Headship and Poverty in Africa

With a little more care to take context and the confounding attributes that make female-headed households (FHHs) particularly prone to poverty into account, this paper argues that headship can be useful for identifying poor households in Africa. Standard welfare comparisons between FHHs and male-headed households (MHHs) have largely ignored two confounding factors: marital status (affecting access to markets and services) and heterogeneity in household demographics (with bearing on economies of scale in consumption). Both influence welfare and are correlated with gender of headship. As judged by the usual per capita welfare measures, FHHs, on average, have lower poverty rates than MHHs in Africa. However, even a modest adjustment for economies of scale in consumption changes the poverty comparisons, with FHHs faring significantly worse overall in East, Central, and Southern Africa. Marital status also matters. The households of female heads are poorer than MHHs except when the female head is married. Taking the head’s marital status and the household’s demographics into account is critical to the association between female headship and welfare outcomes.

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