We find that national poverty head-count ratios and country default risk (measured as sovereign bond spreads) are positively correlated. For example, a nation with 40 percent of the population below the poverty line faces an average spread that is 120 basis points higher than a nation with 10 percent of extremely poor households. This correlation is robust to the inclusion of a number of country specific variables including the country's Gini coefficient and its per capita GDP. We build a sovereign default model that can help explain this correlation that incorporates two types of households-those earning average income and those at the poverty line. The government runs a social safety net which taxes the average income household in order to transfer consumption to the poor. A political constraint that ensures that all households wish to participate in the safety net program constrains the fiscal choices of the government. The novel aspects of the model are calibrated using South African data on household income dynamics, its poverty line and aggregate social transfer rate while the usual calibration targets in the literature are also deployed. A variant of this benchmark economy with a more poor households displays higher default risk than the benchmark economy. The interaction of international borrowing terms with the social safety net and with the political constraint account for this result. Defaults occur when too large a fraction of taxes will be needed for debt repayment and this occurs more often in economies with a larger proportion of the poor. We show that the correlation between the proportion of poor and level of spreads survives even after controlling for the increase in inequality implied by increasing the proportion of poor households. This is achieved by simultaneously increasing the income of the poor. We show that the worse borrowing terms faced by the benchmark economy with higher poverty come with welfare losses due to the lower debt that it can afford and that it would default much less frequently if it faced the same terms as the low-poverty economy. JEL classification: F34, F41, G15, H63.
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