Poverty describes a wide range of circumstances associated with need, hardship and lack of resources. For some, poverty is a subjective and comparative term; for others, it is moral and evaluative; and for others, scientifically established. The principal uses of the term include
- Descriptions of material need, including deprivation of essential goods and services, multiple deprivation, and patterns of deprivation over time.
- Economic circumstances, describing a lack of wealth (usually understood as capital, money, material goods, or resources especially natural resources). The meaning of "sufficient" varies widely across the different political and economic areas of the world. In the European Union, poverty is also described in terms of "economic distance", or inequality.
- Social relationships, including social exclusion, dependency, and the ability to live what is understood in a society as a "normal" life: for instance, to be capable of raising a healthy family, and especially educating children and participating in society.
A person living in the condition of poverty is said to be poor.
Discourses on poverty
Poverty is studied by many social, scientific and cultural disciplines.
- In politics, the fight against poverty is usually regarded as a social goal and most governments have - secondarily at least - some dedicated institutions or departments. The work done by these bodies is mostly limited to census studies and identification of some income level below which a citizen is technically considered poor. Active interventions may include housing plans, social pensions, special job opportunities, or requirements. Some ideologies (such as Marxism) argue that the economists and politicians actively work to create poverty. Other theories consider poverty a sign of a failing economic system and one of the main causes of crime.
- In law, poverty is recognised, in most developed countries, as a mitigating factor for the determination of the punishment, being usually considered coincident with a generic and permanent state of need which can affect and alter the correct capability of clearly or freely identifying the legally and socially acceptable behaviour. Poverty is generally argued to cause increased crime rates amongst the poor by increasing their stress.
- In education, poverty affects a student's ability to effectively profit from the learning environments. Especially for younger students coming from poverty, their primary needs as described in Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs; the need for a safe and stable homes, clothes on their backs, and regular meals clouds a student's ability to learn. Furthermore, in education circles there is a term used to characterize the phenomenon of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer (as it relates to education but easily transfers to poverty in general) is the Matthew Effect.
Related debates on a states' human capital and a person's individual capital tend likewise to focus on access to the instructional capital and social capital available only to those educated in such formal systems.
The Copenhagen Declaration describes absolute poverty as "a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information." The World Bank identifies "extreme poverty" as being people who live on less than $1 a day, and "poverty" as less than $2 a day. On that standard, 21% of the world's population was in extreme poverty, and more than half the world's population were poor in 2001 1 (http://www.developmentgoals.com/Poverty.htm#percapita).
Poverty may be seen as the collective condition of poor people, or of poor groups, and in this sense entire nation-states are sometimes regarded as poor. To avoid stigma these are usually called developing nations, but this too is considered derogatory by some.
Maps of world poverty can be found at [http://www.povertymap.net/]. There is evidence of poverty in every region. In developed countries, this condition results in wandering homeless people and poor suburbs (with so-called bidonvilles or favelas) in which poor people are - more or less - restricted to a ghetto.
Causes of Poverty
Poverty has been attributed to
- individual, or "pathological" causes, which see poverty as the result of the behaviour, choices or abilities of the poor;
- familial causes, which attribute poverty to upbringing;
- subcultural causes, which attribute poverty to common patterns of life, learned or shared within a community;
- agency causes, which see poverty as the result of the actions of others, including government and the economy; and
- structural causes, which argue that poverty is the result of the social structure.
Although it is widely thought that poverty and unemployment are a result of laziness, the United States for instance (per capita the wealthiest nation in the world) has millions of what are termed the working poor; that is, persons not on welfare or immediate public assistance plans, yet who fail to rise above the poverty line.
Poverty is often strongly correlated with social problems, such as crime and disease (notably sexually transmitted diseases), sometimes in epidemic form. As a result, many societies respond to poverty by a variety of methods which range from moral persuasion to financial subsidy to physical coercion.
The main responses to poverty are
- Poor Relief, or giving aid direct to poor people. This has been part of the approach of European societies since the middle ages.
- Responses to individual circumstances. A variety of measures have been taken to change the situation of poor people on an individual basis, including e.g. punishment, education, social work, employment, and workfare.
- Provision for contingencies. Rather than providing for poor people directly, many welfare states have provided for categories of people who are likely to be poor, such as old people or people with disabilities, or circumstances which may impoverish people, like the need for health care.
- Strategic intervention. Many people have argued that poor people can be helped to change their circumstances through focusing on selected, specific measures. Examples have included political participation, urban regeneration and the development of social capital.
- Economic development. The anti-poverty strategy of the World Bank (http://www.worldbank.org/poverty) depends heavily on preventing poverty through the promotion of economic growth. It is often argued that "a rising tide lifts all boats", though as critics comment, it can also sink some.
Many societies at various times have tried to eliminate poverty, through numerous measures including education, industrialization, and through forms of social welfare. A true solution has remained elusive.
Debates about poverty
Poverty is a highly political issue. People with right wing views often see it as related to laziness, a lack of family planning or too much interference of government. People with left wing views see it more in terms of social justice and lack of opportunity in education. It is a highly complex issue in which various factors often play a part.
The condition in itself is not always considered negatively, even if this is the prevalent interpretation: some cultural or religious groups consider poverty an ideal condition to live in, a condition necessary in order to reach certain spiritual or intellectual states. Poverty in this sense is understood as the lack of material possessions. For some orders this is equivalent to "voluntary simplicity": Mother Teresa said that the vow "frees us from all material possessions". However the vow of poverty traditionally goes beyond that: the Dominicans "lived a life of voluntary poverty, exposing themselves to innumerable dangers and sufferings, for the salvation of others." (Honorius II, 1217).
- Frances Fox Piven, Richard A. Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, Vintage Books 1993
- Jean Swanson, Poor-Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion, 2001
Poverty (http://topics.developmentgateway.org/poverty) The Development Gateway community portal on Poverty is a comprehensive collection of articles, reports, data, statistics, projects and other resources.
PovertyNet (http://www.povertynet.org) PovertyNet provides an introduction to key issues as well as in-depth information on poverty measurement, monitoring, analysis, and on poverty reduction strategies for researchers and practitioners.