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Poverty Times #1

What does it mean to be poor?

Poor people do not have enough food, clothing, education or healthcare; they live in areas that are prone to disease, crime and natural disasters. Their basic civil and human rights are often nonexistent By Mathilde Snel

Being poor means being deprived economically, politically and socially. It means:

  • few assets or opportunities;
  • low achievement as a result of inadequate education, healthcare and other basic social services;
  • higher vulnerability to natural disasters, conflict, crime, disease and other dangers;
  • little to no power over decisions that affect people’s lives (1).

How do poor people describe poverty?

In Ethiopia they say it is “[living from] hour to hour”; in Jamaica “living in bondage, waiting to be free” (1); in Cambodia “working for more than 18 hours a day, but still not having enough to feed [yourself]” (2).

Poverty is multidimensional. It varies in scale and context (political, social, cultural, ecological, historical, economic). The rural poor face different challenges from those in urban areas: they are concerned with natural resources (access, quality), whereas the urban poor care about access to energy, housing and sanitation, and about the quality and availability of water.

Poor people have few economic opportunities due to lack of jobs, limited or unaffordable access to credit and markets, inadequate education, and restricted access to land and water. The rural poor often subsist through agriculture, fishing and gathering forest products, while many urban poor generate meagre livings from wage labour, petty hawking, provision of low-cost transport services and other activities. For lack of other options, poor people are sometimes forced to scavenge, beg or engage in illegal activities (drug trafficking, prostitution).

The poor suffer from sickness, illiteracy, limited mobility or disability. They have inadequate nutrition, lower life expectancy, higher risk of disease, and lack access to affordable healthcare and basic education, resulting in low school attendance and achievement. Yet it is the poor who often work the longest hours, in the most dismal conditions.

Poverty leads to insecure livelihoods because poor people are often forced to live in unsafe, unclean housing and in areas prone to crime, conflict, natural disasters and pollution. Many urban poor can only afford badly built housing in areas where pollution and crime rates are high, while the rural poor often live on the less productive, degraded lands.

The poor are disempowered because they usually do not have legal representation or take part in decisionmaking; they suffer from social and cultural disadvantages, even feelings of personal shame. They have to deal with corruption in the social service (for instance they may have to pay bribes to obtain land titles, or accept that medicine is unfairly distributed or
sold illegally).

Poor people have managed to overcome some of these handicaps through their resilience and resourcefulness, often helped by their spirituality and love of family. Until the 18th century poverty was seen as inevitable. But since the 1880s the reduction in extreme poverty – from three-quarters to one-fifth of the world’s population – shows that the number of poor people in the world can be further reduced, if not eliminated.

Mathilde Snel
GRID-Arendal
snel@grida.no

1. World Development Report 2000/2001, The World Bank, Washington DC, 2001.
2. Poverty Trends and Voices of the Poor, The World Bank, Washington DC, 2001