Posted by: mhirdyounger | August 29, 2012

Definitions of Poverty

A colleague of mine recently described someone I know as poor. My immediate reaction was to say, oh, I wouldn`t call them poor. `But, aren’t they under the $2 a day threshold?`my colleague asked. This made me think, I actually didn`t know and had never thought about it before. This got me thinking, who in my life do I classify as poor? In my life in Ghana? In my life in Canada? Who classifies themselves as poor? Why?

If I learned anything from studying development for 5 years, it is that poverty does not have an easy definition. Since coming to live and work in Ghana, my definition or perception of poverty has become even more nuanced, making it clearer and hazier at the same time: with stark examples and many, many shades of grey.

So, I went back to my first year development class, to some pretty well known definitions of poverty. There’s:

  • $1.25 USD a day – World Bank definition 
  • Lack of Freedom, Agency, Capacity or Choice – Amartya Sen`s definition
  • Human Development Index – United Nation’s Composite Ranking that includes Health (life expectancy), Education (number of years of formal education) and Living Standards (Gross National Income Per Capita)
  • Multidimensional Poverty Index – Oxford – Composite index based on multiple factors related to deprivation
  • Diminished opportunities and high degree of vulnerability – EWB – Our vision provides some hints as to how we see poverty as unmet potential due to lack of opportunities and vulnerability.

The plethora of definitions and approaches to poverty reflects the huge diversity of approaches to development and addressing the issue of poverty. Some of the biggest challenges with defining poverty are building a defintion that is comparable and measurable, but also multidimensional and participatory. Many typical definitions of poverty lack an analysis of inequality, vulnerability and the broader local and international context. They don’t necessarily reflect all the shades of poverty, all the contributing factors and all the consequences. I would also argue that they often don’t give us a lot of insights into the realities of living in poverty or the causes of poverty.

Let Me Give You Two Alternatives….

1. ABCD – Asset-Based Community Development

One stark commonality of all these definitions is that they all focus on what people lack. Not on what enriches their lives.

Going back to that first conversation that sparked this blog post, my friend, that may or may not live on less than $2 a day, is a happy, healthy person. I’d never thought of them as lacking or poor. For all the people that live on $1.25 a day, what do they have that we can’t see when we just think in terms of lacking money or other things? People here ask me all the time what I like about Ghana, and invariably I say the sense of community. Is community reflected in these definitions of poverty?

There is a growing approach to development called Asset based community development, which focuses on the ‘haves’ and not the ‘have nots’. It looks at what the community has, what it does well, what are its advantages and starts from that basis. It asks: What are the assets of a community that can be the building blocks of its development?

2. Stories – The Deeper Picture

If you`ve read my reasons for calling my blog `unfinished stories`, you know that I like stories for the way they give you a peek into a life, a culture, a community, an issue. I think the answer to the question of what is poverty lies in people, their lives, their stories, feelings, and interactions. By listening to these stories, we can start to pull out themes, find opportunities, highlight areas of concern – all rooted in the realities of people.

In the Ghanaian parent who can’t afford to send their child to highschool or the American parent who can’t afford to throw a birthday party for their child, there are different stories of poverty. In the story of my friend who went to university and is now having trouble finding a job and in tens of thousands of dollars of debt there are indications of what poverty can mean. In a farmer that supports his 7 children on 2 acres of maize, there’s another story of poverty. In the story of the woman who walks kilometres to fetch water every day, there is another face of poverty.   The stories of poverty can be found in Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women, the 150,000 Canadian homeless, the over 7 million Ghanaians that can’t read and write, the almost 1 billion people worldwide that don’t have enough to eat, the 80% of the world’s population that live in countries where income inequality is rising.

But it’s important to not just look at the statistics of these stories, but actually trying to understand the life that led up to a certain reality, the different directions that were turned, the choices that were made. That is when you will start to get a picture of the complexity of poverty, the multiple causes. Not just a one dollar figure, but actually an entire life’s story.

Through understanding people, you can start to see where that person has trouble, has joy, has unmet needs, is vulnerable…you begin to get a picture of what poverty means to them. In this framework, you will have as many definitions of poverty as there are people in this world. In my mind, that is OK.



  1. Miriam, you said, “Some of the biggest challenges with defining poverty are building a defintion that is comparable and measurable, but also multidimensional and participatory.” The most important word there, to me, is participatory. And your emphasis on the stories people tell helps them participate in the definition of their lives–and thereby participate in any changes that are going to be worked on. Thanks for this post

  2. Great post Mir! Lots of context, lots of nuance.

  3. Beautifully written, Miriam.

  4. This a very interesting post, Miriam. IMHO, I don’t think the definition of poverty really matters all that much, does it? I think the definition of EXTREME poverty does, which in my view is essentially not having basic needs met (food, water, health care, shelter, safety) — pretty simple. I think the big issues to resolve have to do with eliminating extreme poverty in a sustainable manner. If less extreme poverty gets resolved in the process, then great.

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