The concept of a poverty trap—commonly understood as a self-reinforcing situation beneath an asset threshold—has been very influential in describing the persistence of poverty and the relationship between poverty and sustainability. Although traps, and the dynamics that lead to traps, are defined and used differently in different disciplines, the concept of a poverty trap has been most powerfully shaped by work in development economics.
This perspective is often constraining because, as many studies show, poverty arises from complex interactions between social and environmental factors that are rarely considered in development economics. A more integrated understanding of poverty traps can help to understand the interrelations between persistent poverty and key social and ecological factors, facilitating more effective development interventions.
The aim of this paper is to provide a critical appraisal of existing trap conceptualizations in different disciplines, and to assess the characteristics and mechanisms that are used to explain poverty traps in rural contexts, thereby broadening the traps concept to better account for social-ecological interactions. Complementarities and tensions among different disciplinary perspectives on traps are identified, and our results demonstrate that different definitions of traps share a set of common characteristics: persistence, undesirability, and self-reinforcement. Yet these minimum conditions are not sufficient to understand how trap dynamics arise from complex social-ecological interactions.
To broaden the utility of the concept we propose a more social-ecologically integrated definition of traps that includes four additional considerations: cross-scale interactions, path dependencies, the role of external drivers, and social-ecological diversity. Including these wider dimensions of trap dynamics would help to better account for the diverse social-ecological feedbacks that produce and maintain poverty traps, and could strengthen strategies to alleviate poverty in a more integrated way.
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