What is poverty?

Most of us are familiar with the word poverty though different people may have different understanding of it. To some it may be not having enough money, to some others it may be hunger, some others may take it as lack of clothes or a house. In this post, I would like to give a simplified conceptualization of poverty.

Poverty In Focus is a publication of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Its December 2006 issue featured an article by Robert Chambers of the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK, titled What is Poverty Who asks? Who answers? Here is how he summarizes different understandings of poverty.

  • Poverty is most commonly understood as lack of income. When it comes to measuring poverty, consumption is generally used as a proxy for income because income is difficult to measure. For instance, how can one measure the income of a farmer? He/she is not salaried and therefore doesn’t have a monthly income. His/ her earnings depend of the agricultural season, rain, weather, labour cost and a range of other factors. He/ she may not earn anything for 8 months but may earn during the remaining 4 months. Or, he/ she may not earn anything for 2 consecutive years but may have good returns for the next 3 years. To have a systematic and regular measurement of poverty, what people consume are measured. The reason why consumption is a good proxy for income is, it is only when people earn something that they can use that money to buy something to consume. India uses this method to measure poverty and draw the Poverty Line to classify people as poor and non-poor. We have something called Poverty Line Basket, which is a set of things people need the most. This Basket includes food, clothing, education, and health among a few more things. People who are not able to consume the things in this Basket are considered as poor.
  • A second understanding of poverty is that of material lack or want. In addition to income, this concept comprises of amenities such as shelter, assets etc. People who have these amenities are non-poor and those who don’t have them are treated as poor.
  • The third concept is a little tricky. It is called capability deprivation, developed by Amartya Sen. It’s all about what people can or cannot do, or the ability of the people to do things they want to do. For example, if one is illiterate, he is capability-deprived because he is unable to read and write, his options to gain knowledge are limited, and his interaction with and exposure to the outside world is restricted. Even if he wants to read a book and has the money to buy one, he won’t be able to do so because he is deprived of reading skills.
  • The fourth is a multi-dimensional view of poverty. Income, amenities, and assets are just some of the many dimensions that contribute to well-being. Someone shall be considered as a non-poor only is he/ she has decent education and income, has access to health facilities, safe water and sanitation, has a good house to live, owns a TV, uses clean fuel to cook etc.

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