How to Define Poverty

Unlock the meanings behind words and concepts.


Poverty can be defined as a condition characterized by the inability to meet basic needs and enjoy a standard of living considered acceptable within a particular society or context. It is a multidimensional concept that encompasses not only the lack of income or financial resources but also limited access to essential goods, services, education, healthcare, adequate housing, and opportunities for social and economic participation.

Key elements to consider when defining poverty include:

  1. Lack of Basic Needs: Poverty entails the inability to afford or access fundamental necessities such as food, clean water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and education. It means living below a minimum threshold required for a decent and dignified existence.
  2. Insufficient Income: Poverty often relates to a lack of income or earning capacity to sustain a basic standard of living. It includes the inability to earn enough to meet essential needs or to escape from a state of chronic deprivation.
  3. Relative Deprivation: Poverty is often understood in relative terms, relative to the standards and expectations of a particular society or community. It recognizes that poverty is not only an absolute measure but also a social and contextual phenomenon influenced by factors such as income distribution, social inequality, and access to resources.
  4. Structural Inequality: Poverty is influenced by structural factors such as social and economic disparities, systemic discrimination, unequal distribution of resources, and limited opportunities for upward mobility. It acknowledges that poverty is not solely an individual's failing but can result from broader systemic and societal factors.
  5. Vulnerability and Social Exclusion: Poverty is associated with vulnerability and social exclusion, where individuals or groups face higher risks of marginalization, limited social support networks, and reduced participation in social, economic, and political spheres.
  6. Multidimensional Nature: Poverty is not solely measured by income levels but also encompasses other dimensions such as health, education, access to basic services, social capital, and quality of life. Understanding poverty requires considering a range of interconnected factors that contribute to overall deprivation.
  7. Contextual Factors: Poverty is influenced by contextual factors, including geographical location, cultural norms, political systems, and historical circumstances. It varies across countries, regions, and communities, necessitating context-specific approaches to address its complexities.

It is important to note that poverty is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, and different organizations, researchers, and policymakers may have varying definitions and measures of poverty. Defining poverty provides a foundation for identifying, understanding, and addressing the challenges faced by individuals and communities experiencing deprivation, with the ultimate goal of promoting social justice, equality, and improved well-being for all.