6.1.2 What is poverty?

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Unit 6 Contents



In PP’s introduction, it speaks of “peoples who are striving to escape from hunger, misery, endemic diseases and ignorance” (#1); “the peoples in hunger are making a dramatic appeal to the peoples blessed with abundance” (#3). Later it says, “Countless millions are starving, countless families are destitute, countless men are steeped in ignorance; countless people need schools, hospitals, and homes worthy of the name” (#53).  Its conclusion refers to “the miseries which men tend to forget in order to quiet their consciences” and to “the poor [who] stand outside [the] doors [of the wealthy] waiting to receive some left-overs from their banquets” (#83).

From beginning to end, PP aims to address what is needed to overcome poverty. But what is poverty?  Unit 5 in effect assumed that this is obvious.  Perhaps it is: most people would quickly say poverty is not having enough money, and therefore not having the means to live.  This is true.  Economists say that money is a ‘means of exchange’, something we can use to buy other things: food, clothing, a place to live, medicines, and so on. So if we lack money, we can’t buy any of the basics we need to live or anything else.

Poverty as lack of money is reflected in the best-known worldwide measure of extreme or acute poverty.  The World Bank sees this as having to live on less than US$1.90 per day.  This is US$694 per year; in UK terms, it is c.£1.50 per day or c.£560 per year.1  The US$1.90 measure is widely recognised and is based on careful comparison of what can be bought for that amount of money across 15 of the poorest countries in the world.2

767 million people were living on less than US$1.90 a day in 2013 (the latest estimate at the time of writing).  This is 10.7% of the world’s population.  This is an appalling figure, more than ten times the population of the UK.  But there is good news: on this measure, the number in extreme poverty has fallen a great deal in the past 25 years; in 1990 the equivalent figure was 1.85 billion (then 35% of the world’s population).3  We shall look at how and why this has happened later in Unit 6.



How much income do you receive each day and each year?

Where you live, how much income do you think is enough to keep people out of poverty?  How does this compare with $1.90 per day?


Yet measuring poverty is not that simple.  What about education?  How can people escape from poverty if they don’t have access to enough education to equip them to work?  Is “ignorance”, then, an inherent aspect of poverty, as the quotations from PP above suggest?  People living on $1.90 or less per day could not afford to pay for education. CAFOD give the following definition: “Poverty means not having the basic necessities of life like food, shelter and clean water. But it also means not having opportunities for the future – like education and [protection of] human right.”4

What about health?  Consider people with income of $1.90 per day who live in a society where disease kills many (and cheap medical treatment for it is not available) and therefore life expectancy is short.  Are people there not even worse off than others living on only $1.60 per day who are healthier and live longer?

Concerns like these led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to work out a different measure of poverty, called the Human Development Index.  This took into account the three kinds of factor mentioned above: income, education (measured by literacy levels and years of schooling) and life expectancy.  Figures for the Human Development Index (HDI) are available for almost all countries since 1990.  In the latest HDI figures, Norway is the wealthiest country and Niger the poorest.

Another factor relevant to actual levels of poverty is inequality: as the HDI figures are for whole countries, the level of inequality of income within a country is very significant for whether they really measure poverty accurately.  If, for example, 20% of the population of a poor country receive 80% of national income and the other 80% of people receive only 20% of income, far more people will be in poverty than if the total income is shared much more equally.  For this reason, the UNDP introduced a new version of the HDI in 2010, the ‘Inequality-adjusted HDI’, abbreviated as the IDHI.  Recent figures for both these UNDP indices are easily accessible at the following Wikipedia pages.


Optional reading 

Wikipedia entry: ‘List of countries by Human Development Index’

Wikipedia entry: ‘List of countries by inequality-adjusted HDI’


If you wish to see measures of the extent of inequality in different countries, see the figures for ‘Loss’ in the tables in the second half of the IDHI page.  These show that many of the poorest countries also have very great inequality.  This reflects the fact that in most of them the poor are much poorer than the poor in wealthy countries.  One basic reason for this is that most poor countries do not have social security provision, whereas many wealthy countries do and, in consequence, income for most people in the latter does not go below a legally defined floor.


As we saw at the end of Unit 5 (5.4.4), CST was one influence in the background to the establishment of the United Nations Human Development Reports, and therefore of the Human Development Index, although this should not be exaggerated. One particular reason for that was that Barbara Ward (introduced on that page) was a teacher and inspiration to some of those involved, including the main architect of the HDI, the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq. The connection with PP’s stance is intuitively obvious: if human development should not be understood narrowly in terms of economics, but must be seen integrally, it follows that the same is true of poverty.  Poverty can be seen in terms of the various dimensions of the human person that together make up integral human development, including for example education and health.

The kind of thinking that led to the HDI and IDHI has been taken further in the ‘Multidimensional Poverty Index’ (MPI).  Figures for this have also been published by the UNDP since 2010.  This was developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), whose work focuses explicitly on measuring ‘multi-dimensional poverty’ and which is developing tools to measure what it identifies as “five missing dimensions of poverty data that poor people value but which have been largely overlooked”.5  It calls these five dimensions: quality of work, empowerment, physical safety, social connectedness and psychological wellbeing.  Of these five, especially ‘quality of work’ and ‘social connectedness’ resonate with CST – in the latter case because of an affinity with CST’s emphasis that the human person is a social being who finds fulfilment in the common good.  You might like to look at these and other pages about OPHI’s work.6


Optional reading (3pp)

Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) website:

‘Policy – A multidimensional approach’

‘Missing dimensions of poverty’


The different indices just describe all aim to measure extreme, acute or absolute poverty.  The main point in trying to identify and measure extreme poverty is, of course, to enable anti-poverty programmes and policies to tackle it effectively, rather than fail because they are misdirected.

Absolute poverty is often contrasted with relative poverty: this term refers to poverty measured relative to social and cultural context.  The European Union gives the following definition of relative poverty:

People are said to be living in poverty if their income and resources are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living considered acceptable in the society in which they live.  Because of their poverty they may experience multiple disadvantage through unemployment, low income, poor housing, inadequate health care and barriers to lifelong learning, culture, sport and recreation.  They are often excluded and marginalised from participating in activities (economic, social and cultural) that are the norm for other people and their access to fundamental rights may be restricted.7



Have you experienced extreme poverty?  If not, have you directly encountered people who are in extreme poverty?

Have you experienced relative poverty? To what extent are you familiar with the lives of people who, in their own social contexts, are in relative poverty?

If you are unemployed in the UK and receive Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), your weekly income, if you are under 25, is £57.90 (£8.27 per day).  If you are 25 or older, it is £73.10 (£10.44 per day). (These are 2016 figures.) This amount is not expected to cover your housing cost.  That is enough to prevent extreme poverty (almost all would agree).  Would you say it is enough to prevent relative poverty, or are those on JSA in relative poverty?


We are giving attention to what poverty is, not only because this is obviously important for international development in general, but because we are about to study liberation theology: this raised questions to do with the nature of poverty.

Before we turn to liberation theology, we shall look briefly at how Catholic teaching sees poverty.



End of 6.1.2

Go to 6.1.3 Poverty in the Catholic Church’s teaching

Module B outline

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  1. This is at the exchange rate in early 2017. 

  2. For a short outline of the background to this poverty measure, see World Bank, ‘FAQs: Global Poverty Line Update’ at http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/brief/global-poverty-line-faq (accessed 14 Dec. 2016). 

  3. See the World Bank’s ‘Overview’, updated 2 Oct. 2016, at http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview

  4. See http://cafod.org.uk/content/download/887/6906/version/3/file/Factsheet%20Poverty%202016.pdf (accessed 14 Dec. 2016). 

  5. http://www.ophi.org.uk/about/ (accessed 14 December 2016). 

  6. OPHI is led by Sabina Alkire who is greatly influenced by the work of the economist and political theoriest, Amartya Sen, and who has also studied both CST and work by the Catholic philosopher John Finnis describing a range of ‘basic goods’ that make up integral human development. Cf. S. Alkire, Valuing Freedoms:  Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction (Oxford University Press, 2002), chapter 1. 

  7. See ‘Concepts and Definitions: Eurostat’s Concepts and Definitions Database’, on ‘Relative Poverty’, at http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/ramon/nomenclatures/index.cfm?TargetUrl=DSP_GLOSSARY_NOM_DTL_VIEW&StrNom=CODED2&StrLanguageCode=EN&IntKey=27697332&RdoSearch=&TxtSearch=&CboTheme=&IntCurrentPage=1 (accessed 1 March 2017).