Types of Poverty

Have you ever wondered what the difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty is? 

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Table of contents

    Let us consider what the types of poverty are.

    • We will look at the meaning of poverty.
    • We will analyse the causes of poverty and mention examples of poverty.
    • We will describe absolute poverty, relative poverty, and subjective poverty.
    • Finally, we will look at social exclusion.

    Meaning of poverty

    In 1776, Adam Smith determined the basic necessities of life were:

    Whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.

    Since the 18th century, however, there have been changes and clarifications to the definition of poverty. We can take the definition below as sufficient for our purposes.

    A person is considered to be living in poverty when they are unable to afford the basic necessities of life, which are otherwise considered normal in a society.

    Causes of poverty

    Poverty became an important concern in the field of sociology in the 1960s. Since then, theorists have been trying to determine its causes.

    There are three general approaches to the causes of poverty.

    • One blames the individual.

    • Another blames the system for the existence and continuance of poverty.

    • The third shifts the focus from blame to personal experience.

    The belief in a particular explanation is usually the basis of a person’s attitude toward the poor and the social policies aiming to help them, states Theresa C. Davidson (2009).

    Examples of poverty

    Sociologists now make distinctions between four types and examples of poverty. We will discuss all these types of poverty in detail. We will go through the concepts of:

    • Absolute poverty

    • Relative poverty

    • Subjective poverty

    • Social exclusion

    Absolute poverty

    The concept of absolute poverty refers to the situation where a person’s total earnings are not enough to afford basic material human needs.

    This is also called the ‘subsistence level’ definition of poverty, established by Seebohm and Joseph Rowntree in 1901. According to this definition, the basic necessities for human life include food, rent, fuel, and clothing.

    The Rowntrees differentiate between two types of poverty in their research.

    • Primary poverty: This is when people cannot afford basic needs such as food, clothing, and housing.
    • Secondary poverty: This refers to a situation where people can afford the basic needs of life, but they choose to spend their income on non-essentials.

    Sociologists argue that the absolute definition of poverty makes it easy to compare the poverty levels of different countries/societies and draw conclusions on poverty in the global context. Since humans have very similar biological needs regardless of where they live, it is seen as a good standard definition of poverty.

    The World Bank measures world poverty by the '$1 a day' formula. If a person's income is below this line, they are classified as living in poverty.

    However, many theorists have since pointed out that it is impossible to compare poverty in societies with completely different cultures and standards of living. What is considered a necessity in the West very often differs from what is considered a basic human need in other nations or regions, such as India.

    Types of Poverty, Image of Slums Houses in India,  StudySmarterFig. 1 - What is considered a necessity in the UK might not be considered one in India.

    To resolve this issue, sociologists have come up with an alternate definition: relative poverty.

    Relative poverty

    Peter Townsend was the first to bring attention to the fact that poverty is relative to culture, society, and lifestyle (1979). He argued that average standards of life differ between developed and developing countries. In the West, poverty can refer to the lack of access to things other than basic human needs.

    Joanna Mack and Stewart Lansley (1984) agreed with Townsend, adding that people in Western countries were also considered poor when they were unable to participate in social and cultural activities.

    Today, government-determined ‘poverty lines’ vary from country to country. It is usually 50-60% below the national average household income.

    • The UK places the poverty line at 60% of the median net income.
    • The European Community sets the poverty line at 50% of the median net income.

    Some social scientists have asserted that definitions of basic necessities and hence the definition of poverty change as societies develop. Those who adopt the definition of relative poverty have argued that it is useful as it draws attention to the problems and inequalities specific to certain societies, thus helping to combat these issues. It also highlights which social groups suffer most from poverty.

    However, critics of the relative definition of poverty argue that this approach measures social inequality, rather than poverty specifically. By doing so, it distracts from the life-threatening aspects of absolute poverty that still endanger many people in the developing world.

    Subjective poverty

    Research carried out by Nicolas Duvoux and Adrien Papuchon at LSE (2019) shows that class, family composition, and income play the most significant role in a person's evaluation of their own situation in terms of wealth and poverty. They also find that those who perceive themselves as poor have more pessimistic attitudes towards their own futures.

    Subjective poverty refers to one’s personal consideration of their situation in terms of finances and material needs. Poverty is determined by the feelings, expectations, perceptions, and thoughts of the individual, rather than by a standardised definition.

    Social exclusion

    A number of sociologists, led by David Byrne (2008), turned away from trying to define poverty and focused instead on how poor people are excluded from certain rights and privileges due to their financial status. Byrne termed this phenomenon social exclusion.

    Adherents of this theory point out activities and opportunities that are available to most of society, and try to define the factors that prevent the deprived from joining and participating in them. Byrne argued that social exclusion happens to people by generators outside their control - due to systematic, structural elements of society.

    However, long-term social exclusion and discrimination can have psychological effects on the excluded, who then refuse to even try to get involved with social and cultural activities. Some people use this behaviour to argue that the poor choose to be excluded in the first place.

    Guy Palmer et al. (2003) researched specific age groups, the factors that contributed to their social exclusion, the extent to which they were excluded, and the ways they were affected by the experience. In the case of children, they looked at factors like birth weight and exclusion from school. With the elderly, they analysed winter death rates, levels of anxiety, and access to certain services.

    Types of Poverty - Key takeaways

    • A person is considered to be living in poverty when they are unable to buy the basic necessities of life, which are otherwise considered normal in a society.
    • Absolute poverty refers to the situation where a person’s total earnings are not enough to afford basic material human needs.
    • Some sociologists believe in relative poverty - they argue that poverty is relative to culture, society, and lifestyle.
    • Subjective poverty refers to a person’s personal consideration of their situation in terms of finances and material needs.
    • The social exclusion definition of poverty focuses on how poor people are excluded from certain rights and privileges due to their financial status.

    References

    1. Smith, Adam (1776). The Wealth of Nations. (1st ed.)
    Types of Poverty Types of Poverty
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Types of Poverty

    What are the 6 types of poverty?

    Sociologists distinguish 4 types of poverty. These are:

    • Absolute poverty
    • Relative poverty
    • Subjective poverty
    • Social Exclusion

    How many types of poverty are there?

    Sociologists differentiate between four main types of poverty: absolute poverty, relative poverty, subjective poverty, social exclusion.

    What are the 4 aspects of poverty?

    • Types of poverty
    • Causes of poverty
    • Consequences of poverty
    • Continuance of poverty in contemporary society

    What is poverty?

    A person is considered to live in poverty when they cannot afford the basic necessities of life which are otherwise considered normal in a society. 

    What type of poverty is homelessness?

    As having shelter is considered a basic human need in most societies, homelessness is considered a part of absolute poverty by sociologists.

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