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As an idea, poverty has had an eventful history. From roughly the eighteenth century onward, a change in moral sensibility caused a shift in the understanding of poverty as being an ideal state (for both individuals and communities) to being an execrable condition that societies should seek to ameliorate. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with the growth of social welfare programs, intense academic debate has focused on the meaning and definition of the term. These debates, though they now dominate the discussion of poverty, nevertheless echo earlier discussion surrounding poor laws and social administration. This article will chart the development in sensibilities and attendant evaluations and then consider how the "problem of poverty" was framed and how it has manifested itself in contemporary debates.

Poverty as an Ideal

There is a long-standing discourse within which poverty has a positive moral connotation. Facets of this discourse are delineated below.


With respect to the idea of poverty as a voluntary condition, two emphases can be identified. The first of these is exemplified by Stoicism, in thinkers such as Seneca (4 b.c.e.?65 c.e.) and Epictetus (c. 55 c.e.135 c.e.), but is equally manifest in the ascetic tradition in Christianity and other religions. Here, like its contextual close-relations, simplicity, austerity, and severity, poverty refers to the estimable practice of temperance and continence. To live the simple life of poverty in this sense is to be in control of oneself and thus of one's actions; it is to know the true and proper value of things and to be in a position of forswearing temptations, that is, things of illusory value. The second emphasis is more civic and is embodied, though commonly retrospectively as some lost ideal, in Sparta or ancient Rome or the earliest Christian communities. One consequence, common to both emphases, of situating poverty in this lexicon is that it is a product of choice or will or reason. Thus understood it is possible to draw a conceptual distinction between poverty as a self-imposed voluntary state and being impoverished (or necessitous; that is, having no choice).

Accompanying this idealized or moralized use of poverty is a hierarchical division between reason and desire. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) established the core principle when in The Nicomachean Ethics he distinguished those (the enkratic ) who exhibit discipline and act from choice not from "desire" from those (the akratic ) who lack discipline and who, as a result, pursue bodily pleasures excessively. The notion of "excess" is crucial. There is a natural norm that ought not to be transgressed. Hence, in line with this principle, the virtue of poverty is expressed by the individual who, in the light of a rational apprehension of the natural order, self-disciplines desires so that indulgence is forsworn. So the Stoic sage will drink but not get drunk and one informed with patristic teaching will forgo sex with (or as) a pregnant woman. Of course, the body has needs that must be satisfied but there is also a natural or rational limit to this satisfactionhence only drink when thirsty and only have sex for the sake of conception. Similarly, in the civic emphasis, the virtuous citizens of Rome's early years, for example, were portrayed as exhibiting personal poverty while dedicating their resources to public monuments.

This idea of self-control, of poverty as a voluntary state, played an important role in Christian teaching and practice. In part this was negative. As St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 12241274) expressed it in Summa contra gentiles, poverty is commendable because it frees a man from "worldly solicitude." The more positive aspect, as also articulated by Aquinas, was that those who embraced voluntary poverty did so to follow Christ and "be useful to their community." While community here refers to society at large, perhaps, the most distinctive Christian contribution has been the establishment of institutions that explicitly identify poverty as their rationale.


Institutions embracing poverty, generically known as monasteries, took their inspiration from a view of the early life of the Christians, who, expecting an imminent Second Coming, withdrew from worldly contact and tried to live a simple Christ-like life. But the eventual establishment of Christianity as the legal religion of Rome by the Emperor Constantine in the Edict of Milan (313) led to a reaction and an attempt to re-create the ideal of poverty. This appeared first in Eastern (or Orthodox) Christianity as initially individuals, then communities, fled to the deserts of Egypt. The principles of life in such communities became codified and the most influential "code" was issued by St. Basil (c. 329379 c.e.), the archbishop of Caesaria. His Rules established the goal of monastic lifejointly to practice the Christian virtues of chastity, poverty, and sharing the common goods of the monastery. These ideas spread into western (or Latin) Christianity through the medium of (among others) St. Ambrose (339397), who had himself spent time in the Palestinian desert. The western equivalent to Basil was St. Benedict (480547) who also laid down his Rule. This went into great detail about monastery life, not only specifying meal times but also how much can be consumed and the proper conduct while doing so. While not strenuously ascetic the monks are instructed to chastise the body, to love fasting and not become addicted to pleasures. They should also relieve the poor. This command seemingly acknowledges that for some, poverty was not a voluntary state.

Voluntary and involuntary poverty.

The canon lawyer Huguccio of Pisa (d.1210) elaborated upon the distinction between voluntary and involuntary poverty. In his commentary (1188) on Gratian's Decretum (c. 1140), the primary canon law text, Huguccio divided the poor into three categories. There were those who while born poor willingly endured this state as an expression of their love of God, and there were those who deliberately surrendered their possessions that they might live a virtuous Christian life. Both of these exemplified voluntary poverty. The third category, however, comprised those who were destitute and liable to be inhibited from achieving the higher moral values. This was involuntary poverty. However, the thrust here is on the involuntary poor being inhibited; as the first category demonstrates, the dominant sensibility was that poverty was not of itself an evil to be extirpated. Indeed, Stoic echoes can still be heard in Huguccio's explicit identification of this category with those who are poor because they are filled with the "voracity of cupidity" (quoted in Tierney, p. 11).

Change and renewal.

It is a notable characteristic of the ideal state of poverty that it represented a pristine condition from which any change was a deterioration. This resulted in a recurrent motif of regeneration or a return to "basics." The Roman moralists treated the history of Rome in this manner. Livy (59 b.c.e.17 c.e.) prefaced his History with the judgment that no republic, in its origin, was greater or more virtuous, because then poverty and thrift were honored, but, now, it has been brought to ruin by the introduction of luxury and avarice. Since, for Livy, history is valuable because of the lessons it imparts then this judgment in this context makes his purpose clear. He was here following the lead of (among others) Sallust (8635 or 34 b.c.e.), who, in his The Conspiracy of Catiline (43 b.c.e.), used polemically and not disinterestedly the corruption associated with that conspiracy (64 b.c.e.) to contrast the rampant love of luxury and riches with the original dedication of the Romans to the public good, as seen in their courage, their lavish treatment for the gods, and their domestic frugality. This motif was to recur. Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527), in what is ostensibly a commentary on Livy, declares that the way to renew a corrupt state of affairs is "to bring them back to their original principles." And, as his version of the story of Cincinnatus makes plain, these principles were designed to keep the Roman citizens poor.

According to Machiavelli, religious, as well as political institutions, are liable to fall into corruption. It was certainly a feature of monasticism that it was continually being renewed. If one monastic order appeared to become lax, another more rigorous one was established. Given that a frequently identified source of this laxity was wealth, then these new (or renewed) orders laid emphasis on being truer to the founding ideals of poverty. Hence the Cistercian order, founded in 1098, though decisively developed by St. Bernard (10901153) in his Apologia (1127), was based on the original (ascetic) Rule of St. Benedict. But even the Cistercians accumulated wealth.

In the thirteenth century orders of mendicant friars were established, who being without ties to a particular institution were thought more likely to escape the accumulation and trappings of wealth. The Franciscan order, founded by St. Francis of Assisi (1181 or 11821226), was based on a re-created ideal of apostolic poverty (so begging was preferred to having money) and, the other great order, the Dominicans followed suit, if less wholeheartedly (always allowing for example the personal ownership of books). The adoption of these principles did not preclude, in due course, extensive intellectual debate between the two orders on the meaning of "property," in which Aquinas (a Dominican) participated vigorously. At the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth century, the so-called spiritual wing of the Franciscan order, under the influence of the writings of John Peter Olivi, insisted on an extreme interpretation of voluntary poverty. Their open conflict with the more moderate "conventuals" led to the suppression of the spiritual party by Pope John Paul XXII. These ideals and practices are not confined to Christianity. Most of the world's religious and ethical systems adopt a similar range of attitudes. For example, one of the five great vows of Jainism is aparigraha, meaning nonpossession or nonattachment to material things (including people). Their monks (and nuns) follow this vow strictly and totallythey are permanently naked and eat only once a daybut even lay members try to follow the vow as far as they can, hence for example, they undergo prolonged fasts. Buddhism is less austere; only in the special cases of holy persons should poverty be deliberately cultivated. In Islam the emphasis is, perhaps, less on individual self-control than on responsibility toward the poor. It is a recurrent injunction in the Koran that the poor rate should be paid, and it is a mark of the unrighteous that they do not feed the poor. Often too, here, there is the periodic call to abandon current corruptions and return to the purity of the original state and in Islam's case this gathered political momentum in the later decades of the twentieth century.

Changing Conceptions of Poverty

The most far-reaching call for spiritual renewal was the Reformation, which characterized European Christendom in the sixteenth century. Martin Luther (14831546), himself a monk, inveighed against the corruption of Christian practice and advocated a return to a more austere theology. But, as argued in Max Weber's (18641920) classic work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), perhaps more strikingly, the Reformation fostered a view of salvation that associated it with industry or work in conjunction with a worldly asceticism. A corollary of this was to associate indolence with lack of virtue. While this applied to the "idle rich" it also encompassed "beggars and vagabonds," whose poverty became presumptive evidence of their wickedness. Voluntary poverty now takes on a negative character, a "popish conceit," as the English Puritan theologian William Perkins (15581602) called it. Nonetheless, Perkins also held that poverty should be seen as providential and even those whose "calling" requires the performance of "poore and base duties" will not be base in the sight of God, if they undertake those duties in obedient faith to the glory of God.

This idealization of poverty was undermined by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (17111776), who explicitly criticized those he called "severe moralists" (he named Sallust as an example). These individuals are those who uphold the virtue of poverty, which they typically contrast with the vice of luxury. Hume subverted this contrast. By understanding poverty not as virtuous austerity but as necessitousness then (and this is his main aim here) luxury can lose its negative (moralized) meaning. The effect of this is to associate "ages of refinement," or luxury, with happiness and positively with virtue. Luxury nourishes commerce and this both reduces destitution and augments the resources available for amelioration.

He, therefore, who keeps himself within the bounds of nature will not feel poverty; but he who exceeds the bounds of nature will be pursued by poverty even though he has unbounded wealth.

source: Seneca, To Helvia on Consolation.

This argument was influentially developed by the Scottish economist Adam Smith (17231790). By being "blessed" by opulence, the members of a commercial society are able to enjoy a far better standard of living than those in earlier ages. In material terms their basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing are better and more adequately met. Beyond this, human relationships are more humane. This enhanced "quality of life" extends beyond "goods" or things to relationships. In the introduction to his text An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith says that the inhabitants of "savage nations of hunters and fishers" are "miserably poor," so that, as a consequence, "they are frequently reduced or, at least, think themselves reduced, to the necessity sometimes of directly destroying and sometimes abandoning their infants, their old people and those afflicted with lingering diseases, to perish with hunger or to be devoured by wild beasts." This is a powerful and important argument. Contrary to Stoic "frugality" or Christian asceticism, or Algernon Sidney's (16221683) characteristic neo-Stoic, or civic republican, view that poverty is "the mother and nurse of virtue," Smith is firmly repudiating any notion that poverty is ennobling or redemptive; a life of necessity now signifies not the austere life of poverty but an impoverished one, a life of misery. And since the abundance that commerce brings is precisely such an improvement, then Smith's repudiation of the nobility of poverty is a key factor in his vindication of "modern" commercial society.

Smith is, perhaps, now best known for developing an economic theory that relied, in circumstances of "freedom and security," on the "natural effort of every individual to better his own condition" in order to carry society to "wealth and prosperity." This "effort," moreover, was capable of "surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often incumbers its operations." An example of such a folly is the English Poor Law, which, on Smith's reading, by prohibiting the mobility of labor, inhibited the spread of commerce and thence of the affluence that was the most effective remedy for poverty. Smith similarly berates the mercantilist advocacy of "low wages." In Fable of the Bees, the Dutch-born english essayist Bernard Mandeville (16701733)admittedly an extreme case, a position he artfully cultivatedwrote that the poor are to be "well-managed," so that while they should not starve yet they "should receive nothing worth saving." This argument for what E. Furniss called the "utility of poverty" was rejected by Smith, who declared unambiguously in The Wealth of Nations that "no society can be flourishing and happy of which the greater part are poor and miserable," (just as Hume had earlier stated, in "Of National Characters, " that "poverty and hard labour debase the minds of the common people."

The change in sensibilities that the work of Hume and Smith represents comes to dominate. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the apparent confidence that Smith exhibited in the workings of commerce to improve the lot of the poor seemed increasingly complacent. The condition of the "working class" (as they became known) prompted a range of responses. What they shared was a moral revulsion at the dreadful circumstances in which the poor lived. Important work was done to document just how awful these conditions in fact were. Friedrich Engels' (18201895) Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) was a pioneer study and the seventeen-volume Life and Labour of the People in London (18911903) of Charles Booth (18401916) and Seebohm Rowntree's (18711954) study of York were prototype social surveys documenting the lives of the poor. Poverty gradually became in this way a topic of social sciencesomething to be measured and statistically analyzed. But it never lost sight of its origins in moral disquiet. Rowntree, for all his deliberate attempt to "state facts," declared the finding that a quarter of his survey lived below the poverty line, in a time of unexampled prosperity, may cause "great heart-searching" (p. 304). Hence, while emphases differed, this shared moral concern prompted a search for remedies. Karl Marx (18181883) is the best-known analysis of capitalism. He argued that the increasing (relative) misery of the proletariat was caused by capitalism. Marx is equally recognized (if only because of the subsequent revolutions that evoked his name) for his advocacy of communism as a solution. Poverty was thus for him symptomatic; for others it was more central. Some, like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (18091865), while criticizing the destructive competitiveness of capitalism, even reinvoked the moral ideal of poverty. Marx was, however, scathing of the contemporary attempts to deal with the "problem of the poor," which he alleged located the source of the problem in the poor themselves.

Such poverty is therefore commendable when a man being freed thereby from worldly solicitude, is enabled more freely to occupy himself with divine and spiritual things yet so as to retain the possibility of lawfully supporting himself, for which purpose not many things are needful. And according as the manner of living in a state of poverty demands less solicitude, so much the more is poverty to be commended: but not according as the poverty is greater.

For those who embrace voluntary poverty ought to hold temporal things in contempt [and who] in order to follow Christ renounce all things precisely that they may be useful to the community since by their wisdom, learning and example they enlighten the people and sustain them by their prayers and intercession.

source: St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles.

The Problem of the Poor

The "problem of the poor" was always one of a threat to social order and thus always had a political dimension. For example, in Aristotle's classification of constitutions in The Politics, democracy was identified as a perverse form, since it was rule by the "many" for the good of the many (not "all"). The many are immediately said to be the poor. This association between the poor and inferior political order endured. The "mob" was perceived as an ever present threat and European history has been marked by the recurrent eruptions of urban riots and peasant uprisings.

One of the striking things about the ideal of poverty was that very often in practice it served to underwrite a hierarchical status quo. For example, innumerable sumptuary laws were passed in the Roman republic and empire, and all European "states" followed suit throughout the early modern period. This legislation sought to preserve the extant social pecking-order, to attempt to confine the incidence of a good and prevent its diffusion. Luxury, "new" wealth, always threatened to overturn this hierarchy; Hume's defense of luxury, as part of his reconfiguration of poverty from ideal to a state of necessitousness, was a critique of this rationale. From the "ideal" perspective, those in the lower ranks of these societies may well want some of those privileged goods but that "wanting" was a mark of their unworthiness; their lack of the requisite self-control, and if self-control is lost then the stability of the social order is under threat. Hume's view contains a rebuttal of that disparagement. In so doing he was representing the "modern" view of human nature. Humans are motivated by their desires and the work of reason is not to control these but to steer them effectively. It is this same understanding of the effective springs of human motivation that underpins the shift in moral sensibilities that displaced the ideal view of poverty by one which conceived of it as state of material distress.

Poor laws.

Sumptuary laws were only indirectly concerned with the question of the poor and poverty. More overt measures were undertaken. A petition to the English Parliament of 1376 linked poverty with idleness and criminality. This was before the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381, which had been preceded by an uprising in France in 1358, and there were similar revolts in Florence in 1378 and the Low Countries in 1382. In early modern Europe, attempts were made to deal with poverty administratively. The Elizabethan Poor Law (1601), which Perkins, in Treatise of the Vocations, called an "excellent statute" and "in substance the very law of God," charged each parish with the responsibility to support their own poor. Adam Smith put its origin down to Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, which had previously been the major source of charitable relief for the impoverished and destitute. This law was revisited over the years. The Act of Settlement of 1662 enabled parishes to eject immigrant paupersostensibly to counteract inequality of provision. The whole system was overhauled in 1834 after a royal commission into the Poor Laws. The new poor law nonetheless retained the basic distinction, made by Perkins and other advocates of the original poor law, between the deserving poor who worked (independent laborers) and the undeserving who were dependent on "public largesse" (paupers, sturdy beggars). The latter were less "eligible" for relief than the former; that is, the relief had to be less attractive than that available to even the poorest laborer (otherwise there would be no incentive to work). The tenability of the distinction was assailed from its origins, and a further commission in 1909 was divided in its recommendations. The majority view still distinguished between unwilled and willful incapacity and saw an important role for charity. The minority view, led by Beatrice Webb (18581943), an early leader of the Fabian Society, which published a cheap and best-selling version of her "view," wanted a radical break with the past both administratively and with respect to the principle that the causes of poverty lay in individuals (in some moral defect) rather than having a social origin. With the emergence of explicitly welfare states in the second half of the twentieth century the basic thrust of the minority view was implemented.

I am forced to admit that [my description] instead of being exaggerated is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin and uninhabitableness and such a district exists in the heart of second city of England [Manchester], the first manufacturing city of the world. Everything which here arouses horror and indignation is of recent origin, belongs to the industrial epoch [which] alone enables the owners of these cattlesheds to rent them for high prices, to plunder the poverty of the workers, to undermine the health of thousands in order that they alone may grow rich.

source: Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845.


Because Britain was the most advanced industrial society, it is there that many of the issues surrounding the problem of poverty were articulated and why so many British sources and experience figure so prominently in its history. Britain, however, had no monopoly. The French, for example, had a system of hôpiteux and the Dutch spinhausen, which functioned like English workhouses, although the parish-based localism of the English system was distinctive. While most of the associated literature dealt with practical issues, such as curbing the spread of begging, there were more theoretical treatments. Prominent among these is the systematic development by a group of theorists, known as the cameralists, of the notion of Polizei (police). The task of the Polizei was to care for the "order, security and welfare of subjects" (the German philosopher and administrator Johann Justi [17201771], quoted in Knemeyer). The Prussian code of 1794 institutionalized the idea, and the best-known theoretical appropriation of the term was by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), who used the idea of Polizei to refer, in general, to the administration of the contingencies of "civil society" (bürgerliche Gesellschaft ) and included, more particularly, therein an examination of the question of "modern poverty." What is "modern" is not being destitute but in having a "disposition" toward one's plight, attributing it (say, a failed harvest) not to fate or God's punishment but to a social cause. This attitude to poverty breeds what Hegel calls a "rabble" (die Pöbel ) and he is, uncharacteristically, indeterminate when it comes to finding a solution. Marx, Hegel's most famous critic, saw the solution (implicitly) in a cooperative society based on the common ownership of the means of production, where, it follows, there would be no exploitative relations, and where the organizing principle would be, in a famousif unoriginalphrase, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

Relativism and Equality

The idea of needs, while always perhaps implicit in the notion of poverty, has come to the fore in contemporary debates. The crux of these debates is whether poverty is necessarily relative. At the root of Hume's critique of the "severe" morality of poverty was his replacement of the categorical distinction between necessity and luxury to one where these are points on a scale. This then enabled him consistently to argue (as many others did likewise) that onetime luxuries could become necessities. Adam Smith defined "necessaries" as "not only commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life but whatever the customs of the country renders it indecent for creditable, even of the lowest order, to be without." Hence in Smith's time, a day laborer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt (its nonpossession, indeed, would denote a "disgraceful degree of poverty") when the Greeks and Romans of an earlier age lived very comfortably though they had no linen.

Relative or absolute?

In modern debates, this fluidity in the meaning of necessity has been taken to be a vindication of the "relativity" of poverty. A major advocate of this position is the sociologist Peter Townsend, who declares that poverty can be defined "only in terms of the concept of relative deprivation" (p. 31). More precisely the standard of deprivation is socially relative and Townsend is critical of an "absolute concept" that would be based on some universal, extra-social, notion of "needs." Townsend holds that needs must be defined as more than some biological minimum and, rather, as "the conditions of life which ordinarily define membership of society." These conditions comprise "diets, amenities, standards and activities which are common or customary" (p. 915). The reference to "custom" is a deliberate echo of Smith's argument. The poor are now identified as those who lack the resources to participate in those customary conditions definitive of social membership and who are as a consequence "excluded from ordinary living patterns" (p. 31).

To its critics, Townsend's relativity approach leads to the absurd conclusion that someone could be called poor because they could buy only one Cadillac a day while others in the same community could buy two, or that more people can be "poor" in California than in, for example, Chad. It follows, further, that poverty cannot be eliminated, no antipoverty program can ever be entirely successful. To these critics there has to be an absolute core, since only from such a secure basis is it possible meaningfully to identify poverty and only then does it become possible to conceive of poverty's elimination. Hence the number of people with inadequate sustenance, shelter, and life expectancy is greater in Chad than in California, and, thus, there are more in poverty in the former than in the latter location.

Whether poverty is regarded as a form of social exclusion or as the deprivation of basic needs, the shared assumption is that it is a morally pernicious state of affairs. It is bad in itself because suffering is bad in itself and not, as the "virtuous" view would claim, a condition of "indifference" or even sanctity. This is the modern sensibility and it is now dominantin no way can poverty be an ideal. The corollary of this is that the existence of poverty is indefensible and there is a moral imperative to seek remediable action, which to be effective is now typically thought to require the activity or intervention of the state. Here the poverty debate enters into the mainstream of contemporary moral, social, and political theory.

Poverty in itself does not reduce people to a rabble; a rabble is created only by the disposition associated with poverty, by inward rebellion against the rich, against society, the government etc. The rabble do not have sufficient honour to gain their own livelihood through their own work yet claim they have a right to receive their livelihood. No one can assert a right against nature but within the conditions of society hardship at once assumes the form of a wrong inflicted on this or that class. The important question of how poverty can be reconciled is one which agitates and torments modern societies especially.

source: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 1821.

Contemporary debate.

On one side there are liberals (such as the Austrian economist F. A. Hayek [18991992]) who argue that the best remedy to poverty is to permit inequality in the form of wide income differentials so that the incentive to gain these high rewards produces the social wealth (and higher tax revenues) that enables the lot of the impoverished to be improved. Indeed, Hayek claims that in this way "poverty in the absolute sense has been abolished" (vol. 2, p. 139). This belongs in the Smithian traditionSmith himself had said that universal poverty was conjoined with absolute equality in the earliest (hunter-gatherer) societies. The thrust of the argument here is that what matters morally is individuals having enough to sustain themselves, not that others might have more than enough. On the other side are welfare socialists, like Townsend, who (as previously noted) picks up a different aspect of Smith. Socialists are far less complacent about inequality. Townsend's own prescription is the abolition of "excessive" income and wealth and the establishment of a more egalitarian society. These two positions do not exhaust the field. There are welfare liberals (including John Rawls [19212002] in his A Theory of Justice [1971]) who think that inequalities in income and wealth are justified so long as the lot of the least-well-off is maximized. There are also more radical approaches that seek appropriately the root of the problem and locate this in a socially induced emphasis on production and consumption. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, for example and unwittingly echoing Thomas Paine in Agrarian Justice (1797) about the American Indians, argues that poverty is a problem created by the market-industrial system and when the lives of those assumed to be in dire poverty, such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari, are examined they can be discerned to live in "a kind of material plenty"they are content with few possessions. This approach has affinities to environmental or "green" thought, which enjoins what one of its influential sources, E. F. Schumacher, in Small Is Beautiful (1973), has called "Buddhist economics." Without ever expressing the point explicitly it is, from the perspective of the history of ideas, possible to see here a reprise of the ideal of poverty, understood as self-control. The Bushmen have (so to speak) heeded the wisdom of the Stoic sage and have no wants beyond what they need; they do not experience poverty.


Poverty is an idea with a history that is particularly instructive. In the twenty-first century, poverty as a state of material and social deprivation is regarded as the standard meaning. But when examined historically, it can be seen that this meaning has far from dominated. In the history of Western experience (with echoes elsewhere) poverty had for a long period been considered a preferred condition, one where humans demonstrated their control both of their own nature and of the circumstances in which they found themselves.

See also Capitalism ; Christianity ; Liberalism ; Monasticism ; Property ; Stoicism ; Wealth .



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Christopher J. Berry

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The measurement of poverty


Poverty has always had several not entirely separable meanings and is always defined according to the conventions of the society in which it occurs. For administrative reasons definition may also take the form of fixing an absolute criterion of poverty (e.g., a “poverty line”). We may distinguish three meanings: (1) social poverty, (2) pauperism, and (3) moral poverty.

Social poverty implies not merely economic inequality (of property, income, living standards, etc.) but also social inequality, that is, a relation of inferiority, dependence, or exploitation. In other words, it implies the existence of a social stratum definable by, among other things, lack of wealth. In this sense poverty is relative, implying no particular level of income or amount of property, although in preindustrial and underdeveloped economies the level normally qualifying the individual (but not always the class) as “poor” is one not far removed from subsistence.

Pauperism describes a category of people unable to maintain themselves at all, or to maintain themselves at the level conventionally regarded as minimal, without outside assistance. At any given time this implies the fixing of a minimum standard below which men are not supposed to fall and often also implies a model of social relations that indicates which paupers have a claim upon public assistance and who is to assist them. Pauperism arose historically beyond the border of the functioning primary social group (e.g., the kinship group) within which the economically dependent can expect assistance or maintenance without special institutional provisions. It therefore reflects the fluctuating fortunes of such primary groups, and in recent periods their secular diminution and functional decline. A man’s wife and children are not ipso facto paupers, but widows and orphans are perhaps the earliest clearly defined category of persons with a call upon public assistance. Some societies make a further distinction between types of paupers who “deserve” assistance and the equally indigent who do not.

Moral poverty defines the place of poverty in the value system of a society or of its subgroups and institutions; that is, it defines whether poverty is morally acceptable and what status it confers or prevents the poor man from enjoying. It is therefore difficult to separate from (1) and (2), except where it finds expression in specific bodies of men, in the past normally religious bodies, who voluntarily undergo poverty. In stratified societies several values of poverty will normally coexist; for example, it will be a “shame” or a punishment for sin for some, a cause of pride for others, or both at the same time.

The origins of poverty. The social category of the poor arises in stratified societies in which the upper and lower strata have direct experience of each other. It may also arise in situations where economically unequal groups coexist spatially, e.g., townsmen and peasants or nomads and agriculturalists. However, with spatial coexistence it is likely that the poorer will distinguish themselves from the richer and vice versa by qualitative rather than quantitative criteria—for example, as (poor) peasants and (rich) townsmen, rather than simply as “the poor” and “the rich.” Even elsewhere poverty is rarely the only criterion of stratification as seen from below. It is combined with numbers (Aristotelian democracy); very commonly with labor (“the laboring poor”); or with a complex concept of “the people” or “the community,” as perhaps in the phrase “the poor commons” familiar in English usage from the later Middle Ages.

Seen from above, however, poverty may adequately define the lower strata, as in medieval legal terminology, where they are simply arme liute (poor people). The poor are normally contrasted with the rich; and a causal relationship is often assumed, as in the German proverbs “Poverty is the rich man’s cow” and “Poverty is the hand and foot of wealth.” However, the contrast is also and at all times with the power and privilege that go with wealth; and consequently poverty always implies weakness and a low position in the social hierarchy, or personal inferiority. That the upper social classes are rich, the lower poor, is generally taken for granted. In the industrial period these broad distinctions are increasingly supplemented or replaced by the familiar distinction between economically defined classes. The “laboring poor” became the “laboring classes” and eventually the “working class.”

Pauperism. Although poverty was assumed to be normal and, in the ordinary course of events, irremediable for most people, the basic view of pauperism in preindustrial societies was that it was abnormal and called for remedial action. The question was by whom. Intermittent general pauperization, such as that due to famines and other catastrophes, required general public measures of remedy and prevention. The traditional “policy of provision” that imposed on the public authorities the duty of ensuring regular food supplies at reasonable prices, rather than the “poor law,” is the ancestor of modern welfare policies. Under normal circumstances it was assumed that the primary communities of men (in practice, determined by kin or locality) should and would be able to make adequate provision for members unable to maintain themselves. This assumption survived the emergence of recognized supralocal pauperism in the late Middle Ages and led to an almost universal tendency to make each local community formally responsible for poor relief within its boundaries. It dominated public policy until the twentieth century. Relief, except in the case of general catastrophes, was the formal and institutionalized supplementation of the voluntary aid for the helpless within primary communities, whether “natural,” like the kinship group that remained the tacit model, or “artificial,” like the various kinds of “brotherhoods” or corporations.

These assumptions, destined to break down with economic and social evolution, were first felt to be inadequate when the pauper was frequently an able-bodied adult not belonging to the community in which he claimed relief, or to any community (as in cities with a large fringe of the socially marginal), but especially when he appeared as the migrant or vagrant “sturdy beggar.” Modern European pauper policy began in the mid-fourteenth century with attempts to stem such interstitial pauperism (prohibitions of beggary). The regulation of beggars was then gradually transformed into the regulation of other kinds of paupers. From the sixteenth century on, central authority tended to control, supplement, or establish a basically local system of financing and administering poor relief. Central control appeared in the most elaborate form in England, although local autonomy tended to revive there subsequently. In regions that were Protestant or economically advanced or both, the direct intervention of central and local authorities tended to prevail. In Roman Catholic or less developed regions, there was a somewhat greater systematization of private organized charity. Given the circumstances of its emergence, pauper policy set out to provide not only relief but also, and perhaps chiefly, social reorganization, often conceived as the restoration of a lost norm of traditional social and economic stability. However, increasingly it might also aim at assisting the development of a capitalist economy. The two aims were incompatible, although in the short term both tended to rely partly on penal sanctions against the ablebodied unemployed and to make compulsory labor a condition of relief.

Before the industrial revolution this incompatibility was more visible in the theory of moral poverty than in the practice of relief. The ideologies of preindustrial societies left a large place for poverty as an ideal, or a comfort for the poor, expressing such values in the comportment of saints, holy men, mendicant orders, etc. The value systems of societies devoted to economic development left room at best for the ideal of nonacquisitiveness (e.g., modestly recompensed public service), but not for one of poverty as such. Conversely, while traditional societies often recognized a category of culpable pauperism, they resisted the view that all poverty reflected personal inadequacy (guilt, sin), a view that became characteristic of early capitalist society, especially in its Protestant versions.

Poverty in industrial society. The industrial revolution opened a new era. The social category of the poor divided into the now familiar socio-economic classes, the urban poor tending to be assimilated conceptually into the “working class” or “proletariat,” although the rural poor tended (with some exceptions) to be less readily redefined. On the other hand, with the creation of a single world economy in the nineteenth century, entire national or racial groups increasingly came to be considered, or to consider themselves, as “poor” (and also as exploited, oppressed, or underprivileged) relative to the minority of “rich” peoples. With the mass emergence of new nations from former dependence in the mid-twentieth century, these international contrasts increasingly dominated the discussion of poverty, all the more so because they served as a measure of economic development. Moreover, the poor country was almost invariably also the one in which the proportion of the poor in the population was higher and the degree of poverty was more acute than in the rich country.

The era of industrialization also saw the rise of specific forms of the supralocal social organization of the poor, for both narrow and wide purposes. Among workers employed for wages (“proletarians”) the labor union established itself universally as the form of organization for the protection and advancement of the standard of life, insofar as this depended on employment. No equally well-defined or uniform type of organization developed for equivalent purposes among the nonwage-earning poor. Until the increasingly systematic provision of welfare by the state, and of goods and services by economies oriented to the mass market, formal and informal community organizations of the poor developed with a variety of functions, initially often on the basis of preindustrial institutions (kinship, religion, common geographic origin, etc.). Others were later improvised to meet new needs (mutual economic aid, education, public entertainment, and sport), sometimes under the wing of global mass movements of the poor, such as socialist parties. These (but not the labor unions) may be regarded in the main as phenomena of the transition to a fully developed industrial society. However, they contributed to the formation of that complex of attitudes and behavior (“working-class culture/’ “culture of the poor,” and other subcultural phenomena) which reflected and still reflect the economic and social separation of the poor from the rest of society.

Together with the labor union, the most characteristic new development in the era of industrialization was the emergence of political mass movements and parties committed to socialism, a theory first elaborated to fit the situation of the industrial proletariat. Socialism also acquired a wider appeal, especially in “poor” countries anxious to overcome economic backwardness. Socialist movements in the broadest sense of the word became the major global form of social organization of the poor, with the object of abolishing poverty. They were often international in scope.

Although the early phases of industrialism produced an unusually large and unmanageable problem of pauperism, the actual needs of the poor played only a subordinate part in the formation of public policy until the decline of economic liberalism and the emergence of powerful organizations of the poor or those prepared to utilize the political power of their numbers in elections and otherwise. Before this, no criterion of poverty was usually recognized other than destitution positively asking for relief. Although quantitative inquiries into the “state of the poor” have been made in Britain since the late eighteenth century, and on a firmer statistical base in industrializing countries since the 1830s, no definition of a “poverty line” or survey of the proportion of citizens normally living below it that would be regarded as acceptable today occurred before the late nineteenth century, nor did any comprehensive public collection of unemployment statistics.

Public assistance in the 19th and 20th centuries. Liberal capitalism left the solution of pauperism to the spontaneous absorption of the able-bodied into employment by economic expansion, and the rest to self-help, mutual aid, charity, and ad hoc emergency measures (preferably voluntary). It reserved public assistance for the irreducible residuum, or for catastrophic famine, increasingly rare in industrial, but not in underdeveloped, regions. The object of poor laws was primarily to assist the uninhibited working of the free economy, as by facilitating labor mobility, discouraging excessive population growth, etc., and to separate the residuum of involuntary and irremediable pauperism from the rest. The English Poor Law of 1834 was the prime example of such a policy, although mere abstention from ambitious public action was more common. In fact, and in spite of this bias toward abstention, economic conditions made it necessary even in the nineteenth century to establish or extend public systems of relief in the growing areas of relative social disorganization, such as the cities and industrial regions.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, a more positive public policy developed, reflecting the abandonment of confidence in an essentially self-regulating capitalist economy, the growing political influence of the poor, and the appearance of planned socialist economies. Pauperism was reabsorbed into the wider problem of providing all citizens with a minimum standard of life at all times. Since neither traditional social organization nor economic growth as such could ensure this, it was increasingly, although sometimes reluctantly, seen as the responsibility, in the main, of national central government. Where special poor laws existed, they disappeared, as in Britain in 1929. In socialist countries, and with the great depression in advanced industrial countries, even such wider welfare policies tended to become part of still more comprehensive policies of economic management, e.g., policies of full employment. Backward regions entering upon development in recent decades have therefore, even when adopting the patterns of capitalist enterprise, rarely shown the nineteenth-century confidence in pure market forces. In such countries the adoption of ambitious policies of public welfare, simultaneously with economic development, has normally been a function of the political importance of the poor as voters or as revolutionaries, or of the attempt to forestall their revolutions. Paradoxically, therefore, the most socially conservative regimes have continued to show the greatest attachment to the policies toward pauperism of economic liberalism.

Present attitudes toward poverty. The vast increase in wealth offered or achieved by modern technology, the growing role of social planning and management, and the political changes connected with both have led to a sharp devaluation of moral poverty. Poverty is no longer widely accepted as inevitable or desirable, and its abolition is universally advocated. This implies not only the universal elevation of the minimum standard of material life to a level for which the actual standards in richer countries or among wealthier strata provide a guide, but also the abolition of the social inequalities inseparable from the concept of poverty. Governments or bodies of opinion that do not publicly subscribe to these aims are now rare. However, the belief in the desirability of unlimited enrichment is by no means universal, although the belief in the abolition of poverty is. Those who voluntarily abstain from enrichment may continue to enjoy considerable respect, but rarely institutionalized status. Nevertheless, industrialization is marked by a fundamental alteration in the place of poverty in the value systems of societies.

The measurement of poverty

Increased public interest has since the late nineteenth century led to a notable improvement in the quantitative information about poverty. Various relevant data (e.g., on incomes, cost of living, unemployment, consumer expenditure, housing) are now gathered as a matter of routine by many governments and collated by international organizations, but adequate knowledge still demands periodic ad hoc surveys of the type pioneered by Booth and Rowntree before 1900 (see Booth et al. 1889–1891; see also Rowntree 1901). Measurement, moreover, poses problems both of technique and of definition.

Material poverty

At the lowest level, the criterion of material poverty is an inability to achieve a minimum of physiological health and efficiency, and attempts to define a minimum nutritional standard (at present expressed mainly in calories, with allowances for other aspects of the diet) have been made since the mid-nineteenth century. Their object, not always achieved, is to eliminate subjective and conventional elements in the assessment of basic poverty. Where the “poverty line” separates the hungry from the properly fed, as it still does in many parts of the world, such minimum standards have some value, although there is no absolute certainty as to what constitutes the physiological minimum. However, in economically developing and richer countries a conventional minimum, tending to rise with time, must and always does determine poverty. Comparisons between richer and poorer countries and between poverty in one country at different times therefore become increasingly difficult. An objective minimum or an unchanging conventional standard measures not what is socially accepted as poverty in the richer country or at the later time, but only the difference between countries or points of time. The periodic “rediscovery” of poverty in countries whose standards of living have markedly improved, as in Britain in the 1880s and in the United States and Britain in the early 1960s, is due largely to the lag in adjusting standards to changing bases of assessment.

Nonmaterial poverty

More serious difficulties arise in the measurement of nonmaterial aspects of poverty, that is, of the part played in it by the inferiority of rights, opportunities, and status of the poor and their sense of such inferiorities. Certain of these aspects may be measured separately (for example, access to educational facilities and jobs), but the entire syndrome of frustration, resentment, and underprivilege has so far eluded quantification and comparison. The problem is complicated by the effects of social change or social disintegration on felt poverty. Such difficulties are illustrated by the inability of historians of British industrialization to agree on a generally acceptable weighting of material and nonmaterial factors in the poverty of the period they have studied.

Measures of consumption

The most convenient measure of material poverty is through consumption, assessed directly or through income and expenditure. The latter has been found useful for comparisons, since Engel’s law, first formulated in 1857, showed that—subject to reservations that are sometimes of major importance–the proportion of total expenditure on food, or more generally on basic needs, tends to vary inversely with income (Engel 1895). Thus, in about 1960 the mean percentage of family expenditure on food ranged from 25 to 30 (Canadian towns, white families in Northern Rhodesia) through 30–35 (northwest Europe: Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Great Britain), 50–55 (in the poorer countries of eastern Europe), over 60 (urban populations in parts of north Africa, Asia, and Latin America), to 70–80 in rural and poorest urban strata in underdeveloped regions (International Labor Office 1963, tables 22 and 23). Higher percentages occur in abnormally depressed zones, as during and after food shortages; lower percentages are found among the wealthy—for example, 15 per cent among the “rich” in the United States in 1935–1936 (U.S. National Resources Committee …1939). Such juxtapositions allow us to make rough initial comparisons between countries and social strata, but no more.

Data on absolute per capita consumption also are often available, although without special inquiries they are commonest in the crude form of “per capita availability” of certain commodities and facilities, which neglects or underestimates qualitative differences and variations between social strata. Such data are therefore of limited value, although they are of some use in discussions of economic backwardness and growth. They show that the mean per capita food supply (in calories) in the poorest countries (south Asia, parts of the Far East and of Latin America) in the late 1950s was more than a third below that in the best-fed (North America, white Australasia, northwestern Europe, Argentina). Considerably wider disparities exist in the mean per capita availability of such elementary consumer goods as textiles. The same data can also be used to demonstrate such changes in consumption levels as the rise in mean per capita food supply in southern Europe during the 1950s (Food and Agriculture Organization …1948; International Labor Office 1963).

Income distribution

Data on the distribution of incomes and property provide some guidance to intranational economic inequality, but extreme caution is needed in the use of official statistics on these subjects, especially in areas where incomes remain partly nonmonetary (see Titmuss 1962). Whatever the relevance of such inquiries to the measurement of poverty, they cannot replace specific inquiries into its extent. Since the major improvement in living standards following the recovery from World War II, relatively few such investigations have been made in the industrialized countries. Estimates for the United States suggest that about 20 per cent of the population is below a “poverty line” appropriate to the current standard of living in that country, including a high proportion very much below it (Morgan et al. 1962). British estimates suggest a comparable figure of 8–10 per cent, most (thanks to the more comprehensive welfare provisions usual in western Europe) only a little below the appropriate minimum standard (Townsend 1962). Comparisons of absolute minimum standards are possible with earlier industrial periods but difficult with preindustrial ones, although simple inspection normally reveals considerable improvement in the minimum in the past half-century. It is extremely difficult to make comparisons with periods before the twentieth century of the per cent of the population below changing conventional minimum standards, although in industrialized countries there has probably also been improvement in this percentage. Comparisons of the effects of different types and levels of welfare provision are theoretically feasible, at least for the documented recent period, but the question has not attracted a great deal of attention.

While the special problem of pauperism remains, and there is universal hostility toward poverty in most modern social value systems, the general problem of the abolition of poverty has increasingly merged with, and has often become the foundation of, the social and political policy of governments. A separate discussion of the abolition of poverty therefore goes beyond the limits of this article. Broadly speaking, in most countries of the world the solution to poverty is assumed to rest on economic development, although it is no longer generally believed that this will in itself—and without the systematic, planned, and ambitious intervention of governments–eliminate a large residue of pauperism. Nor is it believed that development can be expected automatically to abolish, or perhaps even to diminish, the range of social and economic inequalities (see Paukert 1965). How far these can in fact be reduced or eliminated remains a thorny question. On the other hand there is general agreement that any notable degree of economic development will—although not necessarily in the short run or at all times–notably raise the average standard of material consumption. There is also general agreement that material destitution, or poverty as denned in most preindustrial periods or regions, can be eliminated.

E. J. Hobsbawm

[See alsoConsumers, article onconsumption levels and standards; Income distribution, article onSize. Other relevant material may be found inFamine; Labor Unions.]


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POVERTY. While aspects of poverty in the United States have changed significantly since colonial times, debates about how best to alleviate this condition continue to revolve around issues of morality as well as economics. In eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century America, most people worked throughout their lives at a succession of unstable jobs, under unhealthy conditions. Widows, immigrants, the ill, and the elderly generally had few sources of support outside their own poor families. Town-ships and counties resorted to such drastic solutions as auctioning off poor local residents to local farmers. Indigent nonresidents would simply be sent out of town. The primary form of public assistance, known as "out-door relief," consisted of food, fuel, or small amounts of money. Poorhouses were founded to serve the indigent more cheaply than outdoor relief while discouraging them from applying for further public assistance. Especially in the North, poorhouses attempted to improve their residents' personal habits. Supervised work, such as farming, weaving, and furniture building, was required; alcohol was forbidden.

Poorhouses became notorious for overcrowding, filth, disease, and corrupt management. Reformers also increasingly criticized outdoor relief for demoralizing the poor and attracting idlers and drunks. By the Civil War (1861–1865), private relief associations run by evangelical Protestants, immigrant groups, and upper-class women's groups had begun to assume a more bureaucratic form. The Charity Organization Society, founded in Buffalo, New York, in 1877 (chapters were established in most U.S. cities by 1892) attempted to systematize relief by sending volunteers to investigate the circumstances of each applicant and advise them on how to live a respectable life. Handouts were to be given only in cases of extreme need. This approach, known as "scientific charity," proved impractical. Yet elements of its method evolved into the caseworker system of social welfare agencies.

At the end of the nineteenth century, one-fifth to one-quarter of the poorhouse population was long-term—primarily elderly people, along with the mentally ill and the chronically sick. Most inmates—out-of-work men, or women giving birth to illegitimate children—stayed only for a week or two at a time. Poor children were generally separated from their parents and moved into orphan asylums. Increasingly, the able-bodied homeless slept on police station floors and in the new shelters (municipal houses or wayfarers' lodges) that began to open around the turn of the century.

Defining Poverty Levels

Attempts to define poverty levels in the United States have long been arbitrary and controversial. From about 1899 to 1946, poverty minimum subsistence levels were based on "standard budgets"—goods and services a family of a certain size would need to live at a certain level. In his 1904 book Poverty Social Worker, Robert Hunter set one of the first national poverty line figures: below $460 annually for a five-person family in the North; below $300 for the same size family in the South. A study commissioned by the Congressional Joint Committee on the Economic Report in 1949 determined the poverty line to be $1,000 for farm families and $2,000 for nonfarm families.

In 1965, the federal government adopted landmark poverty thresholds, devised by economist Molly Orshansky, that took into account household sizes and types (such as elderly or nonelderly). Specifying an amount of money adequate for a family might be fraught with difficulties, Orshansky wrote, but it was possible to determine a level that was clearly insufficient. She based her figures on information from the Department of Agriculture, using the "economy" food plan—the cheapest of the four standard food plans, intended for "temporary or emergency use when funds are low"—and a survey showing that families of three or more people spent about one-third of their after-tax income on food. Lacking minimum-need standards for other household necessities (such as housing, clothing, and transportation), Orshansky simply multiplied these food costs by three to determine minimum family budgets.

In 1969, the thresholds began to be indexed to the Consumer Price Index rather than the cost of the economy food plan. The weighted average poverty thresholds established by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2001 range from $8,494 for an individual 65 or older to $39,413 for a family of nine people or more with one related child under eighteen.

This measurement of poverty has been widely criticized. It does not account for noncash government benefits, such as free school lunches or food stamps, and it fails to account for geographic differences in the cost of living. Critics also believe the thresholds do not properly reflect the overall rise in U.S. income since the 1960s.

Who Are the Poor?

Measurements of the extent of poverty in the United States depend, of course, on how it is defined. Poverty is a relative term; it must be understood differently for an affluent postindustrial culture than for a developing country. As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, "People are poverty-stricken when their income, even if adequate for survival, falls markedly behind that of the community."

In his groundbreaking 1962 book The Other America: Poverty in the United States, Michael Harrington called attention to a group of between 40 million and 50 million Americans (20 to 25 percent of the population at that time) living without adequate nutrition, housing, medical care, and education—people deprived of the standard of living shared by the rest of society. Harrington derived his figures from several sources, including a late-1950s survey by sociologist Robert J. Lampman and family budget levels from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2000, 11.3 percent of the population—31.1 million people—were considered poor, continuing a decline in poverty that began during the economic boom of the mid-1990s, when the poor accounted for 14.5 percent of the population. Before then, the last major decline occurred between 1960, when the rate was 22.2 percent, and 1973 (11.1 percent).

As of 2002, child poverty rates also had fallen since their peak in 1993. Yet more than 11 million children—16.2 percent of all Americans 18 years old or younger—were living in poverty, about the same number recorded in 1980. This group included 17 percent of all children under the age of six. About 5 million children were living in extreme poverty, in families with incomes less than half of the poverty line. Among African Americans, the childhood poverty rate was 30 percent; among Latino families it was 28 percent.

The enormity of this continuing problem cannot be overstressed. The infant mortality rate is more than 50 percent higher in poor families. Children growing up in poverty are more likely to drop out of high school and become parents in their teens, more likely to have junk food diets that predispose them to childhood obesity and diabetes, more likely to suffer chronic health conditions and mental retardation, and more likely to lack positive role models for academic and job success. Thirty-five percent of single-parent families live in poverty, more than twice the national average. Teenagers in poor families are more likely than other teens to be single parents. Poor single parents attempting to join the workforce are seriously hampered by the need to find affordable quality health care and child care (which can consume more than 20 percent of a poor working mother's income).

Another way to look at poverty by the numbers is to see how total income is shared in the United States and whether the poor are closing the gap between themselves and the rest of society. Harrington noted that the increase in the share of personal income earned by the poorest one-fifth of the population between 1935 and 1945 was reversed between 1945 and 1958. The poor increased their share in the late 1960s, only to see these gains reversed once more, beginning in the 1980s.

In 1968, the Citizens Board of Inquiry Into Hunger and Malnutrition in America estimated that 14 million Americans were going hungry. Nearly thirty years later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that nearly 35 million Americans were unable to supply their families with sufficient amounts of food. Other poverty markers include lack of education: The poverty rate for high school dropouts is three times the rate for those who have a high school diploma.

In 1960, the federal Commission on Rural Poverty report, The People Left Behind, found that nearly one-third of rural Americans lived in poverty. Their homes were substandard, their access to health care was rare, and their education—particularly among the children of black field workers—was minimal. By the late 1990s, the percentage of poor rural Americans declined to 16 percent, partly due to mechanization and closure of coal mines in Appalachia, which caused workers to migrate to urban areas. Electricity and plumbing are now standard, but isolated rural residents have fewer child care options and social and educational services than their urban peers.

The nearly 9 million rural poor—one-fifth of the poor population—are 55 percent white, 32 percent black, and 8 percent Hispanic. Migrant field workers from Mexico and Central America, who struggle to support families on substandard pay, generally live in crowded, makeshift housing. Native Americans are also hard hit by poverty; more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. On reservations, the unemployment rate is three times the average for rest of the U.S. population, with high levels of alcoholism and tuberculosis as well.

While the stereotype of the poor is of a group that goes from cradle to grave without improving its lot, there is substantial movement in and out of poverty. About one-third of the poor in any given year will not be among the poor the following year. Only 12 percent of the poor re-main poor for five or more years. A national study in the 1990s found that more than half of these "poverty spells" lasted one year or less. The reasons people slide into poverty include divorce, job loss, and incomes that do not keep pace with the cost of living, especially in low-wage occupations.

Other common misconceptions about the poor are not borne out by the figures. While poverty rates are greater among blacks and Hispanics than among other ethnic groups, non-Hispanic whites comprise 48 percent of the poor, African Americans account for 22.1 percent, and Hispanics, 22 percent. Less than half (42 percent) of the poor live in central cities, and less than 25 percent live in inner-city ghettos. Surprisingly, more than one-third (36 percent) of the poor live in the suburbs.

Official poverty figures do not include the homeless (or people in institutions—jails, mental institutions, foster care, nursing homes), but the best estimates put the homeless population at anywhere from 500,000 to more than 800,000. The ranks of the homeless swelled when enlightened social policy of the 1970s—deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill with the goal of reintegrating them into society—fell afoul of budget cutbacks and lack of community follow-through in the 1980s.

There are many economic and social reasons poverty remains a major problem in the United States. As American companies have opened manufacturing plants abroad, where labor is cheaper and lower benefit standards are the norm, well-paying, of ten unionized, jobs for blue-collar workers have disappeared from American cities. Other jobs have moved to the car-dependent suburbs, out of reach to a population largely dependent on public transportation. Meanwhile, the expanding service sector is split between high-paying professional employment in business and technology, and low-wage service industry jobs (janitors, maids, fast-food and retail workers). While one person is employed in about 60 percent of poor families, minimum-wage jobs—of ten lacking health and other benefits—do not pay enough to keep families from poverty. With little or no accumulated wealth, the poor and their families have no savings to fall back on if they lose a job or have unanticipated expenses.

The Welfare System

The foundation of the welfare system and the government's only program of mass public assistance—the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—was established during the Great Depression as part of the 1935 Economic Security Act. The federal government paid half the cost of the program for the families of needy children and established broad guidelines. State governments picked up the rest of the cost, set payment levels, and administered the program. Food Stamps (Food and Nutritional Assistance) also originated during the New Deal, as a means of supplementing farm income with coupons that could be redeemed for food.

Social programs in the United States tend to operate in thirty-year cycles. The "rediscovery" of poverty after the Great Depression began with the publication of such influential books as John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society (1958) and Michael Harrington's The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), in which he argued that the poor—in particular, children, the elderly, and nonwhites, increasingly isolated in urban ghettos—had become invisible to the middle-class white majority. Although President John F. Kennedy's support of antipoverty proposals was cut short by his assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a "War on Poverty" in his 1964 inaugural speech. The success of Johnson's Great Society program—which included urban renewal and a broadscale fight against poverty, disease, and lack of access to education and housing—was greatly helped by relatively low unemployment and inflation, a federal budget surplus, the growing civil rights movement, and an increasing level of public confidence in sociological studies. Certain aspects of these social programs were enhanced in the 1970s, under the administration of President Richard Nixon.

In 1967, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Johnson to study the causes of the riots that swept American inner cities that year, recommended that the federal government establish "uniform national standards" of welfare aid "at least as high as the annual 'poverty level' of income" (which was then $3,335 for an urban family of four). The commission also advised that states be required to participate in the Unemployed Parents program of the AFDC and that welfare mothers of young children no longer be required to work.

AFDC cash benefits were pegged to the number of children in the family, which caused some critics to believe that women on welfare were having more children to boost the amount of their checks, or separating from the father of their children in order to qualify for this benefit. (However, while the proportion of mother-only households increased during the years of the program, the real value of the payments decreased.) About one-third of AFDC recipients were found to remain in the program for six or more years. The Family Support Act of 1988 expanded AFDC benefits to families with two unemployed parents and required absent parents to pay child support. Eight years later, however, AFDC was eliminated and replaced by block grants to states, which administer their own programs.

President Kennedy revived the food stamp program in 1961; nine years later, Congress set a minimum benefit level for food stamps—which were now free—and offered them at a low cost to families over the poverty line; eligibility was broadened later in the 1970s. All funds for the program, administered by state welfare agencies, are provided by the federal government.

Under Medicaid, established in 1965, the federal government pays matching funds to states to cover a portion of medical expenses for low-income elderly, blind, and disabled persons, and for members of low-income families with dependent children. States have considerable latitude in setting eligibility, benefits, and payments to service providers. In 1963, a physician had never examined 20 percent of Americans below the poverty level; in 1970, this number fell to 8 percent. Prenatal visits by pregnant women increased dramatically, which contributed to an overall drop in infant mortality of 33 percent (50 percent in some poor areas) between 1965 and 1972.

Initiated in 1972, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) gives cash benefits to elderly, blind, and disabled persons in order to bring their income to federally established minimum levels. The program is administered by the Social Security Administration, with some benefits supplemented by individual states.

Beginning in the 1970s, Section 8 Low-Income Housing—administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—initiated payments to private developers who set aside apartments at below-market rates for low-income families. Now known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, it accounts for more than half of federal funds spent on housing for the poor; low-rent public housing accounts for another 25 percent. Only about 19 percent of the poor receive housing benefits, however, compared with about 40 percent receiving cash benefits from AFDC and SSI. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), expanded under the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton, gives workers a tax break based on their earned income, adjusted gross income, and the number of children they have. In 2001, the income of recipients with no qualifying children had to be less than $10,710; with two or more qualifying children, the income limit was $32,121. This program was appealing to policymakers because it rewards workers (benefits increase with increased income), helps families with children, and works through the tax code, with no need for a separate bureaucracy.

Other social programs have increased the availability of services to the poor, including day care for children, health care, work-training, special programs for agricultural workers, and free legal assistance. While Social Security, instituted in 1935, is not based on need—it is based on the amount of Social Security tax paid on wages—this entitlement, with its substantial monthly payments, has played a huge role in keeping the elderly from poverty.

The Welfare Backlash

Beginning in the mid-1970s, the phenomenon of the "inner city" as a cauldron of joblessness, major crime, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, and welfare dependency began to make headlines. For more than a decade, liberals had decried the low level of benefits welfare clients received while conservatives argued that welfare breeds dependency. Increasingly, welfare applicants were the offspring of welfare families. Tabloid stories of "welfare queens" using their government stipend to buy Cadillacs only inflamed the debate. Many agreed that welfare served to tide people over when they hit bottom but created a subclass of citizens with little dignity or self-respect.

During the Reagan administration, many social programs were reduced in scope or eliminated. The self-perpetuating nature of poverty noted by influential sociologist Oscar Lewis—who coined the phrase "the culture of poverty"—was seized upon by conservatives eager to end welfare. Lewis's sympathetic description of the way six-year-old slum children in South America had become so accustomed to a hopeless view of the world that they seem unlikely to be able to escape from poverty was intended to shift attention from individual poverty victims to the culture of impoverished communities. But conservatives used his views to argue that the children of ghetto families lack a work ethic. This sentiment was exacerbated during the 1980s by lack of income growth among middle-class wage earners, which made many leery of "handouts" going to a group of ten perceived as undeserving. (In fact, nearly half the income the poor received came from wages; welfare accounted for only 25 percent of the total.)

By the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was promising to "end welfare as we know it." The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 officially ended the entitlement status of welfare and (as revised in 1997) denied assistance to newly arrived legal emigrants. The goal of this program was to reduce the welfare rolls, increase the number of working poor, and reduce out-of-wedlock births.

AFDC was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a $16.5 billion block grant program to the states to fund "welfare-to-work" programs. Unlike AFDC, which supplied federal matching funds of one to four dollars for every dollar in state appropriations, TANF's block grants are not tied to state expenditures. The new rules require that 50 percent of able-bodied adults receiving assistance be cut off after two years, and that 80 percent of each state's welfare recipients receive no more than five years of aid in a lifetime. Adults who do not have children under age six must work at least 30 hours per week to receive food stamps; unmarried teenage mothers receiving welfare benefits must attend school and live with an adult.

The burden on former welfare recipients has been significant. Finding and keeping even a temporary, low-paid job is generally a daunting undertaking for someone with a shaky or nonexistent job history, few skills, and little experience with the schedules and social skills working people take for granted. People new to the job market of ten must find the money for child care and transportation to work. Cut off from Medicaid benefits after one year and usually uninsured at work, this population has become even more vulnerable to health crises.

Changing Views of the Poor

The prevailing nineteenth-century view of the poor, whether religious or sectarian, rested on the assumption that weak moral fiber was to blame for their situation. In the twentieth century, thinking about poverty shifted to a greater emphasis on social and environmental factors. Robert Hunter, author of Poverty (1904), boldly declared that most of the poor "are bred of miserable and unjust social conditions. …" In Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), Jane Addams—cofounder of Hull House, which offered community services to the poor in Chicago—questioned the reformers' insistence on thrift and hard work as specific virtues for the poor, because the rich were not held to the same standards. The best way to ensure virtuous behavior on the part of the poor, she wrote, was to push for shorter hours, better wages (including a level of pay for women that would keep them from turning to prostitution), restrictions on child labor, and alternatives to the temptations of the saloon.

Yet overreliance on government handouts continued to be seen as a moral issue even in the midst of the Great Depression, when New Deal policies were created to promote economic recovery, not specifically to eliminate poverty. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber."

In the 1960s, the reigning belief was that behavior associated with the ghetto was due not to ingrained cultural characteristics, but rather to segregation and a history of limited opportunities that—coupled with bitter personal experiences—made the prospect of a better life through hard work seem unrealistic. Urban field studies undertaken in the late 1960s were interpreted in light of this point of view.

Black ghettos were once home to middle-class as well as lower-class African Americans. As William Julius Wilson has pointed out, this social geography offered young people a range of role models and job contacts. By the 1970s, the growth of suburbs and civil rights legislation had enabled middle-class African Americans to move out of the inner city. Without an adequate tax base to fund good schools and other city services or middle-class incomes to support banks, shops, and other services, neighborhoods declined. High-density housing projects built in the 1950s to replace old slums tore apart the tight-knit fabric of communities and created an apathetic culture that became the festering center of unemployment, drug addiction, and crime. The inner-city population is also a particularly youthful one, and the fourteen-to twenty-five-year-old group is statistically more likely to commit crime, be welfare dependent, and have out-of-wedlock births.

One of the most controversial documents of the 1960s was "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a white paper issued by the Department of Labor in 1965. Moynihan wrote that the instability of black families was a primary cause of poverty, and that welfare policies should encourage intact families and work as a means of integrating these families into the mainstream. Critics took Moynihan to task for blaming the poor rather than advocating societal change.

Another influential book, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward (1971), proposed that welfare recipients should not be encouraged to work at a menial job just to bring in some money and avoid idleness—they should hold out for jobs that pay a living wage—and that welfare is necessary to the economic survival of women, whose jobs traditionally pay less than men's.

Charles Murray's book Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980, published in 1984, was one of several prominent studies that decried liberal social policies for creating a welfare-dependent population during the 1970s. In Murray's view, the federal government should withdraw from the welfare business, and the poor—except for the truly deserving, whose needs would be served by private charity and local government—should take responsibility for their own lives. Murray's critics say the economic downturn was responsible for increased unemployment, which in turn made more people poor during the 1970s. Also to blame, they say, was a decline in real wages—the actual purchasing power of income—and the effect of baby boomers entering the job market. Critics maintain that the poverty rate would have risen even farther had Great Society programs not been in place.


Bane, Mary Jo, and David T. Ellwood. Welfare Realities: From Rhetoric to Reform. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Blank, Rebecca M. It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Citro, Constance F., and Robert T. Michael. Measuring Poverty: A New Approach. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995.

Copeland, Warren R. And the Poor Get Welfare: The Ethics of Poverty in the United States. Nashville, Tenn.: Abington Press, 1994.

Danziger, Sheldon H., et al. Confronting Poverty: Prescriptions for Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Duncan, Cynthia M. Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

Edin, Kathryn, and Laura Lein. Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997.

Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan. 1962.

Jencks, Christopher. Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

———, and Paul E. Peterson, eds. The Urban Underclass. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1991.

Katz, Michael B. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Lavelle, Robert, et al. America's New War on Poverty: A Reader for Action. San Francisco: KQED Books, 1995.

Moynihan, Daniel P. Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty. New York: The Free Press, 1969.

Murray, Charles. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950– 1980. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

O'Hare, William P. A New Look at Poverty in America. Washington, D.C.: Populations Reference Bureau, Inc., vol. 51, no. 2, Sept. 1996.

Schwartz, Joel. Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America's Urban Poor, 1825–2000. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Schwarz, John E., and Thomas J. Volgy. The Forgotten Americans. New York: Norton, 1992.

Wilson, William Julius. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.


See alsoUrban Redevelopment ; Urbanization ; andvol. 9:The New American Poverty ; In the Slums, 1890 .

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In 1999, in the United States, 3.2 million people age sixty-five and over, representing 9.7 percent of the older population, were officially classified as poor, that is, their income (or that of their families) fell below the income threshold defined by the Census Bureau as the poverty line for their family size. This percentage represented an all-time low for the poverty rate among older persons, which has declined fairly steadily since U.S. poverty statistics first became available in 1959. This decline was dramatic during the 1960s, during which time the rate dropped from about 35 percent to about 25 percent, and there were further sharp declines in the early 1970s (to about 15 percent) in the wake of significant Social Security increases that took place in that period. Plateauing during the "stagflation" of the late 1970s, the elderly poverty rate has since undergone further gradual improvement.

This evolution was accompanied by an equally dramatic shift in the age distribution of poverty. In 1959, older persons were experiencing rates of poverty substantially higher than those of any other age group. Their disadvantage, relative to children, did not diminish during the late 1960s as the War on Poverty was initiated; it actually appears to have widened somewhat during this period, when antipoverty initiatives focused heavily on families with children. By 1969, the child poverty rate had declined to below 15 percent (a rate it has not achieved since), compared to about 25 percent for older persons. However, beginning in the early 1970s, these age groups experienced a sharp reversal of relative fortune. By 1974, the 65+ poverty rate had improved to the point that it had overtaken the child poverty rate, and the two rates have continued to diverge. During the Reagan era of the 1980s, child poverty rates worsened while those for older people improved, and the gap has remained since. In the mid-1990s, the 65+ poverty rate began to dip below the rate for those aged eighteen to sixty-four, and was slightly below that rate in 1999 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000, p. ix).

Half-Full or half-empty?

These developments might be, and often have been, viewed as an unalloyed "good-news" story for older people. Indeed, particularly in conjunction with findings suggesting that the highest-income portion of the older population is becoming increasingly affluent (Crystal, 1982; Crystal and Waehrer, 1996), some have suggested that the major remaining social policy question is why these gains have not been shared by members of other age groups, especially children.

Other data, however, provide reason for concern. Of particular significance is the high proportion of near-poor older people. In 1999, 13.2 percent of older people had incomes between 100 percent and 150 percent of the poverty line, a higher proportion than was the case either for children or for those of working age. Altogether, a total of 22.9 percent of older people lived below 150 percent of the poverty line (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000, p. 2).

Taking a longitudinal, rather than a "snap-shot," perspective on late-life poverty also suggests that impoverishment is a very real possibility in older life, despite relatively low cross-sectional poverty rates. Rank and Hirschl (1999) used life table analyses of Panel Study of Income Dynamics data to examine the probability that individuals with various characteristics will experience a year below the poverty line at some point after age sixty. Overall, they estimated that this will occur for 40 percent of America's elderly population and that 48 percent will experience a year below 125 percent of the poverty line. These rates were much higher for those with less than 12 years of education and for African Americans. For example, 88 percent of unmarried, African-American women with less than twelve years of education were projected to fall into poverty at some point in old age, as compared with 13 percent of married white females with twelve or more years of education. In addition to increasing the risk for transitions into poverty, these same factors have also been shown to inhibit escape from poverty among elders (Jensen and McLaughlin, 1997), leading to more persistent old-age poverty among these subgroups.

In addition to highlighting the important role of racial differences and marital status, these results also confirm the importance of educational attainment in determining the risk of late-life impoverishment. This is consistent with other evidence that early advantages, such as those gained by formal education (typically completed by one's mid-twenties) shape individuals' economic destinies in a continued, and even increased, fashion many decades later in the life course, through a process of cumulative advantage and disadvantage (Crystal and Shea, 1990). For example, Crystal, Shea, and Krishnaswami (1992) found that years of education explain more of the variance in income after age sixty-five than at earlier ages, despite the many vicissitudes of life in the intervening decades. It is likely that among baby boomers, individuals with limited formal education will be at even greater risk of late-life impoverishment when they reach old age, since income gaps by education have been considerably higher for baby boomers than for earlier cohorts (Crystal and Johnson, 1998).

Comparing poverty rates across life stages

Perhaps of even greater concern is the question of whether the official poverty line sufficiently reflects the needs of older people, particularly in a society in which so many aspects of health care, long-term care, and other needs related to disabilities of aging depend on older people's own resources rather than public provision. Further, the poverty line for elderly individuals and for two-person, elderly-headed households is somewhat lower than the line for the nonelderly, although it is not clear that their economic needs are really less. For example, in 1999, for an older person living alone, the poverty line was $7,990, compared to $8,667 for a nonelderly person; for a two-person, elderly-headed family the poverty line was $10,075, compared to $11,214 for a nonelderly family. On the other hand, some have argued that the situation is even better for older people than the poverty figures show because the value of Medicare is not included in the poverty-line calculation.

The conventional poverty line has been widely acknowledged to be rather arbitrary in its construction. It dates from the 1960s, when it became important to planners of the War on Poverty to have a measure of a minimally adequate living level with which to define poverty and monitor progress toward the ambitious goal of eliminating itan objective toward which there has only been real progress, ironically, with the older population, despite the War on Poverty's emphasis on children.

The basic idea underlying the original construction of the poverty definition, which was undertaken in the 1960s for the federal government by Mollie Orshansky, was straightforward to the point of being simplistic. Essentially, based on some studies that suggested that lower-income people spent about one-third of their income on food, Orshansky constructed food budgets for a minimally adequate diet, and multiplied these budget amounts by three. These original poverty line figures have been updated subsequently, based on Consumer Price Survey inflation adjusters. They have been criticized since their creation, both from the left (largely on the basis that a static measure of this kind does not incorporate increasing expectations for minimal adequacy in a society of increasing prosperity) and from the right (largely on the basis that they overestimate deprivation and have under-represented progress, since they do not incorporate the value of in-kind benefits such as Food Stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, and housing subsidies).

Those who believe that trends in the existing poverty measure present a more positive picture than they should have often argued that a relative income measure, such as a specified percentage of the median income, would be a more appropriate measure of trends in poverty than the existing poverty lines, because it would take account of the increasing cost of social participation at a basic level (automobiles, flush toilets, or air conditioning in Southern climates might be considered more of a necessity in 1999 than in 1965). Those who believe that the trends present an overly negative picture have often argued for valuing in-kind benefits in the poverty calculation. The argument here may be strongest for benefits like Food Stamps, which are near equivalents of cash. The argument for including health benefits seems more tenuous, as it does not appropriately address the greater health care needs of older persons, who even with Medicare spend more out-of-pocket on health care than do the non-elderly. Crediting each older individual with the average value of his or her Medicare benefit, as measured by average spending on behalf of all older people, attributes a large sum of "income" to each older person, though most are not receiving anything like that amount of services, since the distribution of Medicaid spending is highly skewed and a significant share of it takes place near the time of death. Such a calculation would distort cross-age comparisons by crediting the older age group with greater income because of their higher use of medical services. It would also distort time-trend analyses, making older people seem increasingly well-off as the cost of medical care services increases, thus reducing their income available for other purposes. If one attempted to attribute varying amounts of in-kind income to older individuals based on their actual or predicted Medicare expenditures, one would have the even more illogical result that older individuals get richer as they get sicker.

There have been a number of attempts to construct alternative poverty measures. A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel reviewed these issues and issued a report that recommended new ways to measure poverty. This report (see Citro and Michael, 1995) was critical both of the current measure's noninclusion of in-kind benefits and its failure to take account of the ways in which the cost of various goods, such as food, housing, and medical care, has changed relative to other goods since the early 1960s. Most recently, in response to such concerns, the Census Bureau has calculated poverty rates based on four alternative measures of poverty, one of which generally follows the NAS recommendations (Short, Garner, Johnson, and Doyle, 1999). This alternative measure adjusts poverty thresholds by geographical differences in the cost of living, counts noncash benefits as income, and subtracts from income some work-related, housing, and childcare expenses. The other three alternative measures include: the Different Child Care Method (DCM) assigns fixed amounts of child-care expenses to working families with children, based on the number and age of the children; the Difference Equivalence Scale (DES) uses a new method for adjusting for changes in expenses as family size increases; and the No Geographic Adjustment (NGA) measure, that, unlike the NAS measure, does not adjust thresholds for geographic differences in the cost of living. The alternative measures were standardized to the 1997 official poverty lines in such a fashion that each produced the same overall (all-ages) U.S. poverty rate as the official rate, and the measures were applied to income data for 1999. Interestingly, the 65+ poverty rate was considerably higher for each of the alternative measures than for the current official measure, while the child poverty rate was lower (there was little change for working-age persons). For example, while the 1999 poverty rate for persons 65 and over was 9.7 percent by the official measure, it was 13.3 percent (NAS), 13.0 percent (DCM), 13.7 percent (DES), and 13.6 percent (NGA) for the four alternative measures. By contrast, the poverty rate for persons under eighteen years of age was 16.9 percent under the official measure, but was 14.8 percent (NAS), 15.5 percent (DCM), 14.3 percent (DES), and 14.6 percent (NGA) for the four alternative measures. These results tend to support the argument that the official poverty lines underestimate the real prevalence of poverty among older people.

It is also important to note that the relatively low elderly poverty rate is not an indication that older people do not need Social Security; the rate is low only as a result of the presence of Social Security and would be far higher without it. For example, the Census Bureau found that without government transfers (mainly from Social Security) the 1999 poverty rate for persons over age sixty-five would have been 47 percent. Social Security has an important equalizing effect on income distributionwhile there is evidence that inequality is higher among older people than at any younger age (Crystal and Shea, 1990), inequality would be far worse without Social Security. Social Security's tremendous success in reducing poverty in old age results in large part from its progressive income replacement design. It replaces a higher proportion of low incomes than of higher ones, while collecting the same contributions as a percentage of income (up to a ceiling)a redistribution strategy that would be difficult to maintain to the same extent if part of Social Security benefits were replaced with individual private retirement accounts.

Differential needs and out-of-pocket health care costs

Of particular relevance in evaluating efforts to calculate needs-to-income for older people, as the official poverty lines do, is the burden of out-of-pocket health care costs. Clearly, the health care needs of older people are greater than those of younger people, a factor not taken into account in the official poverty lines. While it is sometimes assumed that a needs-tested safety net exists for the poorest elderly, most older people living at near-poverty or worse are not reached by that safety net. For example, Medicaid (which covers Medicare's co-payments and deductibles as well as services such as prescription drugs and long-term health care that are not covered by Medicare) is received by less than half of older people in the lowest income quintile (Crystal et al., 2000).

The two major types of out-of-pocket expenditures that are significant for older people are payments to health care providers and insurance premiums, including Medicare Part B premiums. About one-third of Medicare beneficiaries receive help in filling Medicare's gaps through retiree group health benefits from a former employer or a spouse's former employer, typically at no cost or at a highly-subsidized price; these benefits tend to be unavailable to individuals who held lower-paying jobs and those with less education. More than one-third of Medicare beneficiaries purchase individual supplemental policies (Medigap) in the marketplace. Prices of these products are unsubsidized and their coverage is limited.

Out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs, a major category of health care not covered by Medicare, have received considerable attention. There has been less attention to the costs of dental services, also uncovered by Medicare, and of home health and assistive care. Analyses using the 1995 Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey (MCBS) indicate that despite Medicaid coverage for some, older people in the lowest income quintile (roughly equivalent to those living below about 140 percent of poverty) were spending 32 percent of their incomes on health care expenditures (in 1995). Prescription drugs accounted for 40 percent of their payments for health care goods and services (as opposed to 26 percent for those in the highest-income bracket), and dental care accounted for 12 percent (Crystal et al., 2000). With these high levels of financial need for health care, it seems illogical that the poverty line for elderly-headed households is lower than that for non-elderly-headed households, suggesting that the official poverty lines underestimate true poverty among older people.

Late-life poverty in the United States and abroad

Social Security, as noted above, does incorporate a redistributive element and plays an equalizing role that reduces old-age inequality. However, it lacks, even in combination with related programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a high minimum benefit and provides less protection for lower-income individuals than do systems in a number of other developed countries. Smeeding, Rainwater, and Torrey (1993) compared levels of late-life inequality and minimum benefits in public pension systems (as a percentage of median income) across a number of countries. The United States provided the lowest minimum benefit (defined by the means-tested SSI level) at 34 percent of median income, and experienced the highest level of late-life inequality. Countries such as France, Canada, and Australia guaranteed benefits close to 50 percent of median income and experienced intermediate levels of late-life inequality, while the Netherlands and Sweden, with their well-developed social welfare systems, provided guarantees of 72 percent and 66 percent of median income, respectively, and experienced the lowest rates of late-life inequality. Countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden with high minimum retirement income guarantees have largely eliminated late-life economic poverty. Of course, these and their other social welfare protections typically have come at the cost of a higher payroll tax and other taxation rates on working-age citizens than have been found politically acceptable in the United States.

While the existing U.S. poverty measure has significant limitations in comparing poverty rates across years or age groups, it is nevertheless a useful indicator of a group among the older population that is clearly experiencing economic privation. Similarly, near-poverty (e.g., those living below 150 percent of the poverty line) is a useful way to define a group that, while not in quite as dire straits, also experiences considerable privation and is an appropriate target for efforts to address unmet needs in the older population. It is therefore helpful to examine the characteristics of the older population living in poverty. Not surprisingly, they are disproportionately female, and living alone, have chronic health conditions, and are over seventy-five years of age. In 1999, 69.7 percent were women. The poverty rate (in 1999) was 26.4 percent among African American women and 5.7 percent among white men. Similarly, among the 7.5 million elderly Americans living below 150 percent of the poverty line, 68.4 percent were women (47.1 percent of African American women fell into this category, and 14.7 percent of men). These differentials reflect lagged effects of differences in early advantages and disadvantages, differences in economic opportunities during the working years, the economic impact of differential rates of disability and ill health across socioeconomic groups in later life, and similar factors. This process of cumulative advantage and disadvantage reflects the fact that despite some redistributional features, retirement income systems in the United States are based heavily on pre-retirement earnings. The circumstances of the substantial population living below 150 percent of poverty (almost one-quarter of the older population) contrast sharply with those of more affluent older adults, representing a continuation of a long-standing "two worlds of aging" pattern in the United States (see Crystal, 1981).

Stephen Crystal

See also Consumer Price Index and COLAs; Economic Well-Being; Income Support for Nonworkers, National Approaches; Inequality; Life Cycle Theories of Savings and Consumption; Savings.


Chulis, G.; Eppig, F.; Hogan, M. O.; Waldo, D.; and Arnett, R. "Data Watch: Health Insurance and the Elderly." Health Affairs Spring 1993: 111118.

Citro, C. F., and Michael, R. T. Measuring Poverty: A New Approach. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995.

Crystal, S. America's Old Age Crisis: Public Policy and the Two Worlds of Aging. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

Crystal, S.; Harman, J.; Sambamoorthi, U.; Johnson, R.; and Kumar, R. "Out of Pocket Health Care Costs Among Older Americans." Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 55B, no. 1 (2000): S51S62.

Crystal, S., and Johnson, R. The Changing Retirement Prospects of American Families: Impact of Labor Market Shifts on Economic Outcomes. Public Policy Institute Publication #98-01. Washington, D.C.: AARP, 1998.

Crystal, S., and Shea, D. "Cumulative Advantage, Cumulative Disadvantage, and Inequality Among Elderly People." The Gerontologist 30, no. 4 (1990): 437443.

Crystal, S.; Shea, D.; and Krishnaswami, S. "Educational Attainment, Occupational History, and Stratification: Determinants of Later-Life Economic Resources." Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 47, no. 5 (1992): S213S221.

Crystal, S., and Waehrer, K. "Later-Life Economic Inequality in Longitudinal Perspective." Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 51B, no. 6 (1996): S307S318.

Jensen, L., and McLaughlin, D. "The Escape from Poverty Among Rural and Urban Elders." The Gerontologist 37 (1997): 462468.

Karoly, L., and Rogowski, J. "The Effect of Access to Post-Retirement Health Insurance on the Decision to Retire Early." Industrial and Labor Relations Review 48 (1994): 103123.

Lillard, L.; Rogowski, J.; and Kington, R. "Long-Term Determinants of Patterns of Health Insurance Coverage in the Medicare Population." The Gerontologist 37 (1997): 314323.

Rank, M., and Hirschl, T. "Estimating the Proportion of Elderly Americans Ever Experiencing Poverty During Their Elderly Years." Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 54B, no. 4 (1999): S184S193.

Short, K.; Garner, T.; Johnson, D.; and Doyle, P. Experimental Poverty Measures: 1990 to 1997. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, Consumer Income, P60-205. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999.

Smeeding, T.; Torrey, B. B.; and Rainwater, L. Going to Extremes: An International Perspective on the Economic Status of the U.S. Aged. Working Paper No. 87. Luxembourg: Luxembourg Income Study, 1993.

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports; Series P-60, No. 210, Poverty in the United States: 1999. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of the Census, 2000.


See Advance directives for health care


See Medication costs and reimbursement

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POVERTY. Poverty in early modern Europe was not well understoodat least outside of the biblical conception that the poor will always be with usand the extent of poverty in the centuries leading up to the industrial revolution has not been well mappednot by historians, and certainly not by the contemporaries who were confronted by the hungry and diseased, the homeless and fatherless, on their doorsteps. Yet there can be no doubt that both the threat and the reality of poverty were pervasive throughout the early modern period.

The material and spiritual needs of the poor were the subject of endless clerical rumination, which sometimes resulted in actual assistance. The needs of the poor likewise merited the extensive practical consideration of urban magistrates and rural nobility alike, whose best interests often dictated that they do something to lessen, or at least justify, the suffering that they saw around them. Poverty generated responses from the poor ranging from quiet acquiescence and submission to the mercy of God to the violent or coercive appropriation of resources, with a host of possibilities in between. One clear marker of the poor was the need to engage in behaviors intended to ward off hunger, cold, nakedness, or other material deprivation. It is not surprising, therefore, that when historians try to count the poor in early modern Europe, they inevitably begin with the lists of those who applied for and received charity: those who professed in the criminal court records that they turned to theft or prostitution out of desperation; those who sought exemption from the payment of taxes and dues; and those caught participating in bread riots, or myriad other activities located firmly in what historians have to come to refer to as "the economy of makeshifts."


Any attempt to determine the number of poor in early modern Europe presumes that there exists a clear definition of poverty as well as widely agreed upon indicators of its extent and severity. This is not the case. At the most basic level, the poor were best defined by what they were not. Thus, in early modern Europe poverty could be characterized as the antithetical state either to that of being rich (the most common modern understanding) or that of being powerful (the more typical medieval conception). While power and wealth often travel together, they need not necessarily do so. Certainly the processes of commercialization and urbanization begun in the High Middle Ages and accelerated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concomitant with the expansion of capitalist economic attitudes and behaviors, worked to increase the importance of money, thereby giving the pecuniary definition of poverty greater cultural resonance over time. But the conflation of the poor with the weak persisted.

This lingering medieval resonance was facilitated in large part by the ongoing influence of the biblical categories of the poor, which consisted especially of widows, orphans, prisoners, and the disabled. All of these groups, which we might now classify as the "structural poor," were likely to suffer from limited resources as well as wielding little political or social power. They are marked by their dependence on others (notably male, be they husbands, fathers, law enforcers, or doctors) for food and shelter, as well as for protection. And it was precisely this dependence that marked them as "deserving"; that is, worthy of receiving the love (caritas) of the community as manifested in material aid. The undeserving poor, by contrast, were believed to be those who were capable of work but who out of laziness or sheer malice refused to earn their own keep. To aid them was not only counterproductive to the health of the economic and social order, it was in fact a sin, and harmful to the soul of both giver and recipient. If the giving of aid indiscriminately was ever practiced in the medieval past (the evidence is mixed), it was certainly no longer tolerated in the early modern period either by intellectuals or bureaucrats.

This is not to say, however, that exceptions were not made to the biblical rule that the able-bodied who do not work do not eat. Other categories of legitimated poor existed alongside those structurally dependent groups identified in the Bible. The most important of these were the voluntary poor, the shamefaced poor, and what we might now refer to as the cyclical poor. The voluntary poor were those individuals, usually acting in the context of well-established organizations or societies, who had renounced material comforts in favor of a life of humiliation following Christ. The most important of these groups were the mendicant monastic orders that came to prominence in the milieu of urban economic prosperity during the High Middle Ages, most notably the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Their renunciation of material possessions was supposed to be so complete that the only way individual friars could survive was to beg for their bread while they traveled about preaching to souls. The mendicant orders were the subject of heated debates about the spiritual legitimacy of their mission and the social impact of their method, both at the time of their establishment and in the context of the Reformation. Nonetheless, they survived, and even flourished in some parts of Catholic Europe following the Tridentine reforms, remaining an important part of the charitable landscape of early modern Europe.

A less contentious exception to the biblical rule that those who do not work do not eat were the socalled shamefaced poor. This group consisted of members of the ancient nobility who had fallen on hard times economically and could no longer afford the style of life that they were expected to maintain. In truly dire cases they could no longer afford even to support themselves at the margin of subsistence. The source of their distress was often a combination of overspending and the concomitant loss of family land, or the declining profitability of its exploitation by tenant farmers or wage laborers. Because the very definition of nobility precluded members of noble families from working their own land or marshaling their remaining resources to a trade or business, their impoverished condition could only be alleviated by the charitable assistance of others. Moreover, such aid had to be dispensed with discretion in order to avoid any further embarrassment being heaped on the families concerned. In a world in which work was expected of all who were physically able, the shamefaced poor make for an odd exception from the modern perspective. For here was a group whose members were denied the opportunity to work on account of their social status and not their physical attributes. But with the exception of England and the Netherlands, which commercialized early (the Netherlands never having had a strong tradition of local nobility anyway), the shamefaced poor remained an important category of those receiving relief in Europe at least until the social disruptions of the French Revolution. And even in the decidedly bourgeois environment of the Dutch Republic, members of the middling classes (such as urban citizens with corporate rights and artisans with guild memberships) in straitened circumstances received more generous and reliable relief than did the very poor, who could not claim such corporate protections. Downward social mobility, regardless of the level at which one started, was something that all European societies tried to protect against, suggesting that poverty was understood at least as much as a relative state as an absolute one.

The cyclical poor were also made worthy of assistance on account of their changing status over time. Two kinds of cases are especially prominent in this regard. The first included those families that were in the early stages of their household life cycle, with (often many) young children to support and limited access to wage-earning labor. Women's work was poorly remunerated at the best of times, and when pregnant and nursing, women's wages could easily drop to zero. In B. Seebohm Rowntree's classic formulation, the most prosperous time in a family's life was following the mother's childbearing years, when at least some of the children were old enough to earn wages but not yet old enough to have begun separate households of their own. The other vulnerable group included those families in which the primary wage earner was temporarily un- or underemployed because of either the natural rhythms of the work year or, increasingly, of the business cycle. Until the development of the electrified factory and all-weather transport, winter was a season of slow work at best, not just in agriculture, but in urban crafts and trades as well. And as increasingly more individuals left farming for industrial and service sector occupations, the impact of trade cycles on employment became more severe. Guilds with cash reserves for emergency support were the primary means of defense against trade cycles, for those lucky enough to enjoy membership. The bread and cast-off clothing distributed during the severest parts of the winter had to suffice for the rest. Neither those with young families nor those with unemployed household heads could count on the unqualified charitable support of their larger communities, however. Then as now, families in such circumstances were subject to the moralistic assessments of those in a position to offer relief. Critics pointed to poor families with many children as evidence that the poor were sexually reckless, a view articulated most famously by the English economist Thomas Malthus (17661834). Likewise, the able-bodied unemployed generated a great deal of suspicion about how determinedly they were seeking work and whether they were being too choosy about the type of work they would accept, again not unlike the stigma faced by the unemployed in the modern world.


Although, as stated earlier, there are no agreed-upon indicators of the extent and severity of poverty in early modern Europe, many historians have nonetheless felt confident in the belief that a great many Europeans lived either below the poverty line or in imminent danger of dropping below it. This confidence rests in large measure on a commonly shared assumption about the general poverty of all preindustrial economies, in which productivity is low and the probability of risks of all kinds is high. In such an essentially Malthusian world, in which the population constantly threatens to outpace the food supply, the cyclical reappearance of episodes of extreme poverty is guaranteed. Moreover, ways to insure against risk were few or nonexistent. However, despite the attractive logic of the presumption that poverty follows from economic underdevelopment, it suffers from one fundamental inconsistency with the facts: that is, poverty continues to exist in the highly developed, immensely productive, risk-averse, and decidedly non-Malthusian modern first world. Thus the classic narratives about economic development are insufficient for a true understanding of poverty in early modern Europe.

One striking alternative to the view of poverty as solely a consequence of underdevelopment has been offered by the Marxist historians Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly, who argue that economic development has not only failed to eradicate poverty, it has actually increased the likelihood of it. Specifically, they maintain that the incidence of poverty spread as capitalism developed, first as an agricultural system and later as an industrial system, over the course of the early modern period. The key mechanism they see at work behind this process is that of proletarianization, or the increasing separation of workers from the means of production and thus their forced reliance on wages for their maintenance. They begin their narrative with a fairly dire medieval landscape in which "40 to 60 per cent of western European peasants disposed of insufficient land to maintain a family" (p. 15), and then chart from there what they understand to be the processes of further impoverishment over time: the long-term trend toward diminishment in the size of peasant holdings; the development of social policies that criminalized the poor, thereby permitting the better regulation of the labor market (most notably the Elizabethan Poor Law in England, statues against vagrancy and begging in both Catholic and Protestant Europe, and the institution of workhouses in towns both great and small); and most importantly, the massive shift of the labor force away from small independent holdings and craft workshops toward wage labor in commercial agriculture and industry. While they have supporting evidence of the hardship experienced by particular groups of people and sectors of the economy during this time of radical social and economic change, they fail to make a compelling case for an increase in poverty overall. The spread of capitalist enterprises certainly had its losers, but it had its winners as well. Simply documenting the former in great detail does not demonstrate that the scourge of poverty spread between the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern era.

Where the classic development story clearly neglects questions of distribution, the Marxist story downplays the importance of massive productivity gains in increasing the pool of material resources to be distributed. Both approaches, then, are inadequate to explain both the origins of poverty in the preindustrial past and its persistence in the face of rapid economic development. If we consider only the material facts of the share of food in the average household budget, lengthening life span, energy available per capita to provide light and heat and perform work, and the remarkable growth of consumables in both number and variety, there can be no doubt that poverty, as understood to be strictly a matter of material deprivation, has decreased precipitously over time, with many of the initial gains achieved over the course of the early modern period. However, poverty is also a relative condition, and it may well be the case that the massive increases in the size of the resource pool have had the counterintuitive effect of highlighting distributional inequities in ways that were not as obvious when the material basis of society was so much lower on average.

The experience of early modern Europe also suggests that poverty is a treatable condition, at least to some extent. Those places that experimented seriously with charitable social policies saw genuine improvements in overall well-being. Two notable examples will have to suffice as evidence for our purposes here. The first is the Tudor-Stuart program of food relief in seventeenth-century England, which demonstrably lowered the variance of wheat prices and contributed to lower levels of noncrisis mortality than in either of the periods before or after the policies were in effect. The second is the strong commitment shown by urban magistrates and guild members in the Dutch Republic to provide outdoor relief for those affected by the cyclical harbingers of poverty, as well as institutional care for the aged, the infirm, and the orphaned, facilitating when possible entry or reentry into the middling world of work. Visitors to the Dutch Republic from all over Europe remarked on the ubiquity and generosity of these institutions and their salubrious effect on the body social. In both of these examples, beneficent social policies traveled hand in hand with economic prosperity, probably as both cause and effect.

See also Charity and Poor Relief ; Orphans and Foundlings ; Popular Protest and Rebellions ; Public Health ; Religious Orders .


Abel, Wilhelm. Massenarmut und Hungerkrisen im vorindustriellen Europa: Versuch e. Synopsis. Hamburg, 1974.

Boyer, George R. An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 17501850. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990.

Davis, Natalie. "Poor Relief, Humanism, and Heresy: The Case of Lyon." In Studies of Medieval and Renaissance History 5 (1968): 215275.

Fogel, Robert. "Second Thoughts on the European Escape from Hunger: Famines, Chronic Malnutrition, and Mortality Rates." In Nutrition and Poverty, edited by S. R. Osmani, pp. 243286. Oxford and New York, 1992.

Geremek, Bronislaw. Poverty: A History. Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1994.

Hufton, Olwen H. The Poor of Eighteenth-Century France, 17501789. Oxford, 1974.

Leeuwen, Marco H. D. van. "Histories of Risk and Welfare in Europe during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries." In Health Care and Poor Relief in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Northern Europe, edited by Ole Peter Grell, Andrew Cunningham, and Robert Jütte, pp. 3266. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt., 2002.

. The Logic of Charity: Amsterdam, 180050. Translated by Arnold J. Pomerans. London and New York, 2000.

Lis, Catharina, and Hugo Soly. Poverty and Capitalism in Pre-industrial Europe. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1979.

McCants, Anne E. C. Civic Charity in a Golden Age: Orphan Care in Early Modern Amsterdam. Urbana, Ill., 1997.

Pullan, Brian. Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice: The Social Institutions of a Catholic State, to 1620. Cambridge, Mass., 1971.

Rowntree, B. Seebohm. Poverty: A Study of Town Life. London, 1901.

Schwartz, Robert M. Policing the Poor in Eighteenth-Century France. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1988.

Anne E. C. McCants

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Continuing industrialization and technological advances benefit many (though not all) of the people in the developed countries, but the gap between the rich and poor countries is significant and increasing. In general, poverty deprives people of adequate education, health care, and of life's most basic necessitiessafe living conditions (including clean air and clean drinking water) and an adequate food supply. The developed (industrialized) countries today account for roughly 20 percent of the world's population but control about 80 percent of the world's wealth. Poverty and pollution seem to operate in a vicious cycle that, so far, has been hard to break. Even in the developed nations, the gap between the rich and the poor is evident in their respective social and environmental conditions.

Poverty, the Environment, and Pollution

Regardless of the reason or the area of the world in which a poor population lives, certain reciprocal elements will act on the population and its environment. Lack of education, oppression, lack of appropriate infrastructurefrom water-treatment facilities to better roads and communicationall exacerbate the twin problems of poverty and environmental degradation. One cannot ask people to heal the environment, or even just mind it, if they can barely sustain themselves. For example, tropical fish are considered to be either delicacies or exotic pets by people who can pay for them and people in tropical regions can earn good money for catching these fish. But to catch the fish more easily they use cyanide or dynamite to stun the fish. The former pollutes (and moves up the food chain) and the latter destroys the reef environment. Agricultural practices that tax the soil lead to soil erosion, which lowers crop yields and pollutes rivers and streams with silt. The accumulation of the siltfrom the loose eroded soilkills the fish in the river and streams. Another cause of soil erosion is the cutting down of trees, in massive numbers, either for use as firewood (because the winters are harsh and there is no other way to stay warm) or to sell for much needed cash. Eventually, not only will the soil erode to a point where it can no longer sustain agriculture, but the trees would be gone too. The above examples show that practices that fail to consider environmental health perpetuate the poverty cycle, thereby further destroying the environment.

The environment as a whole tends to be jeopardized more in the poorer areas. In the United States, Louisiana is a poor state in which there is an area known as "Cancer Alley." It is a stretch on the lower Mississippi River that is home to 125 companies, many of which manufacture products that result in highly hazardous waste. Cancer rates in the area are higher than the national average, and respiratory illnesses, as well as incidents of liver and kidney toxicity, are rampant. In one typical area, Ascension Parish, environmental justice activist Robert Bullard points out, "eighteen petrochemical plants are crammed into a nine and a half square mile area" (Bullard, p. 106).

Poor people tend to be less well educated (because they do not have the time and resources to obtain an education), and less politically powerful. Many people in Louisiana's Cancer Alley were never aware of the dangers of hazardous waste as industries started moving in. Many of them, after years of discrimination, are distrustful of politicians and public officials. Their land is cheap, and Louisiana provides the big industries with tax breaks, which appeal to companies looking at the bottom line.

Globally, the large industries find the same advantage in poor nations. Pollution controls and hazardous-waste-disposal regulations are stricter, and more expensive, in the developed nations. Many companies find it cheaper to export their waste to the developing countries, which are starving for cash. The hazardous waste disposal in those countries is unsafe and dangerously polluting. The people handling the waste are poorly educated, and therefore may suffer severe health consequences as a result of their work. However, if they are paid a salary they are better off than many others. In addition, the developing countries themselves, eager to grow economically, may develop heavy industry but not the controls or infrastructure necessary to contain the pollution. It is easy to see, therefore, that there is a huge divide, economically and ideologically, between the developed and developing countries.

The NorthSouth Divide

Economists talk about the NorthSouth divide when referring to the economic growth and development of nations. The developed, or industrialized, countries, most of which are in the northern hemisphere, are referred to as the North. The developing countries, which are economically underdeveloped to varying degrees, are referred to as the South. When it comes to pollution and environmental preservation, the North and South have different priorities that seem to put them at odds with each other.

The concept of sustainable development is crucial to understanding the conflict between the North and South. The United Nations, in a 1987 report of its World Commission on Environment and Development, defines sustainable development as the ability to grow economically and improve quality of life in such a way that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (Nebel, p. 16)

As mentioned above, the most pressing priority for the southern hemisphere nations is economic growth: the poverty rate in the developing countries can reach 90 percent (by comparison, the North has a poverty rate, on average, of 15 percent). Environmental conservation and pollution control are far less a priority in the South. The priority in the North is sustainable developmentthe ability to continue on the course of consumption and energy use while ensuring a healthy environment. The developing countries feel this attitude is elitist, even racist (most poor nations or groups are not white). They contend that the developed countries' demands for environmental regulations place an undue burden on the developing nations. Worse yet, the largest polluters are the developed countries, which also consume the most global resources. Many of the problems of environmental destruction in the poor countries are a direct result of consumption levels in the developed countries (poaching for ivory in Africa is but one example, albeit extreme).

Historically, European colonization disrupted those societies that normally lived in balance with their environment. Mostly hunting, agricultural, or fishing in nature, the people grew or consumed enough to sustain themselves, never taking more than they needed. The European settlers diverted the native agriculture to grow certain target crops (sugarcane and tobacco, for example) that were valuable in Europe. Not rotating the crops depleted the soil and reduced crop yields. It also made the colonized countries' economies wholly dependent on the fluctuations in cash-crop prices. The settlers also mined and deforested the environment, causing heavy damage. To this day, developing nations are in the ironic position of exporting a big percentage of their agricultural yield, while having to import food. Even after gaining their independence, many of these countries were unable to build an economy independent of European and U.S. consumption patterns. The developing nations are heavily in debt to the developed countries, and their cash crops and other commodities (such as diamonds in Africa) are controlled by international corporations. The entire set of circumstances creates severe tension between the North and the South and is getting renewed attention with the emphasis now being given to environmental justice.

Environmental Equity

In 1997 a study by the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies found that life expectancy for people living in poor communities in the United States was markedly lower than life expectancy for people living in wealthier communities, sometimes by as much as fifteen years. While many factors contribute to this alarming discrepancy, it has become clearer since the 1980s that poor communities, which are also predominantly non-white, bear the brunt of adverse pollution affects. In 1983, for example, a U.S. General Accounting Office report found that in eight southeastern states that were studied, "Blacks make up the majority of the population in three out of four communities where landfills are located." (U.S. GAO, p. 1) Worldwide, the trend is similar. Big corporations find it easier and cheaper to export trash and to build polluting factories in poor developing nations.

Environmental justice is, to use the U.S. Department of Energy's definition, "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies" ( In the United States, the 1980s saw the beginning of an environmental justice movement that started focusing attention on the undue burdens placed on poor communities when it comes to living in a polluted environment. Fighting what some refer to as environmental racism, the grassroots environmental justice movements at times clashed with older environmental groups, who formed around the idea of conservation, and whose concern for the natural environment seemed elitist. There was a perception that organizations such as the Sierra Club concerned themselves with the conservation of the natural environment but did not care about pollution in inner cities and poor rural communities. Much more research is being done on the connection between hazardous living conditions and povertynot only on the effects, but also on the causes. Among the environmental justice group's many victories was Executive Order 12898, signed by President Bill Clinton on February 11, 1994, directing federal agencies to correct the "disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects" that their operations have on the minorities and low-income populations.

Earth Summit and Agenda 21

Environmental justice and the connection between poverty and pollution have been gaining increased attention globally, both from governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in what came to be known as the Earth Summit (June 3 to 14). Unprecedented in size, the meeting focused on sustainable development, and its main result was a document of goals and plan of action known as Agenda 21. The document was adopted by over 170 governments represented at the conference. One of the principles on which Agenda 21 is based is recognizing that "[a]ll States and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development" (Rio Declaration, Principle 5). Chapter 3 of Agenda 21 is dedicated to the issue of poverty. In it, the document acknowledges that sustainable development is not possible without a sweeping, global effort to eradicate poverty, and certain recommendations are made as to how to achieve this goal.

Following the Earth Summit, the United Nations noted that poverty was in fact increasing. In a follow-up meeting to the Earth Summit, the UN General Assembly in its 1997 Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21 called for refocusing sustainable development efforts on the eradication of poverty as an overriding priority. In 1995 the United Nations also declared 1997 to 2006 to be "the First United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty" (

The disappointing decade that followed the Earth Summit, especially with the increase in poverty, led to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, a meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, that took place between August 26 and September 4, 2002. While the document resulting from the meeting was only fifty pages long, it contained concrete goals, and as such has more practical value than Agenda 21, in the opinion of many participants. In addition to the goals, over three hundred international partnerships were formed to launch an initiative that would improve access to safe drinking water, improve sanitation, address toxic-waste management, and address many other sustainable development issues.

According to the World Bank, at the start of the twenty-first century 1.2 billion people lived in absolute poverty, a condition defined by the United Nations as "characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs" (UN Report of the World Summit for Social Development, p. 44), including access to safe water, sanitation, food, and appropriate health care. Economically, the World Bank defines absolute poverty as living on less than one dollar per day. An additional 2.8 billion people lived on less than two dollars per day. Eight out of one hundred children didn't live to see their fifth birthday. While strides have been made in the fight against poverty, these advances were not uniformly distributed around the globe. It is well understood that the ecological crisis our planet is facingone that includes pollution, scarcity of resources, environmental degradation, and loss of biodiversitycannot be addressed without addressing, and alleviating, the problem of poverty. To do that, an integrated approach, one that addresses the entire poverty cycle, is needed. Such an approach would have to include the eradication of gender bias in community participation and access to education; equal representation to all citizens, regardless of economic status; access to safe drinking water, proper sanitation, and proper health care (including family-planning resources); universal access to education; and improved employment opportunities. It is obvious from this partial list that only committed international cooperation can bring about these changes. In maintaining the status quo, we pay a tremendous price in human suffering and in an environmental crisis that will affect generations to come. The good news is that more people are refusing to pay the price these days, and are taking steps to form partnerships that will bring about a positive change.

see also Agenda 21; Cancer; Cancer Alley, Louisiana; CHávez, César E.; Disasters: Chemical Accidents and Spills; Disasters: Environmental Mining Accidents; Disasters: Natural; Disasters: Nuclear Accidents; Disasters: Oil Spills; Earth Summit; Environmental Racism; Health, Human.


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ponting, clive. (1992). a green history of the world. new york: st. martin's press.

olden, kenneth. (1998). "the complex interaction of poverty, pollution, health status." the scientist 12(4):7.

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Adi R. Ferrara

A study prepared for the California state Waste Management Board, known as the Cerrell Report, concluded that trash incinerators should not be built within five miles of "middle and higher socioeconomic strata neighborhoods." The report, "Political Difficulties Facing Waste-to-Energy Conversion Plant Siting," says that plans to build such plants will face less opposition if placed in poor neighborhoods instead of wealthy ones. The report provides personality profiles of people most likely and least likely to fight an incineration plant.

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The plight of poor people throughout the world continues to be much the same as what was described by the Brandt Commission in 1980. The words sound hauntingly similar to the description of the people living in today's global poverty.

Many hundred of millions of people in the poorer countries are preoccupied solely with survival and elementary needs. For them work is frequently not available or, when it is, pay is low and conditions often barely tolerable. Homes are constructed of impermanent materials and have neither piped water nor sanitation. Electricity is a luxury. Health services are thinly spread and in rural areas only rarely within walking distance. Primary schools, where they exist, may be free and not too far away, but children are needed for work and cannot be easily spared for schooling. Permanent insecurity is the condition of the poor. There are no public systems of social security in the event of unemployment, sickness or death of a wage earner in the family. Flood, drought or disease affecting people or livestock can destroy livelihoods without hope of compensation.

The poorest of the poor . . . will remain . . . outside the reach of normal trade and communication. The combination of malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, high birth rates, underemployment and low income closes off the avenues of escape. (Brandt Commission 1980, p. 49)

Definition of Poverty

No one common definition of poverty is accepted by all countries. Poverty is generally categorized as material deprivation. Generally, poverty is defined as the state of being poor or deficient in money or means of subsistence (Barker 1995).

Increasingly, the concept of basic subsistence is measured by the availability of infrastructure services, such as safe water, sanitation, solid-waste collection and disposal, storm drainage, public transportation, access roads and footpaths, street lighting, and public telephones. In some countries, other neighborhood amenities such as safe play areas, community facilities, electrical connections, and social services become important in helping increase the standard of living so that the poor can break the cycle of poverty (World Bank 2001).

Defining poverty solely as being deprived of money is, however, not sufficient. Social indicators and indicators of risk and vulnerability must also be considered and understood to obtain a clear picture of poverty.

Global Poverty

The world may be categorized into seven major areas for ease of study and understanding. They are: Latin America and the Caribbean; the Middle East and North Africa; Africa—Sub-Sahara; Europe, and Central Asia; East Asia and the Pacific; South Asia; and North America.

In a major study of global poverty, the World Bank (2001) estimated that 1.2 billion people lived in poverty in these seven major areas. Additionally, UNICEF (2001) reported that in a $30 trillion global economy, this figure represents one-fourth of the human race that is living in conditions of almost unimaginable suffering and want. Nearly 1 billion people in the world are illiterate. Approximately 1.3 billion people lack safe water. Over one-half of the developing world's population (2.6 billion people) is without access to adequate sanitation.

The United Nations Department of Public Information (1996) estimated that more than twothirds of the world's poor people live in only ten African and Asian countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, central and western China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In Africa, the majority of the countries that are poor gained their independence from European colonial powers in the second half of the twentieth century. In Asia, most of the poverty is concentrated in the southern and eastern areas.

More than a billion people still live on less than $1 a day (World Bank 2001). The majority of the world's poor people are women and children. Most of these reside in rural areas. More than 110 million children of school age do not attend school. Easily preventable diseases (pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, and measles) account for the deaths of nearly eleven million children under the age of five each year. Between 600 million and 700 million children, representing about 40 percent of all those in the developing world, are poor (World Summit for Social Development and Beyond web site).

Measuring Poverty

Each country measures poverty according to its level of development, societal norms, and values. Because of these differences, the poverty level may change from country to country; thus, there is no uniformity in the poverty line. The poverty line is a measure of the amount of money a government or a society believes is necessary for a person to live at a minimum level of subsistence or standard of living (Barker 1997).

In the United States, the poverty line measurement was developed in the mid-1960s by Mollie Orshansky (1965). Essentially, a poverty level (line) was determined by figuring out how much a family needed to maintain a minimally adequate diet and then multiplying by three (represents the number in a family). The United States government adopted this standard, and, with minor yearly adjustments, has used it ever since (Ellwood 1988).

The establishment of a poverty line has political implications. Poverty lines are established at given points of time, and they are usually adjusted, minimally, on a yearly basis. The question of who to count and what to count remains important because a poverty line reveals what a country does and does not do in addressing the needs of its poor citizens.

When estimating global poverty, the United States poverty line is not used. Although there are disagreements on its use, the World Bank uses poverty lines that are set at $1 and $2 per day (U.S. dollars) in 1993 Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms. The PPPs measure the relative purchasing power of currencies across countries. It was estimated that in 1998, 1.2 billion people worldwide had consumption levels below $1 a day—24 percent of the population of the developing world—and 2.8 billion people lived on less than $2 a day. For purposes of analysis, the World Bank uses the poverty lines that are based on the norms for respective countries (World Bank 2001).

Welfare Response

Welfare is defined as a condition of physical health, emotional comfort, and economic security. The term also characterizes the efforts of a society to help its citizens achieve that condition, and is used as a synonym for public assistance or other programs that provide for the economic and social services needs of poor people (Barker 1997). Welfare refers to government efforts that provide money, programs, medical care, food, and housing, for instance, to those who are poor. All countries differ, however, on how much they spend on welfare as compared to social insurance or the size of the overall economy (Garfinkel and Waldfogel 2001).

Typically, European countries have universal programs that provide free medical and hospital care, family allowances, and retirement pensions. The Scandinavian countries, such as Norway and Sweden, have extensive government programs; these are so comprehensive that poverty is considered practically nonexistent. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom all spend large shares of their economies on the needs of the poor. Aid is provided by employers and families in East Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore.

Less developed countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia have lower overall budgets for welfare than other nations. South Africa, however, has one of the most developed social welfare systems, with a particularly comprehensive health care system. Uruguay has a well-developed welfare system. India and Sri Lanka provide smaller benefits and serve fewer recipients (Garfinkel and Waldfogel 2001).

Categories of Dependence

Dependence can be divided into two categories: generational welfare dependence and situational welfare dependence. Welfare families who raise children who, in turn, become welfare recipients are the generational welfare dependent. Generational welfare dependency is the hardest type of poverty for a family to overcome. Over time, this kind of poverty creates a poverty of spirit that can affect a person's and family's entire being. The last thirty years of social welfare history in the United States, for example, reveal that such poverty usually destroys the family unit. In the worst cases, poverty of this sort overtakes entire neighborhoods, towns, and communities by thrusting them into hopelessness and despair (Carlson 1999).

Situational welfare-dependent families are those who have moved from a state of financial independence to welfare dependence, generally due to crises. Causes of sudden financial hardship include abandonment, divorce, debilitating illness, economic recession, natural disasters, and civil strife (Carlson 1999).

Weakened Families and Kinship Systems

In the early 1900s, a U.S. social worker, Mary Richmond, referred to the family as "the great social unit, the fundamental social fact." She demanded changes in agency and government practices, action in regard to child labor laws, industrial safety regulations, and protection of working women, as well as administrative changes in industrial operations to strengthen family life. She constantly challenged people to ask themselves: "Have we at least set plans in motion that will make the children better heads of families than their parents have been?" Her challenge was based on a new recognition of "the overwhelming force of heredity plus the environment we inherit" (1908, pp. 76–79).

A century later, the world's traditional family and kinship systems continued to undergo profound changes. These changes were driven mainly by such economic forces as repeated failures in subsistence agriculture, the availability of relatively higher-paying jobs in urban factories, and new economic opportunities in neighboring and distant countries. Social and political forces also figured centrally in the changes affecting traditional family forms—for example, continuing high rates of population increase, an aging population, increasing numbers of women who need to work outside the home, and recurrent wars and civil conflict (Edwards 1997).

Most of these changes occur in an environment of shrinking social welfare and other support services to help families. Services such as childcare assistance and care for the dependent elderly become paramount in importance to a world of women who carry these responsibilities.

All nations value the family unit. Poor, undeveloped countries are not able to absorb the high costs, however, associated with weakened family and kinship systems.

A Welfare Program Example

In the United States, federal cash assistance for dependent children began in 1935 with the enactment of the Social Security Act. At that time, most poor single mothers were widows, and the cash assistance appropriation was designed to help mothers stay home with their children. Through the years, that initial program, which was called Mother's Pension, changed in both the titles of the cash assistance programs and the requirements placed on the mothers who participate in these programs.

During the 1960s, the United States Congress passed laws that provided incentives to poor mothers to find jobs or to be in job skills training programs. Efforts were also made by the federal government to require fathers of poor children receiving governmental aid to pay child support. By the 1980s, the generalized picture of most poor single mothers revealed that they had never been married or were separated or divorced.

Two decades of moderate to conservative governmental leadership resulted in the U.S. Congress making major changes in the nation's welfare system in 1996. It passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Within this act, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program also replaced the former federal program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Under AFDC, the federal government required the states to provide aid to families whose income was below the poverty line. Under TANF, the federal government distributed cash payments directly to the states. The respective states determined the recipients of the cash assistance. The major shift in TANF from AFDC was that recipients must be working within two years, with five years being the maximum time that poor families could remain on government aid.

The results of this ideological paradigm shift were mixed. Some statistics reveal decreases in the welfare caseload. Other statistics revealed that more poor people, especially women, were employed although many of the jobs paid only minimum wage. Anecdotal evidence abounded about to the number of poor women with children who had to choose between paying their utilities and purchasing food. Some estimates suggested that by the early twenty-first century, TANF would result in 2.6 million more people living below the federal poverty line (OneWorld web site).

Regional Disparities Still Exist

In the last decades of the twentieth century, according to the World Bank (2001), living standards improved all over the world. The proportion of the developing world's population living in extreme economic poverty—defined as living on less than $1 per day (in 1993 dollars, adjusted to account for difference in purchasing power across countries)—fell from 28 percent in 1987 to 23 percent in 1998. Improvement in social indicators accompanied growth in average incomes. Infant mortality rates fell; growth occurred in food production; governments reported rapid progress in primary school enrollment; adult literacy rose; gender disparities also narrowed.

In some countries, the increasing poor population overshadowed the improvement in social indicators. Poverty continued to rise in Sub-Saharan Africa. Child mortality rose quickly because of the AIDS epidemic. On average, 151 of every 1,000 African children died before the age of five. Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mali, and Niger have fewer than half of their children enrolled in primary school.

In South Asia, it is estimated that four in ten households (more than 500 million people) remained in poverty. Countries such as India made tremendous positive strides in educating their poor women. Gender disparities still existed in education. Female disadvantage in education remained large in Western and Central Africa, North Africa, and South Asia (World Bank web site).

See also:Adolescent Parenthood; Chronic Illness; Failure to Thrive; Family Literacy; Family Policy; Global Citizenship; Homeless Families; Housing; Industrialization; Juvenile Delinquency; Migration; Neighborhood; Resource Management; Runaway Youths; Rural Families; Single-Parent Families; Stress; Unemployment; Urbanization; War/Political Violence; Widowhood; Women's Movements; Work and Family


axinn, j., and levin, h. (1997). social welfare: a history of the american response to need, 4th edition. new york: longman.

barker, r. l. (1997). the social work dictionary, 3rd edition. washington, dc: nasw press.

brandt commission. (1980). north-south: a programme for survival. london: pan books.

carlson, d. l. (1999). the welfare of my neighbor. washington, dc: family research council.

coulton, c. j., and chow, j. (1995). "poverty." in encyclopedia of social work. 19th edition, ed. r. l. edwards. washington, dc: nasw press.

edwards, r. l., ed. (1998). encyclopedia of social work, 19th edition, 1997 supplement. washington, dc: nasw press.

ellwood, d. (1986). poor support. new york: basic books.

estes, r. j. (1988). trends in world social development. new york: praeger.

midgley, j. (1995). social development: the developmental perspective in social welfare. london: sage.

orshansky, m. (1965). "counting the poor: another look at the poverty profile." social security bulletin 28:3–20.

richmond, m. (1908). "the family and the social worker." new york: proceedings, nccc.

united nations development programme (undp). (1997). "human development report, 1997." new york: oxford university press.

wilson, w. j. (1988). the truly disadvantaged. chicago: university of chicago press.

wilson, w. j. (1996). when work disappears: the world of the new urban poor. new york: vintage books.

world bank. (2001). "annual report, 2000-2001." new york: oxford university press.

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world summit for social development and beyond: copenhagen +5. web site. available from

gaynor yancey

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Poverty is among the most central problems of economics, and its alleviation is a long-standing challenge for economists and policy makers alike. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) adopted by the United Nations in 2000 aim to lower the fraction of the worlds poor by the year 2015 to half its 1990 level, where poor includes those subsisting on less than $1 a day. This description of poverty is close to the $1.08-per-day poverty line (in 1993 dollars) adopted by the World Bank. Defined by the $1 cut-off, in 1998 one in five people in the world (1.2 billion) were poor, and they were concentrated in South Asia (522 million), sub-Saharan Africa (291 million), and East Asia (278 million).


Measured in terms of certain basic capabilitieshealth, education, political voice, creditthese regional poverty patterns persist. The 2004 Human Development Report states that sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 22 percent of the worlds malnourished population and 42 percent of primary school-age children not in school. For East Asia the corresponding figures are 25 percent and 13 percent, and for South Asia, they are 37 percent and 31 percent, respectively. Thus, the $1-a-day measure seems to do a reasonable job of capturing other relevant dimensions of poverty.

How do those with less than $1 a day really live? Based on household level surveys across thirteen countries, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2007) give us a vivid picture: They often work multiple odd jobs (and not only in agriculture); frequently migrate temporarily for work; own few assets other than land; lack access to credit and insurance; get poor-quality health care and education (if at all); are frequently malnourished; spend much (but not all) of their income on food (5075%), alcohol and tobacco (resisting temptations to spend more), and festivals (but few other forms of entertainment); and importantly, although they do feel the pinch of poverty, their self-reported levels of happiness and health are not particularly low. If this poverty cut-off were doubled to just $2 a day, nearly half the worlds people would be deemed poor (2.8 billion)and shockingly, they consume less in a month than what the nonpoor consume in a single day.

These figures are grim, but to gain some perspective on them and assess how realistic the MDG are, we need to measure the progress the world has made in alleviating poverty. Taking the long view, the drop in the poverty ratefrom 84 percent in 1820 to 50 percent in 1950, to 24 percent in 1992and the rise in life expectancyfrom twenty-seven years to sixty-one years over the same period (Bourguignon and Morrison 2002)is dramatic. Over a shorter period it is less so. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate worldwide has fallen from 28.7 percent in 1987 to 24.3 percent in 1998 (World Bank 2007). (These numbers are somewhat sensitive to the time period and data sources used; Angus Deaton [2002] points out that this can be explained by the use of different underlying data sources, but there is less disagreement of the pattern of changes than in levels.) Once again, there is sharp regional variationfrom 26.6 percent to 15.3 percent in East Asia (mostly China) and 44 percent to 40 percent in South Asia, but stagnant around 46 percent in Africa, with an increase of 50 million in the regions poor. These sharp regional variations in poverty reduction emphasize the question of what the underlying causes of poverty are. Not surprisingly, there are multiple views on what is the right answer.


The dominant view of the 1980s, the Washington Consensus, still prevalent in some influential quarters (such as the International Monetary Fund), is that growth is the best answer to the poverty problem and that market-friendly policies are best suited to achieving growth. Does the data support this view? There is strong evidence of positive correlation between growth and poverty reductionwhich, of course, is not the same as causation. Based on numbers from sixty countries with data for more than one year, Timothy Besley and Robin Burgess (2003) find that poverty rates are very responsive to changes in income per capita (elasticity = - 0.73 worldwide), but yet again, with large regional differences (-1.0 in East Asia versus - 0.49 in sub-Saharan Africa). They conclude that, given historical growth rates of per capita income, growth alone is unlikely to help achieve the poverty reduction targets set in the MDG in most regions (Besley and Burgess 2003). As for evidence of market-driven growth, it is now widely agreed that the most prominent growth story of the past three decades, the East Asian miracle, involved active government intervention in markets (Amsden 2001). Overall, support for the Washington Consensus view does exist, but it is not overwhelming. As a practical matter, many countries have had a less than favorable experience with certain aspects of stabilization plans based on this viewa policy package typically involving openness to trade and foreign capital markets, restrictive monetary and fiscal policies, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and deregulation of important markets. Concerted international action to tackle poverty, in the form of foreign aid, has been well below the United Nationss aid target of 0.7 percent of gross domestic product of the G7 countries (the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Canada). But even if that aid were available, it would be only one-third of what is needed to achieve the MDG. Collectively, these realities have forced a search for alternative explanations for and solutions to the poverty problem.


A shift in the thinking on poverty is also being driven by a deeper theoretical understanding of both market failure and government failurethat is, how market imperfections deny the poor a chance to make the investments needed to rise out of poverty, and why governments are not always effective in making up for this lapse. One important conclusion emerging from research in this area is the need for sound domestic institutions to promote growth and poverty reductionmore so than a countrys geographical or cultural legacies. A natural consequence of this finding is a callby the World Bank (World Bank 2003) and by academic economistsfor a wider set of institutional reforms, including promoting democracy and other forms of political voice for the poor, the rule of law, property rights for the poor, increasing government accountability, and reducing corruption. There has been a steady trickle of evidence supporting the favorable impact of sound institutions on outcomes for the poor: for example, how property rights over land in urban areas in Peru help the poor gain access to credit, increase labor supply, and be more productive (De Soto 2000; Field 2002); how political representation for women in India results in more funds for public goods they care about (Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004); and how a newspaper campaign concerning government accountability increased the resources reaching public schools in Uganda (Reinikka and Svensson 2001).


Although progress on institutional reform is crucial, it can be slow. A parallel approach is a package of policy measures that target poverty and redistribute resources to the poor through schools and health clinics, promoting small businesses, access to credit, better social safety nets, and so on. Here, theoretical research has helped to explain why certain redistribution mechanismsfor instance, in-kind rather than cash transferscan deliver greater equity and growth when there are market imperfections. This research has shed light on the political economy of public good provision, with insights into suitable incentives for policy makers, providers, and program recipients. On the ground, the better programs have worked through effective design and implementation. For instance, Mexicos Progresa program involves cash benefits for women and their families that are conditional upon the child(ren) being sent to school and being taken for health check-ups. Microfinancepioneered by Mohammad Yunus of the Grameen Bankuses a combination of peer monitoring and group liability for borrowers, which makes possible micro loans to those too poor to offer collateral. One common feature of both these programs is that they channel resources to poor households through women. Such a gender-based strategy of redistribution is gaining support, given widespread evidence of womens tendency to spend more resources on childrens welfare and human capital, relative to men (Haddad, Hoddinott, and Alderman 1987). It has also been recognized as a viable solution to the problem of child labor and low schooling, breaking the vicious link from current to future poverty. While there is strong evidence for the positive impact of Progresa (Schultz 2004), ongoing work is evaluating and refining the design of microfinance initiatives.

More broadly, a combination of empirical and, more recently, experimental work is helping design and systematically evaluate a host of service-delivery mechanisms, including the effect of improved child health on school attendance (Kremer-Miguel 2004); the impact of more rural bank branches on poverty (Burgess and Pande 2002); and the impact of corruption in the issuance of drivers licenses by the government (Bertrand, Djankov, Hanna, and Mullainathan 2007).


As part of these experiments with program design and implementation, economists have sometimes found it hard to rationally explain certain choices that the poor make, be it with regard to savings, or technology adoption (Ashraf et al. 2006; Duflo et al. 2006). This gives rise to an exciting new behavioral economics approach to poverty that seeks to understand decisions of the poor from not just an economic perspective, but also a psychological one. Insight into the strengths and weaknesses of governments and markets also blurs the line between private- and public-service delivery (Besley and Ghatak 2004), giving rise to innovative approaches such as the Advanced Commitment for Vaccines initiative. Some even argue that the worlds poor constitute not just an obligation for the rich, but also a vital, untapped market (Prahalad 2004).

At the international level, however, some important issues that affect poverty remain difficult to resolve. Globalization and trade have been a boon to some countries (or some areas within countries), but a bane to others, creating greater income insecurity for the poor in some developing and developed economies. International agreements on trade and immigration, intellectual property issues, and environmental pollution have not always been favorable to poor economies. These remain areas where large strides can be made toward reduction of global poverty.

SEE ALSO Accountability; Corruption; Culture of Poverty; Development Economics; Economic Growth; Economics; Economics, Stratification; Education, USA; Government; Governmentality; Grameen Bank; Human Capital; Microfinance; Poor, The; Schooling; Stratification; Washington Consensus; World Bank, The


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Ashraf, Nava, Dean Karlan, and Wesley Yin. 2006. Tying Odysseus to the Mast: Evidence from a Commitment Savings Product in the Philippines. Quarterly Journal of Economics 121 (2): 673697.

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Anandi Mani

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POVERTY. About 31.1 million, or 11.3 percent, of Americans were poor in 2000. "Poor," as used here, means living below the poverty threshold, a dollar amount determined by the United States Bureau of the Census by taking a family's total income before taxes and then adjusting for the size of the family and the number of related children under eighteen years of age. In 2000, the poverty threshold ranged from $8,259 for an individual sixty-five and older to $33,291 for a family of nine or more individuals, including eight or more related children under eighteen. The poverty threshold for a family of two adults and two related children was $17,463. Individuals sixty-five and older, blacks and Hispanics, people in families with no workers, households headed by women, and people living inside central cities suffered disproportionately higher rates of poverty compared with other Americans.

The federal poverty threshold originated in the 1950s and is based today on the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, a minimal-cost food plan determined to be nutritionally adequate according to national dietary guidelines, its cost multiplied by a factor of three (based on the assumption that nutritionally adequate food will cost one-third of a family's income) to account for other living expenses. Although it is updated annually according to the Consumer Price Index for inflation, a chief criticism of the poverty threshold is that food expenses have accounted for less than 15 percent of average income since 1965 (10.2 percent in 2000), making the multiplier too small, while other living expenses (such as housing, health care, transportation, and child care) have increased dramatically, especially for the poor.

Quantitative descriptions of the food and nutrient intakes of poor Americans can be found in analyses of national surveys that collect dietary and sociodemographic data from representative samples of the U.S. population. Analysis of the 19941996 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals (CSFII) showed that poor Americans, defined as adults aged twenty years and older with incomes below 131 percent of the poverty threshold, tended to consume fewer servings of grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy foods, but more servings of meats and meat alternates and more added sugars, compared with adults with higher incomes. Fewer servings of grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy foods, and lower energy and nutrient intakes were found for men and women with less than a high-school education, a proxy measure for poverty, compared with men and women who had completed high school and beyond.

Analyses of a number of national surveys conducted between 1977 and 1996 show that dietary intakes of low-income adults have changed over time. For example, overall dietary quality improved among low-income white and Hispanic women, primarily due to reductions in total and saturated-fat and cholesterol intakes. However, fruit and vegetable intakes remained below the recommended amounts, as did those of key nutrients such as calcium, iron, and folic acid.

Poverty, Food Insufficiency, Food Insecurity, and Hunger

Poverty is inextricably linked with food insufficiency (not having enough to eat some or all of the time), food insecurity (uncertainty about or inability to acquire nutritionally adequate foods in socially acceptable ways), and hunger (the physical consequence of not having enough to eat). According to data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III), food insufficiency affected 4.1 percent of U.S. house holds, or between 9 and 12 million individuals. Data from the September 2000 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement showed the prevalence of food insecurity to be 10.5 percent, and the prevalence of hunger to be 3.1 percent, affecting 11 million and 3.3 million Americans, respectively. Numerous studies of national survey data have shown lower intakes of several nutrients among men, women, and children who experience food insufficiency or food insecurity. Analysis of food intakes and serum nutrients of adults from food-insufficient families has also shown lower intakes of fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, and lower concentrations of serum albumin, serum carotenoids, and serum vitamins A and E. Additional analyses of food-insufficient adults and children reveal a higher prevalence of overweight and obesity, poor health status, and iron deficiency.

Results from qualitative analyses of dietary data, in the form of ethnographic research studies, complement findings from quantitative studies and confirm differences in food choices between poor and nonpoor Americans. Poor Americans tend to consume more starches, fats, and sugars but less of foods associated with good health, like fruits and vegetables, high-fiber grains, and low-fat dairy items. Although specific food choices may differ by ethnicity or geographic location, commonalities in eating patterns exist among poor Americans. Food intakes can vary quite dramatically in the course of a month, with greater quantities and more varied foods purchased immediately after a pay period or allotment of food assistance (such as food stamps) and very limited quantities, of little variety, purchased as funds run out. Also, food intakes are not equal within households. A common occurrence is for the wife or mother of the family to reduce her intake in order to feed her children. Communal dining may also be impossible when income limits available cookware or dining facilities, or sporadic work schedules keep all members of a family from being together at one time. Feelings of deprivation, often rooted in childhood, may lead to buying nonnutritious foods (such as soda and snack foods) that are also attractive because inexpensive. Although studies show that, in theory, consuming a minimal-cost diet in accordance with the latest dietary guidelines is possible, poor Americans are more likely to purchase foods from small, nearby stores that charge an average of 10 percent more than large supermarkets farther from home.

Food Assistance in the United States

Many poor Americans are eligible for federal food-assistance programs like the Food Stamp Program, the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). In addition to or as a substitute for government assistance, many poor Americans also receive charitable assistance from food pantries and soup kitchens. In 2000, 50.4 percent of Americans identified as food-insecure received assistance from one of the three federal food-assistance programs, 16.7 percent received food from a food pantry, and 2.5 percent had family members who ate at a soup kitchen. Although participation in these programs and services may reduce food insecurity, the dietary quality of participants' food may not be better than that of nonparticipants. Given societal pressures to join the dominant culture and eat the most advertised, least expensive, most accessible foodshealthful or notthe challenge is how to improve the diets of all Americans, especially the poor.

See also Class, Social ; Cost of Food ; Food Pantries ; Food Riots ; Food Stamps ; Homelessness ; Nutrition Transition: Worldwide Diet Change ; Population and Demographics ; Rationing ; Sociology ; Soup Kitchens ; WIC (Women, Infants, and Children's) Program .


Alaimo, K., R. R. Briefel, E. A. Frongillo, and C. M. Olson. "Food Insufficiency Exists in the United States: Results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III)." American Journal of Public Health 88 (1998): 419426.

Andrews, M., L. S. Kantor, M. Lino, and D. Ripplinger. "Using USDA's Thrifty Food Plan to Assess Food Availability and Affordability." Food Review 24 (2001): 4553.

Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. The Thrifty Food Plan, 1999. CNPP-7A. Available at

Dalaker J. "Poverty in the United States: 2000." U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, Series P60-214. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 2001.

Dixon, L. B., M. A. Winkleby, and K. L. Radimer. "Dietary Intakes and Serum Nutrients Differ between Adults from Food-Insufficient and Food-Sufficient Families: Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 19881994." Journal of Nutrition 131 (2001): 12321246.

Fitchen, J. M. "Hunger, Malnutrition, and Poverty in the Contemporary United States: Some Observations on Their Social and Cultural Context." Journal of Food and Foodways 2 (1988): 309333.

Kaufman, P. R., J. M. MacDonald, S. M. Lutz, and D. M. Smallwood. "Do the Poor Pay More for Food? Item Selection and Price Differences Affect Low-Income Household Food Costs." Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, November 1997.

Kumanyika, S., and S. M. Krebs-Smith. "Preventive Nutrition Issues in Ethnic and Socioeconomic Groups in the United States." In Primary and Secondary Preventive Nutrition, edited by A. Bendich and R. J. Deckelbaum. Totowa, N.J.: Humana Press, 2001.

Nord, M., K. Nader, L. Tiehen, M. Andrews, G. Bickel, and S. Carlson. Household Food Security in the United States, 2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 2000.

Sharpe, D. L., and M. Abdel-Ghany. "Identifying the Poor and Their Consumption Patterns." Family Economics and Nutrition Review 12 (1999): 1525.

Siega-Riz, A. M., and B. M. Popkin. "Dietary Trends among Low Socioeconomic Status Women of Childbearing Age in the United States from 1977 to 1996: A Comparison among Ethnic Groups." Journal of the American Medical Women's Association 56 (2001): 4448.

United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Food Consumption per Capita Data System. Available at

L. Beth Dixon

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poverty A state in which resources, usually material but sometimes cultural, are lacking. It is common to distinguish between absolute and relative definitions of poverty. Poverty defined in absolute terms refers to a state in which the individual lacks the resources necessary for subsistence. Relative definitions, frequently favoured by sociologists (especially when studying poverty in advanced industrial societies), refer to the individual's or group's lack of resources when compared with that of other members of the society—in other words their relative standard of living. Since relative poverty is a matter of differences in levels of material resources—that is, of inequalities in their distribution across a society—measures of relative poverty are potentially no less objective than those of absolute poverty. They are not simply a matter of subjective feelings of poverty, though such feelings may be of importance when analysing the consequences of poverty.

Subsistence definitions of poverty are of considerable value in examining Third World poverty, and international studies show that the overall level of poverty measured in subsistence terms is very high, with some studies suggesting that almost half of those in low-income countries live in absolute poverty. The very high level of poverty is unquestionable even though very precise measures of poverty are hard to obtain in societies where income gives only an imprecise indication of access to the means of subsistence. Significantly, the classic studies of poverty in Britain by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree also used subsistence definitions and identified rather high levels of poverty, though not as high as those of present-day Third World societies. Booth, in his seventeen-volume study of The Life and Labour of the People in London (1889–1903), used income as a measure of poverty. Introducing the concept of a poverty line, a level below which families were unable to meet the necessities for subsistence, he provided evidence that somewhere near one-third of the whole population in London were in poverty. Rowntree's study of poverty in York at the turn of the century also used a subsistence definition. However, he introduced rather more precision by trying to determine the basic diets necessary for subsistence and then calculating the income needed to provide these subsistence diets, with an allowance for clothing and housing. His evidence showed some 15 per cent of York's population were in primary poverty, with earnings insufficient to meet basic needs. Adding in secondary poverty, where earnings were sufficient but were spent on other things, some 28 per cent were living in obvious want or squalor. His 1936 survey, using modified measures, yielded figures of just under 7 per cent and 18 per cent respectively. By 1950 poverty in Britain appeared almost to have disappeared following the introduction of the welfare state, and Rowntree concluded that fewer than 2 per cent were in poverty.

In the 1960s, however, poverty was ‘rediscovered’. In Britain, writers such as Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend argued that the measures of poverty used by researchers such as Rowntree had not been properly adjusted to take account of changes in the purchasing power of incomes over time, and so were underestimating subsistence poverty. (A parallel story can be told about the United States—for which see the references at the end of this entry.) They also contended that poverty was better defined in relative than in absolute terms. Families might have sufficient resources for survival, but this did not mean they had enough to keep themselves warm or to afford the new consumer durables (such as televisions or fridges) which were coming to seem increasingly necessary, or to participate in the social and leisure activities enjoyed by other families. They were consequently excluded from the ‘ordinary social life of the community’. Abel-Smith and Townsend used as a measure of relative poverty a family's position vis-à-vis social security (welfare payment) levels, finding nearly 15 per cent of the population in poverty. Subsequent studies, such as Townsend's monumental study Poverty (1978), refined the measures of relative poverty and continued to show significant proportions in poverty—proportions that seemed to increase during the 1980s with growing inequality and reductions in welfare provision. Recent figures suggest that perhaps one in five of the British population are in poverty, although these are the subject of much controversy, as indeed are the poverty figures for almost all advanced industrial societies.

The immediate causes of poverty vary over time and over the life-cycle. Booth and Rowntree found low and irregular earnings were a major cause. (Rowntree showed that at least half of primary poverty in 1897–98 was due to low wages and over a fifth to large families.) However, Rowntree's 1936 study suggested that unemployment and old age were more significant causes than formerly. By the time of Townsend's study, the main immediate causes were low pay, loss of the breadwinner, ill-health, unemployment, and old-age, with the key groups in poverty being the elderly, single parents, the long-term sick and disabled, the low-paid, and the unemployed. Women are over-represented amongst the poor—a finding that has led some writers to talk of a feminization of poverty.

This mapping of change in the immediate causes of poverty indicates that it is economic and structural factors and social misfortune, not individual weakness in the form of idleness or imprudence, that are the major causes of poverty. Indeed, in order fully to understand poverty, it is necessary to examine the general distribution of wealth and of social inequality in society. A range of theories attempt to do this. Liberal neo-classical accounts stress the role of the market in distributing resources in relation to talents, skills, and motivations, arguing that poverty is necessary to provide a system of incentives to individual effort, and that those who end up in poverty lack the appropriate talents and skills. Subsidizing the poor can interfere with the smooth functioning of the market. However, such accounts, though they refer to structural features, are non the less often associated with assumptions that individuals are themselves to blame for their poverty: it is their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour that are at fault. This argument has been applied to the family and the social group, not just the individual, via concepts such as the ‘culture of poverty’: that is, a cultural milieu characterized by fatalism, resignation, and idleness, which is antithetical to achievement, hard work, and self-reliance, and tends to be passed on between generations. Such views have, however, been challenged by a range of empirical studies of the lives of the poor.

In contrast, Marxist accounts emphasize the role of capitalism and capitalist interests in generating poverty, both nationally and internationally. The argument here is that capitalism is based on the exploitation of labour and this applies both nationally and globally. Depending on the state of capitalist development and the particular requirements of capitalists, there may be a need for cheap labour and pressures to keep wages down, for a high level of unemployment, and for a minimization of welfare benefits, so that profits are maximized. Stripped of its Marxist gloss, the argument is that the level of poverty is a function of the nature of economic organization, and of processes concerning both the distribution of wealth and of welfare benefits. It is less that poverty is necessary to the smooth-running of the market, but that it may be politically and economically advantageous for those with power to pursue policies that increase rather than diminish inequality and poverty.

The extensive sociological literature on poverty overlaps with that on race, ethnicity, subcultures, the underclass, and stratification generally—more so in the United States than in Britain (see R. H. Haveman , Poverty Policy and Poverty Research, 1987
). On the ‘rediscovery’ of poverty in the United States during the 1960s see the Appendix by Julius Wilson and and Robert Aponte , ‘Urban Poverty: A State-of-the-Art Review of the Literature’, in Wilson ( ed.) , The Truly Disadvantaged (1987

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517. Poverty

  1. Aglaus poorest man in Arcadia, but happier than king. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 13]
  2. Appalachia West Virginia coal mining region known for its abysmal poverty. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 160]
  3. Apple Annie apple seller on street corners during Depression. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 11]
  4. bare feet symbol of impoverishment. [Folklore: Jobes, 181]
  5. Barnardo Home one of many homes founded for destitute children. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 233]
  6. Bashmachkin, Akakii Akakiievich poor clerk saves years for overcoat that is soon stolen. [Russ. Lit.: The Overcoat in The Overcoat and Other Stories ]
  7. Bonhomme, Jacques nickname for poor French peasants. [Fr. Folklore: Walsh Classical, 59]
  8. Booth, Captain continually in and out of debtors prison. [Br. Lit.: Amelia ]
  9. Buddha religious leader exchanges wealth for the robe of an ascetic mendicant. [Buddhism: NCE, 387]
  10. Bung experiences modified and extreme levels of want. [Br. Lit.: Sketches by Boz ]
  11. Clare of Assisi, St. lived entirely on alms; founded Poor Glares. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 87]
  12. Cratchit, Bob Scrooges poorly paid clerk. [Br. Lit.: A Christmas Carol ]
  13. Crawley, Rev. Josiah debt-maddened clergyman. [Br. Lit.: Last Chronicle of Barset ]
  14. Francis, St. (11821226) renounced his worldly life and possessions, extolled the virtue of poverty. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewer Dictionary, 375]
  15. Grapes of Wrath, The about the Joad family; jobless, facing starvation. [Am. Lit.: The Grapes of Wrath ]
  16. Great Depression economic crisis of 19291939, unprecedented in length and widespread poverty. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1132]
  17. Grub Street London street; home of indigent writers. [Br. Hist.: Brewer Note-Book, 394]
  18. Hells Kitchen section of midtown Manhattan; notorious for slums and high crime rate. [Am. Usage: Misc.]
  19. Hooverville Depression shantytown arising during Hoover administration. [Amer. Hist.: Flexner, 118]
  20. Hubbard, Old Mother had not even a bone for her dog. [Nurs. Rhyme: Opie, 317]
  21. Job lost everything he owned to Satan. [O.T.: Job]
  22. Jobs turkey one-feathered bird even more destitute than its owner. [Can. and Am. Usage: Brewer Dictionary, 589]
  23. Lazarus satisfied with table scraps; dogs licked sores. [N.T.: Luke 16:1922]
  24. Micawber, Wilkins optimistic, though chronically penniless and in debt. [Br. Lit.: David Copperfield ]
  25. Okies itinerant dust bowl farmers (1930s). [Am. Hist.: Van Doren, 455; Am. Lit.: The Grapes of Wrath ]
  26. War on Poverty U.S. government program of 1960s to aid the needy. [Am. Hist.: WB, J:120]
  27. Yellow Kid, the grotesque unchildish slum-child, one of the impoverished inhabitants of Hogans Alley. [Comics: Berger, 25]

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325. Poverty

1. Rare. the state of beggarhood.
2. behavior characteristic of a beggar.
the state or condition of utter poverty. Also called pauperage .
an abnormal fear of poverty.
extreme poverty or destitution. penurious, adj.
Poplarism British.
1. a policy in local governments of providing relief for the poor, often excessive in amount.
2. any similar policy of government spending that leads to higher taxes. Poplarist, n.
a form of rule by beggars or the poor.
the scientific study of pauperism, unemployment, etc.
the development and growth of slums or substandard dwelling conditions in urban areas.

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pov·er·ty / ˈpävərtē/ • n. the state of being extremely poor: thousands of families are living in abject poverty. ∎  the state of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount: the poverty of her imagination. ∎  the renunciation of the right to individual ownership of property as part of a religious vow. ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French poverte, from Latin paupertas, from pauper ‘poor.’

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Poverty can be defined either in terms of a definite income level or as a relative condition that changes as society redefines it. Most economists agree that a safe definition of poverty is the inability, through lack of income or wealth, to provide decent housing, clothing, health care, nutrition, or education for oneself or one's family. In 1999 the federal government defined the "poverty line"the arbitrary dividing line between the poor and the non-pooras $16,700 for a family of four in the contiguous United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of U.S. citizens living below the poverty line in 1992 was about 36 million, including 14 million children. Sixty-five percent of this number were women (many unmarried mothers), and in 1990 one quarter of all adult African American males lived below the poverty line.

According to economic historians, roughly seven to 10 percent of the populations of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were poor in the years before the American Revolution (17751783). Between 1790 and 1860 the percentage of U.S. citizens living in poverty probably remained about the same; by 1860 there were approximately 2.7 million poor males in the United States. Since 1870 the percentage of U.S. citizens living in poverty has been cut in half, primarily because of the rapid economic growth between 1880 and 1910 and in the years following World War II (19391945). The first efforts by the federal government to cope with poverty began in the 1930s. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (19331945) established the Social Security Administration in 1935 to provide minimum retirement benefits to U.S. citizens, and the government began to make federal funds available to the states for programs like Aid to Dependent Children.

By 1960 the U.S. government estimated that 40 million U.S. citizens lived below the poverty line. In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson (19631969) declared an "unconditional war" on poverty that led to the creation of programs like Head Start and the Neighborhood Youth Corps. Because of these efforts and the billions of dollars donated every year by private citizens and foundations, by 1973 the percentage of the population living in poverty reached its lowest level in U.S. history11.1 percent, or 20 million U.S. citizens. The Census Bureau estimated that in 1997 about 13.3 percent of the total U.S. population still lived in poverty.

See also: Social Security Act

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poverty poverty is no disgrace, but it is a great incovenience proverbial saying, late 16th century.
poverty is not a crime proverbial saying, late 16th century.
when poverty comes in at the door, love flies out of the window proverbial saying, mid 17th century, meaning that the strains of living in poverty often destroy a loving relationship.

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poverty XII. ME. poverte — (i) OF. poverte :— L. paupertās; this type survived till XVI as povert; (ii) OF. poverté (mod. pauvreté):— L. paupertās, -tāt-, f. pauper POOR; see -TY.

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the poor collectively, 1433; a company of pipers.

Examples : poverty of paupers; of pipers, 1486; multitude of the poverty of the town, 1537.

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povertyfooty, putti, sooty, tutti •shufti • casualty • deputy •butty, cutty, gutty, nutty, puttee, putty, rutty, smutty •mufti, tufty •bhakti • subtlety • humpty-dumpty •Bunty, runty •bustee, busty, crusty, dusty, fusty, gusty, lusty, musty, rusty, trusty •fealty • realty •propriety, society •loyalty, royalty •cruelty •Krishnamurti, Trimurti •liberty • puberty •faggoty, maggoty •Hecate • chocolatey • Cromarty •commonalty • personalty • property •carroty • guaranty • mayoralty •warranty • admiralty • severalty •poverty •Alberti, Bertie, dirty, flirty, shirty, thirty •uncertainty •Kirstie, thirsty •bloodthirsty

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