What is Poverty? (2): Different Definitions of Poverty and an Attempt to Make Some Order

This is the World Bank‘s definition of poverty:

Poverty is an income level below some minimum level necessary to meet basic needs. This minimum level is usually called the “poverty line”. What is necessary to satisfy basic needs varies across time and societies. Therefore, poverty lines vary in time and place, and each country uses lines which are appropriate to its level of development, societal norms and values. But the content of the needs is more or less the same everywhere. Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.

And this is Wikipedia‘s definition:

Poverty is the deprivation of common necessities such as food, clothing, shelter and safe drinking water, all of which determine our quality of life. It may also include the lack of access to opportunities such as education and employment which aid the escape from poverty and/or allow one to enjoy the respect of fellow citizens. According to Mollie Orshansky who developed the poverty measurements used by the U.S. government, “to be poor is to be deprived of those goods and services and pleasures which others around us take for granted”.

The definition agreed by the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995:

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 services. It includes a lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments and social discrimination and exclusion. It is also characterized by lack of participation in decision making and in civil, social and cultural life. It occurs in all countries: as mass poverty in many developing countries, pockets of poverty amid wealth in developed countries, loss of livelihoods as a result of economic recession, sudden poverty as a result of disaster or conflict, the poverty of low-wage workers, and the utter destitution of people who fall outside family support systems, social institutions and safety nets.

The UN definition:

Fundamentally, poverty is a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and cloth a family, not having a school or clinic to go to, not having the land on which to grow one’s food or a job to earn one’s living, not having access to credit. It means insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities. It means susceptibility to violence, and it often implies living on marginal or fragile environments, without access to clean water or sanitation.

There’s also the very interesting definition by David Gordon in his paper, “Indicators of Poverty & Hunger“.

Poverty is the absence of any two or more of the following eight basic needs:

  • Food: Body Mass Index must be above 16.
  • Safe drinking water: Water must not come from solely rivers and ponds, and must be available nearby (less than 15 minutes’ walk each way).
  • Sanitation facilities: Toilets or latrines must be accessible in or near the home.
  • Health: Treatment must be received for serious illnesses and pregnancy.
  • Shelter: Homes must have fewer than four people living in each room. Floors must not be made of dirt, mud, or clay.
  • Education: Everyone must attend school or otherwise learn to read.
  • Information: Everyone must have access to newspapers, radios, televisions, computers, or telephones at home.
  • Access to services such as education, health, legal, social, and financial (credit) services.

And there’s the equally interesting but completely different definition by Peter Townsend:

Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong. Their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns and activities.

There are, of course, many other definitions, but if we stick to these examples and summarize them, we can conclude that poverty is the impossibility to meet certain basic needs or the absence of certain necessities or resources:

  • food *
  • clothing *
  • shelter *
  • sanitation *
  • clean water *
  • health **
  • education **
  • work **
  • power **
  • representation **
  • freedom **
  • information **
  • trust in the future (absence of fear) ***
  • access to opportunities and choices ***
  • respect ***
  • self-esteem ***
  • dignity ***
  • inclusion, participation in social and cultural life ***
  • independence ***.

All of these needs and resources are valuable and important in themselves, but I think we can distinguish them according to certain types. For example, you’re not necessarily poor if you’re uneducated. I can think of many uneducated rich people. And all poor people aren’t necessarily without an education. So I would propose the following distinction:

  • Food, clothing, shelter, sanitation and clean water are needs that are directly linked to poverty. You are, by definition, poor if you lack one of these resources (and you may even die). I call these first-level-resources (marked with *).
  • Health, education, work, representation, power, freedom and information, are resources, the lack of which can (but doesn’t have to) make you poor – poor in the sense of not having the first types of resources – and the presence of which is necessary to escape poverty. I call these second-level-resources or supporting resources (marked with **).
  • Respect, self-esteem, dignity, inclusion, participation, trust in the future and the absence of fear, and opportunities, are resources which, like health, education etc., you may lose when you become poor, but which do not really help you to escape poverty. I call these third-level-resources or concomitant resources (marked with ***).

When looking at the different definitions cited above, we also see that poverty has many dimensions:

  • A material dimension (food, clothing etc.)
  • A psychological dimension (respect, self-esteem, trust, fear)
  • A political dimension (power, representation) and
  • A social dimension (education, health, work).

The latter 2 dimensions point to the fact that poverty, while often suffered alone and in solitude, requires social cooperation if it is to be eliminated.

The material, political and social dimensions can, to some extent, be measured, which is necessary if we want to have an idea of the importance of the problem, its evolution over time, and the effectiveness and success of policy measures aimed to combat poverty. One can measure nutrition, housing, income, access to certain services, standard of living, quality of life etc.

The psychological dimension is much more difficult to measure, but no less important. This dimension also shows us that poverty is not just a matter of the current state one is in, and the resources one has or doesn’t have. It is also about vulnerability, about the future, about trust and fear. And it also has a relative side (obvious from the Townsend definition given above), which attaches itself to the problem of our current level of resources (the absolute side): poverty means comparing yourself to others, feeling like a failure, humiliated, shameful etc.

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22 thoughts on “What is Poverty? (2): Different Definitions of Poverty and an Attempt to Make Some Order”

  1. […] Definitional discussions about poverty have convinced me that there are actually different types of poverty. I don’t think that all types are equally urgent policy problems, although they’re all worthy of attention (personally, I think poverty as absolute material deprivation is the one to focus most attention on, rather than relative poverty, poverty as a mental harm etc.). […]

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  2. Hi there, where did you get your definitions from? Do you have a reference? I am searching for a defintion of poverty and yours are great but need references for an essay i am writing!

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  3. Thank you, this really helps me with the introduction for a research paper I am working on. I with Melaine, and I will follow the links. Peace.

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  4. your definitions are but there need for detail references.such as year of publication and the various pages.it will be helpful for some of us carrying out
    research.

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  5. […] Definitional discussions about poverty have convinced me that there are actually different types of poverty. I don’t think that all types are equally urgent policy problems, although they’re all worthy of attention (personally, I think poverty as absolute material deprivation is the one to focus most attention on, rather than relative poverty, poverty as a mental harm etc.). […]

    Like

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