An Indian scholar who pioneered the theory behind the economics of poverty--and also demonstrated its practical applications--has won the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. In awarding today's prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited 64-year-old Amartya Sen for his contributions to the field of welfare economics and for restoring "an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems."
Sen, who earned a doctorate from Cambridge University in 1959, has spent the past 3 decades on problems ranging from how individuals make spending choices to how poverty levels are best calculated. But he is perhaps best known for work that offered a fresh look at the economics of famine. Studies of disasters in India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Saharan Africa in the 1970s led Sen to challenge the conventional view that famines are almost always caused by food shortages. Instead, he showed that other factors--such as declining wages and rising food prices caused by bad weather--influence the distribution of food and aggravate famine conditions for the poorest people.
"[Sen] achieved something very rare in economics," says a former student, economist Prasanta Pattanaik of the University of California, Riverside, praising his ability to apply theory to practical problems such as poverty and famines. In studying poverty, for example, Sen developed new ways of calculating how many people fall below a nation's poverty line and how far below the line they are. This provided policy-makers with useful practical information for devising solutions. Sen showed, for instance, that development policies designed to lift individuals currently only a few dollars below the line may do little for those deeper in poverty.
Sen, who recently left Harvard University to teach at Cambridge's Trinity College, is delighted that the Nobel committee gave special notice to his work on the economic challenges facing society's poorest people. "I am pleased," he told wire service reporters, "that they gave recognition to [welfare economics] in particular."