poor / poŏr; pôr/ • adj. 1. lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society: people who were too poor to afford a telephone | [as n.] (the poor) the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. ∎ (of a place) inhabited by people without sufficient money: a poor area with run-down movie theaters and overcrowded schools. 2. worse than is usual, expected, or desirable; of a low or inferior standard or quality: her work was poor many people are eating a very poor diet. ∎ (poor in) deficient or lacking in: the water is poor in nutrients. ∎ dated used ironically to deprecate something belonging to or offered by oneself: he is, in my poor opinion, a more handsome young man. 3. (of a person) considered to be deserving of pity or sympathy: they inquired after poor Dorothy's broken hip. PHRASES: (as) poor as a church mouse (or as church mice) extremely poor. poor little rich boy (or girl) a wealthy young person whose money brings them no contentment (often used as an expression of mock sympathy). the poor man's —— an inferior or cheaper substitute for the thing specified: corduroy has always been the poor man's velvet. poor relation a person or thing that is considered inferior or subordinate to others of the same type or group: for many years radio has been the poor relation of the media. take a poor view of regard with disfavor or disapproval. ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French poure, from Latin pauper.
Efforts to identify the poor using systematic measurements were attempted from the later 18th cent. onwards and were part of the debate about the extent of poverty in Britain. The destitution of orphans, the aged, and the sick was accepted as a reasonable claim for public support, but the extent of poverty among physically fit adults was disputed. Sir Frederick Eden attempted in 1797 to document the lives of the poor in terms of expenditure on food, fuel, clothing, and shelter, but his studies were criticized as unsystematic and unrelated to the basic minima needed to maintain a healthy life. Similar shortcomings were found in the anecdotal account London Labour and the London Poor published by Henry Mayhew in 1851. Investigators of the London Statistical Society (later the Royal Statistical Society of London) and the Manchester Statistical Society attempted to be more scientific by initiating studies of intakes per head of various commodities of food and drink, but it was not until 1886 that a survey of the budgets and consumption of necessities of a large sample of the London poor was undertaken by Charles Booth.
Booth's calculations rested on assumptions about the level of expenditure needed to maintain a healthy life. He allowed no expenditure for entertainments or pleasure. Even with disciplined expenditure on necessities only, his survey showed that almost 30 per cent of the population of London lived below ‘the poverty line’. Using similar criteria to Booth's, Seebohm Rowntree undertook a survey of the poor in York in 1900 and identified a similar proportion of the population living in poverty. Medical examinations of the men volunteering for military service in the Boer War and those serving in the two world wars provided evidence of the effects of long-term poverty. Many of them were rejected as unfit, probably because they had suffered from inadequate diet and care during their childhood and youth. Such evidence was used to support the arguments in favour of comprehensive social welfare and of the ‘welfare state’ established during the 1940s.
Debates about the extent and condition of the poor and the limits of state welfare continue. However, in spite of popular hostility to scroungers, the evidence suggests that the proportion of the poor in modern Britain is similar to that of the past.
Ian John Ernest Keil
it is a poor heart that never rejoices proverbial saying, mid 19th century, often used to explain a celebratory action, and implying that circumstances are not in general unrelievedly bad.
Poor Clare a member of an order of Franciscan nuns founded by St Clare of Assisi in c.1212; the name is recorded from the early 17th century.
Poor Law a law relating to the support of the poor. Originally the responsibility of the parish, the relief and employment of the poor passed over to the workhouses in 1834. In the early 20th century the Poor Law was replaced by schemes of social security.
poor little rich girl a girl or young woman whose wealth brings her no happiness; mainly from the title of a song (1925) by Noel Coward; although the phrase had been used earlier in the title, The Poor Little Rich Girl, of a film (1917) starring Mary Pickford, and based on a play with the same title (1913) by Eleanor Gates.
the poor man's — an inferior or cheaper substitute for the thing specified.
poor relation a person or thing that is considered inferior or subordinate to others of the same type or group.
See also poor as a church mouse, poor as Job, one law for the rich and another for the poor, the rich man gets his ice in the summer and the poor man gets his in the winter.