raise the child due to limited resources.

Adopting an intersectional approach to poverty and inequality will require policy-making that is people-centred, in place of policy-making dictated by administrative boundaries of the government. Policy-making coherence and competence regarding intersectionality and its approach to identifying problems and solutions are crucial for achieving social justice. Targeted approaches focused on injustices within the marginalized communities to eradicate barriers to access are required.

The incumbent authorities, NGOs, and Civil society groups need to develop a strategy embedded in an intersectional framework across all their works and initiatives aimed at achieving the SDGs. It should involve a thorough analysis of how structural inequalities such as racism, gender, disability, and ethnicity create distinct experiences of poverty and design solutions that recognize and respond to these challenges in people’s daily lives.

This should be achieved by partnering with experts in the collaborative and equitable form of research where the interviewees are considered as co-producers of knowledge, establishing lasting relationships with communities and hearing from those furthest away from support. The gaze of the governments must also be turned inwards to evaluate the perspectives coming from the powerful and dominating the policy-making mechanisms and shaping policy processes to develop strategies for tackling social inequality.

Expert facilitation could aid in making the process all-inclusive, participatory and non-discriminatory so that participants are equal partners in building knowledge from the outset. Mobilization of efforts for the representation of marginalized groups should be undertaken and carried out in letter and spirit to provide them with their due right of making their voices and concerns heard as well as the fundamental right to access equal opportunities and equitable justice.

Intersectionality is a crucial tool in understanding the entanglement of power, oppression and poverty. Policymakers must act quickly to address these new challenges by designing policies aimed to empower marginalized communities. We cannot solve inequalities stemming from social injustices without taking into account the racial, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity and other facets of their identities.

And to solve such a multifaceted nature of crises, intersectionality is the only way forward, harbingering the dawn of equitable social development.

Rameen Siddiqui
Rameen Siddiqui
A thought leader and youth activist with main focus areas being Sustainable Development, Political Economy, Development Justice and Advocacy. A member of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY). Also a Youth Member of United Nations Association of Pakistan (UNAP).