Poverty isn’t just about money; it’s also about time.
Social scientists and conservationists rely on income as the fundamental poverty metrics, but monetary resources are only half of the story.
Many people in the world are time poor — they lack time for basic activities like sleep, family care, obtaining food, and leisure. And this poverty also has surprising implications for the environment.
I talked with Nature Conservancy social scientist Yuta Masuda about how time poverty could be a useful measurement for conservationists. Joined by Conservancy lead scientist Heather Tallis and University of Washington social scientist Jason Williams, Masuda recently published a review of time poverty in Social Indicators Research.
Q: How are poverty and conservation linked?
Most conservation practitioners are interested in studying how conservation activities and environmental degradation impact people. The one common metric that people keep using as a proxy for well-being is income. But that’s not satisfactory because people derive well-being from things other than money.
Social scientists need to start re-thinking and redefining what it means to be prosperous. Instead of relying on GDP to measure human progress, we need to be thinking about other factors, because the way that we live is arguably unsustainable. Quality of life is very much tied to income, which is still very important, but another basic economic resource is time. How a person can or cannot allocate their time changes their well-being, and we wanted to elevate the importance of time allocation in policy and conservation.
I noticed that the concept of time poverty kept popping up in the scientific literature and popular media, but there hasn’t been a consistent definition of time poverty. And that is problematic when you’re trying to get practitioners, researchers, and policymakers to adopt time poverty as a new measure. It’s a shame, because time poverty is such an intuitive concept — we all have probably felt what it’s like to be time poor at some point in our lives.
Q: What exactly is time poverty?
Time poverty is depravation of time. In absolute terms, it is the minimum amount of time to subsist and it might be scientifically driven — for example, everyone might require a minimum amount of sleep to function. The relative measures might be some societal level that we deem to be necessary, and this is usually some percent of the median for a given population. People that don’t meet that minimum are time poor.
For example, we often hear about the struggling single mother with many kids and two jobs in the news. These people are likely to be time poor because they have to work two jobs and take care of their children. They have very little time to sleep or do other things, and being time poor can trap them in a cycle of poverty. It’s also inherently tied to income poverty.
Q: Why isn’t time poverty a common index?
I think one reason it hasn’t been used a lot is that there hasn’t been a widely adopted definition or framework.
Time use is an area of interest for so many researchers from many disciplines because it informs our models and allows us to test hypotheses about human behavior. It’s also inherently tied to well-being — you have the choice to do what you want because you have the time.
I also think it hasn’t been widely implemented because the data just haven’t been widely collected. Although time-use data have been collected for a long time, it’s only very recently that there has been a push to collect nationally represented time-use data. This is partly driven by the interest to understand non-market contributions to society. If you think about GDP, that’s formal labor, formal industry. But GDP doesn’t recognize other types of work, for example, the amount that women in developing countries do inside the household. Without time-use data you can’t capture that information.
Q: How are time poverty and conservation linked?
In developing countries, more people rely on natural resources for basic needs and their overall well-being. Lots of people, especially women and children, spend time collecting natural resources. Women might be spending 3 or 4 hours collecting firewood or water. If the environment is getting degraded more people may have to go farther away and spend more time to gather those resources, and thus more people are getting more time poor. As we are also interested in how conservation can address equity issues, time poverty gives us another lens to assess women’s well-being in developing countries as it relates to the environment.
Environmental degradation also affects more than household tasks like collecting water or firewood; it also affects the availability and time spent collecting resources for market, such as forest products. These activities take a lot of time, so environmental degradation impacts them significantly.
Q: What about the developed world?
In the developed world, if you are time poor you might not have the opportunity to enjoy nature or take advantage of the basic benefits provided by nature. For example, see this study for a link between nature and mental health. You might be working, commuting several hours each day to multiple jobs, and too time poor to be in nature. That’s a totally different type of constraint than merely income.
Time poverty is also important when we think about behavioral changes. This hasn’t been tested, but if we are trying to encourage greater rates of recycling, or other environmentally friendly behavior, I suspect that the greater time constraints a person has, the less they will be bothered to consider changing their behavior.
There are several studies that look at the effect of time constraints on decision-making, and poverty on decision-making. The combination of both time poverty and income poverty might affect they way people make decisions or the way they engage in conservation behavior.
Q: Could time poverty influence conservation activities on the ground right now?
Time poverty could definitely help us understand the different types of incentives that people might need to participate in a conservation program.
For example, in the Upper Tana Water Fund Project in Kenya, we have lots of small landholder farmers. To see a high conservation benefit from a water fund you want a critical mass of people to participate. We assume that participation will be uniform, but in reality these households are very different and face different constraints. For example, I suspect that interest in participation will vary between small households and large households, or households with either male or female heads.
Time poverty could be a component that prevents people from participating in the water fund, because they might not have time to attend community meetings recruiting water fund participation, or because they have don’t possess the bandwidth to even think about participating. Understanding constraints on people’s time will be important to figuring out how we can get more people to participate in the program.
Q: Are time poverty and climate change connected?
Absolutely. If greater environmental degradation can lead to higher rates of time poverty, especially for developing countries where they are very dependent upon environmental resources, then climate change could actually increase time poverty, as well as income poverty.
Think about crop insurance. If farmers experience significant losses in their crops due to drought, they’ll be okay if they have crop insurance. The money from the crop insurance will most likely be allocated to the male head of household in developing countries. So the direct benefits the insurance income won’t really influence women’s time poverty in that household, because they still have to spend time collecting firewood or getting water. So as climate change makes resources more scarce, time poverty could increase for some people even in places where you have a safeguards in place, which means some people become more vulnerable and worse off relative to others.
At the same time, time poverty could also exacerbate environmental problems. Time poor people have less time to devote to conservation efforts in their community, potentially exacerbating the negative effects of climate change. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s the same with income poverty.
Q: Where should conservation scientists go from here?
We would like to see conservation scientists incorporating time use and time poverty into their work because it is a powerful and intuitive measure. It would also be extremely interesting to investigate whether environmental degradation actually increases time poverty. It seems logical, but no one has actually investigated it yet.