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What is Poverty?

By Edited Dec 28, 2015 2 2

The UNESCO definition of poverty (1995) refers to the absence of life’s necessities such as unpolluted drinking water, adequate sanitation, shelter, an adequate standard of health and access to education and information.  This definition also stresses that it is not just about a lack of income, extending the notion of poverty to non-material concepts such as access to decision making, and links to the concept of social exclusion (Oak, 2009:52).

Models of Poverty

Absolute and Relative Poverty

It is important here to distinguish between types or models of poverty. Absolute poverty refers to a set standard which is the same in all countries and which does not change over time.  It refers to an absolute lack of resources for subsistence.  An income-related example could be living on less than $1 per day. Relative poverty refers to a standard which is measured as relative to the average living standard of a particular society (Oak, 2009).  As it is defined in terms of the society in which an individual lives and which therefore differs between countries and over time.

The main criticism of the ‘absolute poverty’ model is that it assumes that there is a minimum standard of necessities common to all societies irrespective of culture or lifestyle.  Needs for drinking water and nutrition vary in differing societies, depending on factors such as lifestyle, occupation, geographical location and climate (Oak, 2009:53).  Also, concepts such as cultural necessities tend to reflect the bias of the assessor (Oak, 2009:53).

Poverty and Social Work

In a social work context, as poverty affects a majority of clients that social workers engage with. As a profession, social work intervenes with some of the most impoverished and disadvantaged people in Britain.  This is not new; social work has been linked with poverty since it began, and the profession largely emerged out of charitable attempts to address the plight of the poor.

In addition, poverty should not be seen solely as an economic problem, but also as an issue that entails other important psychological and social dimensions, affecting a person’s self esteem, and possibly leading to other negative impacts on service users, such as crime (Oak, 2009:51).  Kempson (1996) researched the negative effects of poverty, including poor diet, poor health, social exclusion and financial problems.  Consequently, this could lead to marital conflict, domestic violence and family breakdown. Similarly, poverty can increase the likelihood of children being looked after by the care services; of older adults going into residential care; and of admission to a psychiatric ward (Kempson).

I recommend that poverty in developed nations such as the Uk and US should be explored from a ‘relative’ model, due to most extreme cases of poverty being supported by welfare state. In developing countries such as Rwanda or Ethiopia, it may be more appropriate to discuss absolute poverty.

Poverty, Sociology and Social Policy

The debate around the deserving and undeserving poor is ongoing today.  This highlights the inextricable relationship between poverty and sociology, and therefore social policy.  Reasons for poverty and social exclusion can come from a variety of theoretical approaches including anti-racist, postmodern and religious approaches.



Apr 12, 2013 6:24am
This is a very hard topic, I think there is what is perceived different levels of poverty, by different people all over the world.
It annoys me why some countries are more interested in armies instead of looking after their poor people. Good interesting article.
Apr 16, 2013 3:43pm
Thanks for your comments Eileen.
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  1. Oak, Eileen Social Work and Social Perspectives. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, 2009.
  2. Kempson, C. Life on a Low Income . York: Joseph Rountree Foundation, 1996.

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