Lakshman Yapa on an end to poverty

03/06/09 Seán Kinane
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A Penn State geography professor told people at the University of South Florida this afternoon that poverty cannot be eradicated through economic development projects.

As part of USF’s Geography Colloquium Series, Lakshman Yapa told 30 students, professors, and members of the public that because economic development created poverty, poverty cannot be solved by economic development.

Some elements of a different discourse on poverty, Yapa says, involve quality-of-life issues rather than just traditional economic issues.

Yapa says that poverty is not just a lack of income -- whether it is in America’s inner cities or in developing countries.

“Economic development has failed in the Third World, we know that. … So, what gives, what gives?”

Local governments fund projects that are supposed to create jobs, but it can never be enough, according to Yapa. He mentioned a $60 million dollar retail shopping center in Philadelphia that was supposed to create 600 jobs. But those low-paying jobs did not affect poverty because they were 30,000 jobs short of what the city needs.

As an alternative, each summer Yapa takes a group of students to impoverished West Philly to undertake projects with the community. The work of many of his Philadelphia Field Project students relates to their own majors in fields such as architecture or health and human development.

Yapa’s goal is not just to affect poverty in West Philadelphia, but also to change the discourse at his university. During his lecture Friday, sponsored by USF’s Office of the Provost, Yapa displayed maps of West Philly with demographic data including income, race, and were people commute to work.

Yapa is interested in no longer explaining poverty through demographic factors -- like race or if there is a female head of household -- because those are descriptive characteristics that people can’t do anything about. He says that looking at poverty through a different lens will give people a way to improve their lives.

Yapa says that people spend up to 20% of their income on transportation, so solutions such as bike lanes or transit could lift them out of poverty.

According to Yapa, people become empowered by ensuring they have a “basket of basic goods” such as functional literacy, a biogenic diet, housing, transportation, and health. Lauren Fry is a graduate student in environmental engineering at Michigan Tech University.

“I think what he says about building a whole person is probably true, and so I’d like to look more into it.”

Pratyusha Basu, an assistant professor of geography at USF, appreciates Yapa’s defining poverty in a community as an issue that people can be empowered to improve.

When university researchers look at problems like poverty in a new way, Yapa says, the situation may improve.

“Once you think like that then there are so many different answers and you become very hopeful.”

listen to Rob Lorei’s interview with Lakshman Yapa on WMNF’s Radioactivity program

Philadelphia Field Project

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