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How Do the Poor Describe Poverty?

define poverty A few weeks ago we asked you, “What is the definition of poverty? [3]

And then we shared our belief [4] that “references in Scripture to the poor or to poverty should be taken to mean economic poverty,” which is something that we believe can be eliminated in a generation (The Poor Will Not Always Be With You [5]).

Today, Scott Todd, our Senior Ministry Advisor, continues to explain what forms our definition of poverty so you have the basis for our holistic approach to ministry.


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 $1.25 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:

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 way out of poverty.