Poverty dynamics and Institutional Change in Urban China

This paper employs a qualitative longitudinal methodology and a dynamic approach to the study of urban poverty in China. While new urban poverty emerging in the context of the state-owned enterprise (SOE) reforms and intensifying globalisation has gained increasing prominence on the academic and policy agendas both within and outside China since the mid-1990s, much less attention has been paid to the dynamics of the phenomenon in the sense of (a) individuals and families falling into or escaping from poverty over time; and (b) the possibility of poverty transmission across generations, or inter-generational poverty and upward/downward social mobility. By examining these aspects of the poverty dynamics, and the complex institutional contributing factors, the paper seeks to explore fresh theoretical explanations and methodological approaches to the study of poverty and inequality in China. It also hopes to contribute to the growing body of research in the field and relevant academic and policy debates in China and beyond.
The paper draws on a longitudinal investigation carried out by the two authors during the first decade of the 2000s against a highly fluid backdrop of drastic and rapid economic and societal change. The primary data were collected in (1) fieldwork conducted between 2002-4 by one author, who carried out extensive qualitative interviews with nine families receiving low-income benefits, or dibao in two urban communities in the northern city of Tianjin; and (2) a follow-up fieldwork conducted in late 2008 by the other author, who traced and intensively interviewed seven out of the original nine poor families, none of which was on benefit any more. The timing of the first investigation was coincided with the systematic rolling-out of the dibao scheme in Tianjin in the wake of massive layoffs casued the SOE restructuring in the city, and the consequent exacerbated unemployment, poverty, and increased social risks and insecurity among the urban residents. The second investigation six years later witnessed the most intensive social policy interventions by the central and local state, and through community actions in the midst of a severe global financial crisis and its looming impact on Chinese economy and society.
The qualitative research methods, including observations, unstructured interviews, and home and community visits combined with the longitudinal approach of the follow-up research after a six-year interval allow us to gain insights into the perspectives of the new urban poor in respect of the meanings and lived experiences of falling into poverty through losing one's job in the post-reform era in contrast to the earlier experiences of meanings and identities associated with work. The nature of the data that we collected both in great depth and across time in the same field sites offers the opportunity to deepen our understanding of how the new urban poor negotiate and deal with rapid economic change and social transformations - forces that are well beyond individuals' control, and the accompanied insecurity and social risks in their daily livelihood struggles. It helps illuminate the micro-social processes in their full contextual complexities, as reflected in individual life histories and experiences, and their relations to the larger macro-level forces. Through employing the dynamic approach to the analysis of the longitudinal data, the paper also aims to shed light on the workings of institutions and individual agency in shaping social mobility across generations.