By Behnam Gholipour
December 11, 2018
The number of people living in absolute poverty in Iran is rapidly increasing, spurred on by a huge hike in inflation over the last two years, a recent study has found.
A pioneering and comprehensive new report published by the Iranian parliament’s Research Center looks at absolute poverty in Iran’s 31 provinces, outlining the depth and breadth of the growing crisis [Persian link].
Islamic Republic officials have avoided coming forward on the issue, despite the fact that poverty is at root of a range of social ills in Iran, from addiction and divorce to robbery and murder. Unfortunately, there has generally been more information available about these ills of society than there has been about their causes.
“Absolute” or “extreme” poverty is not simply a superlative term used to drive home the severity of the situation, it has a defined meaning in social studies. A report published by the United Nations in 1995 described it: “Absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to social services.” And the World Bank has set a more measureable standard for extreme poverty: Living on less than $1.90 a day (adjusted for inflation).
The current report is based on 2016 data, a year when Iran’s economy was doing noticeably better than in 2017 and 2018.
Unsurprisingly, the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan and suffers from a range of problems including water shortages, has the country’s highest population of people living in absolute poverty. According to the report, 38.31 percent of the population of this province, or around 1.232 million people, live in absolute poverty.
Next comes Kerman, Sistan and Baluchistan’s neighbor to the west, where 32.90 percent of the population, or around 1.311 million people, live in absolute poverty. The third highest levels of absolute poverty occur is the northeastern province of Golestan, where 30.68 percent, somewhere around 646,000, live in absolute poverty. Qom, the most important religious city in Iran, comes fourth, with 29.96 percent, or 476,000 living in a state of extreme poverty.
The Religious Factor
Apart from in Kerman, religion appears to be an important factor for why these provinces suffer the worst poverty. In the provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan and Golestan, a high percentage of the population is Sunni Muslim. Poverty and margin-dwelling in Sunni-majority regions of Iran is an open secret and the report by the parliament’s Research Center confirms this and makes this official.
The holy city of Qom is the base for Iranian Shia seminaries, and so is home to a high number of religious authorities and ayatollahs, as well as to thousands of seminary students from across the country, many of whom often live in poor conditions. Until 1995, Qom, which is today Iran’s seventh largest city, was located in Tehran province. But that year the city and the towns around Qom became part of a separate province by orders from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The area, however, suffers from a near-desert climate and inadequate infrastructure and it lacks the resources to address its economic and infrastructure problems.
In Kerman, the high number of destitute Afghan refugees has exacerbated the situation in a province that also suffers from poor infrastructure and a scarcity of job opportunities.
Next to Kerman lies the province of Hormozgan. A considerable portion of its population are Sunnis and it is the fifth poorest province in Iran. According to the parliamentary report, 22.08 percent of the population of Hormozgan, or 496,000 people, live in absolute poverty.
The report also presents some unexpected statistics. For example, it points out that only 1.87 percent of the population of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, or 21,000 people, live in poverty.
The statistics about Tehran, both the city and the province, are also interesting. The study finds that in 2016, the poverty line for an urban household of four was the highest in Tehran — 2.076 million tomans ($495) per month — as opposed to 983,000 tomans ($234) per month, which was the lowest poverty line among the urban areas.
The same difference was also true for rural areas. In the rural areas in the provinces of Tehran and the neighboring Alborz, the poverty line for a rural household of four was 1.167 tomans ($278) per month as opposed to 543,000 tomans ($130) in the most remote villages in Iran.
What about now?
The research highlights statistics from 2016, but what do we know about poverty in Iran in 2018? How are people doing now and to what degree has poverty worsened in the last two or three years?
By bringing some of the figures set out in the Research Center’s report up to date, the newspaper Donya-e Eghtesad (“The World of Economy”) recently concluded that the inflation in the Iranian calendar month of Aban 1397 (October 23 – November 21, 2018) compared to the same month in 2016 was an incredible 53 percent higher. According to the paper, if the poverty line is adjusted for inflation then the poverty line for a family of four in the city of Tehran has now jumped to 3.18 million tomans ($757) per month.
By the same token, the poverty line for a rural household in the provinces of Tehran and Alborz has reached the neighborhood of 1.8 million tomans ($429) per month and 831,000 tomans ($198) for deprived villages such as those in the provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan, Kohgiluyeh and Ilam.
When statistics released by the Iranian Central Bank show that the rate of inflation has hit 53 percent over a period of just two years, a clear picture begins to emerge of how fast absolute poverty has extended its hold on Iran.