Mihika Chatterjee ’08
Ph.D. candidate, University of Oxford
Major at Wooster: Economics
“Who knows the direction their profession will take when they are 18-year-olds? Not me!” When Mihika Chatterjee ’08 arrived at Wooster from her home in Kolkata, India, she knew her general interest: “My father is an accountant and it was wired into me to work with numbers.”
Courses in development economics led to long chats with faculty members about an emerging interest—the intersection of economics and politics. For her Independent Study, Chatterjee researched catastrophic illness, household-resource allocation, and national savings in Tanzania. “By graduation time, I discovered an array of graduate school disciplines that would allow me to study poverty, inequality, deprivation, and health in developing countries. But I’m very grateful for the advice I received from my Wooster professors—to work for a few years before entering graduate school.”
She landed a job with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s J-PAL Poverty Action Lab, where she worked for three years—first as a research associate and then a policy associate—a job that took her to one of India’s poorest regions. Her time spent there triggered questions.
“Why do well-intentioned policies not work better?” she asked. “Why do policies of transmission (of goods, services, food) not translate more successfully? What are the bottlenecks that hold back policy implementation? I wanted to take apart what I then thought was the black box of policy implementation.”
A job at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative while she pursued graduate studies helped piece together a part of the puzzle and answer the question: How do ways of defining poverty influence efforts to reduce poverty? One of the roots of the problem, she says, stems from a narrow definition of poverty. “Traditional thinking has taught us that if people have money, they’re going to live better lives.” But in many situations, she says, even when people seemingly have enough income to be considered “not poor,” they aren’t able to fill basic needs, such as schooling or better health.
She gives an illustration: “Let us say there is a woman living in Mumbai. We will call her Maya. Her husband has died, so she has moved to the city with her two children. She does odd-jobs at construction sites, and usually finds four or five days of work, but it’s not guaranteed income. She is living in a makeshift house with a leaky roof. She uses a community tap for water, which is of precarious quality. She has no electricity and has few assets. Her life is full of uncertainty and exposure to violence. And yet she is making enough money so that she does not fall under the income poverty line.”
Now, as a Ph.D. candidate in international development at the University of Oxford, her research interests have crystallized: Who are the winners and losers as policies aim to change agrarian livelihoods?
As she looks to the future of countries like India, she sees a growing urgency in what she describes as a “very large and restless young population, hungry for dignified livelihoods. New, more complex faces of poverty are emerging in rural and urban households.”
“We must think of poverty as more than a lack of income. There is so much more that gives dignity to life.”
Image caption: Mihika Chatterjee collecting data in Maharashtra, India, August 2015.