Although the World Bank established the most widely held and understood definition of poverty in strictly economic terms, the World Bank has also described poverty as follows:
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.
This description of poverty includes lack of access to social services, “fear for the future,” “powerlessness” and “lack of representation.” This description shows a broadening of the World Bank’s understanding of poverty, but it does not replace or contradict its own $1.90 per day standard for extreme poverty.
The World Bank has also developed indicators to assess non-income dimensions of poverty. These indicators include education, health, access to social services, vulnerability, social exclusion, and access to social capital.
During the mid to late 1990s, Robert Chambers, research associate at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, and others questioned the definitions of poverty and asked who should determine those definitions. The argument was that the poor themselves should define poverty.
How Do the Poor Describe Poverty?
A survey conducted in Niger in 2002 by the Office of the Prime Minister asked the poor of that country to describe poverty. Their answers provided the following:
- Dependence was mentioned by 40 percent of the respondents, with some noting that a poor person always had to “seek out others” or to “work for somebody else.”
- Marginalization was noted by 37 percent, who defined a poor person as one who was “alone,” had “no support,” did “not feel involved in anything,” or was “never consulted.”
- Scarcity was included in the poverty definitions of 36 percent, who used statements such as having “nothing to eat,” a “lack of means to meet clothing and financial needs,” a “lack of food, livestock and money,” and “having nothing to sell.”
- Restrictions on rights and freedoms were associated with poverty by 26 percent of the respondents, who stated that “a poor person is someone who does not have the right to speak out” or “someone who will never win a case or litigation against someone else.”
- Incapacity was mentioned in connection with poverty by 21 percent, including the incapacity to make decision, to feed or clothe oneself, or to act on one’s own initiative.
Only 36 percent of the poor in this survey described poverty in terms of material lack [scarcity]. Here, the poor described the experience of poverty primarily in terms of suffering relationships and lack of belonging, dignity and freedom. Similar descriptions were found in a major World Bank study published in 2000, Voices of the poor: Can anyone hear us?
The poor describe poverty in terms of suffering relationships. Relationships are central to a person’s belonging, identity, affirmation and other socio-emotional needs.
The relational fabric of a person is his or her means for navigating social norms, accessing resources and mobilizing the skills of others toward common goals. “Whom you know” matters a great deal in any context, including that of a poor man or woman navigating his or her way out of poverty.
Learn about how the Bible defines poverty.
This was originally published in May of 2010.