According to Dictionary.com, poverty is a noun denoting “the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor.” It is also used to describe a deficiency of necessary or desirable ingredients or qualities as in “… a poverty of medical supplies,” a poverty of soil, soul, or education.
Here poverty speaks to a critical lack of basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, and the means of obtaining such through land, education and adequate jobs.
Back in 1979, British sociologist Peter Townsend offered this definition:
…individuals… 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 societies to which they belong. (Peter Townsend (1979) Poverty in the United Kingdom, London: Penguin)
At least 80% of the world’s people live on less that $10 a day. Almost half, or three billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day (Global Issues: Poverty Facts and Stats, retrieved 27Mar2014).
According to UNICEF, 21,000 children (under five) die each day due to poverty. And they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in live makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.
Worldwide, 10.6 million children die each year because they are not immunized; 1.4 million die each year from lack of access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation. Worldwide, 15 million children are orphaned due to HIV/AIDS.
The poorest 40% of the world’s population accounts for 5 per cent of global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income.
Absolute poverty has been described as, “…a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitary facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services” (UN declaration at World Summit on Social Development, Copenhagen, 1995). Since 1990, absolute income has been progressively set as $1 a day to a present reckoning of $2 a day (World Bank).
Relative poverty speaks to the social context and social construction of poverty. It notices the fact that poverty is relative to the wealth of a country—the poor of the U.S. and Western European countries are not as quantifiable destitute a situation as those who live on garbage dumps of poor nations. But the term relative poverty particularly focuses on the gap between the poor of a nation and its wealthy citizens. Income inequalities are measured by the Gini coefficient (World Bank) and the Theil Index (World Bank).
The World Bank has estimated a developing country spends $25 dollars on debt repayment for every $1 it receives. Much has been studied and written about the growing disparity between the income and wealth of the poor and the rich in countries like the U.S. and the growing gap between the richest and poorest nations. The latter ratio was something like 3 to 1 in 1820, 35 to 1 in 1950, and 72 to 1 in 1992 (UN Human Development Reports).
To see the poor as lazy, stupid, and dependent is a cultural judgment in demonstrable error. Most of the world’s poor are hard working poor, and most of the single mothers in the U.S. are working to support their families. Such ignorance can only come from living apart from the poor. Of course there are, among the poor, those who through mental illness, addictions, or unfortunate circumstances have more or less given up—there are such among all populations. This is also to say that poverty is a very complex issue—and the proper response to poverty is unfortunately a controversial subject as well.
According to Bryant L. Myers in Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, Orbis Books, 2006: 61-62:
The poor are people, and we must begin there…. Further, they are persons embedded in families, communities and corresponding social systems…. The poor live in households, and some development thinkers believe that we need to view the household as the economic and social unit of importance.
To consider the poor, it is helpful to call all others, including most of us, the non-poor. From our advantages, we come to understand poverty in terms of its lack of relational or social capital—as well as a lack of material assets. We might outline poverty’s deficiencies as follows:
Material: lack of money and material assets
Vulnerability: lack of reserves and choices
Isolation: lack of helpful social contacts, information, education and jobs
Physical weakness: lack of strength and too many dependents
and some have added, the spiritual poverty of broken relationships
Myers’ book cites Indian experts in the use of Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) a seeing poverty as a lack of the freedom to grow:
physically: with scarce resources and limited choices
socially: with limiting restrictions (prejudice and discrimination)
mentally: with limited perspective, mental blocks and poor self-image, and even self-hatred socially induced
spiritually: with fear and a cycle of fear, hurt-anger-bondage
An article and subject like this begs some kind of call to action. A challenge comes from reflecting on our spending in light of world needs. The following are studied estimates as to what major steps in reducing poverty would cost:
basic education for all: 6 billion (in U.S. dollars)
water and sanitation for all: 9 billion
reproductive health for women: 12 billion
basic health and nutrition: 13 billion
The following reckons spending among the non-poor:
Cosmetics in the United States: 8 billion
Ice cream in Europe: 11 billion
Pet food in Europe and the U.S.: 17 billion
Business entertainment in Japan: 35 billion
Cigarettes in Europe: 50 billion
Alcoholic drinks in Europe: 105 billion
Narcotic drugs in the world: 400 billion
Military spending in the world: 780 billion
(Global Issues, accessed 27Mar2014). Consider, then, what a 1% reduction in military spending could do, along with some personal sacrifice from all of us.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. How have you become interested in the issue of poverty—and how important a world problem do you consider it to be?
2. How do you define poverty? How do you think it can be best understood and discussed?
3. What most impressed you about the article above? What comments, critique, or questions do you have about it?
4. How do you want to continue your consideration of this topic, and what action would you like to take in making others more aware or in terms of some kind of intervention?
1. The crucial importance, and the neglect, of this global, national and local issue begs us to continue our study and discussion—here in pursuing the issue here in Infopedia, listening to the poor, and contacting experts in relief and development.
2. Knowledge, relationships, experience, study and analysis are critical if help is to be helpful and efforts strategically employed.
3. The Resource list under this topic will provide means for strategic giving, for further study, and possible further involvement.