Poverty Defined

What is the definition of poverty?

The most widely held and understood definition of absolute poverty measures poverty strictly in economic terms — earning less than $2.15 a day. By this measurement, anyone lacking enough financial resources falls below the poverty line and fails to meet a minimum standard of living. But to be poverty-stricken is more complex than not having enough money or having a low income.

To define poverty, the World Bank has been studying and measuring the global poverty level — its causes and its effects on poor people — for decades.

Similar to how the definition of food security has been updated over time, the world’s understanding of extreme poverty has also evolved. The fullest definition of poverty now goes beyond just the amount of money a person or family earns. It expands upon the traditional economic definition of poverty to define poverty holistically.

"Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom."

This expanded poverty definition recognizes that to be poverty-stricken is to be afflicted and overwhelmed by need in any or all areas of life. Impoverishment encompasses poor living conditions, nonrepresentation, anxiety from feeling powerless, exclusion from the social structure, and an inability to meet basic needs because food, clean drinking water, proper sanitation, education, health care and other social services are inaccessible. This poverty threshold starts with fear for the future and broadens to include dependence, oppression and even exploitation.

As the threshold to define "poor" expanded, the World Bank developed indicators to assess the causes of poverty, its non-income dimensions and its contributors. The indicator levels include:

  • Education.
  • Health.
  • Access to social services.
  • Vulnerability.
  • Social exclusion.
  • Access to social capital.
How does the Bible define poverty?

How does the conventional view and definition of poverty align with how the Bible defines poverty and describes the poor?

The term "poor" in Scripture also primarily refers to an economic condition. There are 178 uses of the word "poor" in Scripture, and with a few exceptions, the term means economic or material poverty. However, the condition of poverty is also associated with oppression, isolation and injustice.

NEARLY 10% of the world's population lives in extreme poverty, below the $2.15 per day poverty line.

Source: World Bank

Poverty Described

How do the poor experience poverty?

Impoverished families and children living in the world’s low- and middle-income countries are highly vulnerable, powerless and afraid. They are dependent on others. Their rights and freedoms are restricted. They live without support, on the sidelines, watching economic growth and prosperity pass them by. Their dignity is assaulted daily, and their lives are abundant...in scarcity.

In a 2002 survey, the poor in Niger reported a standard of living characterized by:

  • Suffering relationships.
  • Always having to seek out others, or to work for somebody else.
  • Being alone, unsupported, uninvolved and "never consulted."
  • Having nothing to eat, lacking the means to meet clothing and financial needs and having nothing to sell.
  • Restricted rights and freedoms.
  • Incapacity to make decisions, to feed or clothe oneself, or to act on one’s own initiative.

Similar descriptions were found in a major World Bank study, Voices of the poor: Can anyone hear us?

But the humiliating, silencing, life-destroying violence of poverty is not inescapable.

Poverty can be overcome. And child sponsorship can help.

We work with thousands of local church partners in some of the world's poorest countries to identify the poorest of the poor. Our approach to helping the poor starts when they are children and when they’re most vulnerable.

An orange bicycle

The Poverty Wheel and the World's Poor

A bicycle wheel is a good visualization device for the problem of world poverty. The wheel's hub represents a life in which survival is a daily accomplishment; the hub is a life of absolute poverty.

The wheel's spokes represent the different types of poverty strangling the poor, depriving them of basic human needs. And the wheel's rim represents a life fulfilled.

Our mission, to release children from poverty in Jesus' name, brings children living in poverty from the hub of the "poverty wheel" to the rim.

And this is how we do it.

Social poverty

The "social spoke" of poverty encompasses undervalued people groups, people with few or no rights and people whose voices have been silenced. A culture or government that devalues people — especially children — cultivates social poverty.

We work with governments and cultural systems to encourage the idea that children are valuable, should be cherished, and should be given every opportunity to flourish.

two boys in front of a blue wall
Educational poverty

For hundreds of millions of children around the world education is an unaffordable luxury. Lack of education (educational poverty) creates a lack of options. It makes finding future work difficult and it makes children vulnerable to exploitation. An education offers the knowledge, skills and training to create a better future. The chance to receive a quality education changes everything. An education offers hope of a life beyond poverty.

We provide resources for children to complete and go beyond a primary education. We help students stay in school and receive an education that enables them to succeed and thrive in life. We also expand the circle of caring adults actively participating in a child’s life as friends, teachers and mentors. We provide a consistent and dependable source of learning and support for children and their families, including literacy training for caregivers and parents.

A large group of children standing together
Health poverty

Health poverty may sound strange, but there are many people around the world who don’t know the importance of brushing their teeth or making sure the water they drink is clean.

Physical and emotional health is the basis for our ability to work, play and develop sound relationships. That's why we teach children how to monitor their own health for common diseases and provide hygiene training. We also offer medical assistance when more serious needs arise. We teach preventive care and help with emergency surgeries, organ transplants, casts, wheelchairs and canes, cancer treatment, hearing and eye care, and dental needs.

A baby girl wearing green, lies on her back as her height is measured with a stadiometer.
Spiritual poverty

Without an understanding of God's love, it is difficult to resist despair. Children are particularly vulnerable to the emotional and spiritual messages of worthlessness and hopelessness poverty delivers. But their lives undergo a revolution when they realize God loves and values them. They understand they were placed on the earth with a divine purpose in mind.

We devote ourselves to helping children of all faiths, cultures, backgrounds and races experience God's love and embrace who they were created to be. Through a holistic approach to child development, we carefully blend physical, social, economic and spiritual care together. This includes teaching God’s Word.

We offer our help without ulterior motive because we love God, and we demonstrate our love and live out our faith by extending care to others irrespective of caste, creed, class or religion. We do not coerce anyone into becoming Christian, and we do not impose conversion requirements on those participating in our programs.

A mother, father and daughter stand in front of a blue wall with three pictures hung on it.
Environmental poverty

Our physical surroundings — climate, water supply, housing and land — affect our well-being, and the circumstances of absolute poverty include extreme environmental risk. From insect- and water-borne illnesses to extreme weather conditions such as drought and flooding, the spirits, hopes and health of the poor are depressed by the environment they live in. We work to ensure environmental conditions don't make extreme poverty inescapable.

women working in a field
Economic poverty

Almost half the world lives with a household income below $2.50 a day. This level of poverty is the equal of slavery. People need an income level that allows them to purchase what they cannot make or grow.

We provide vocational training and offer job-skills development to help children and young adults create lives filled with economic opportunity. Our income-generation training includes teaching business and entrepreneurship, financing start-ups and providing seed capital and microloans. We also offer financial training for a child's caregivers and parents.

two toddlers

Poverty Redefined

What is the meaning of poverty?

Poverty means different things to different people. It has many aspects, faces and causes.

What does poverty mean to a child orphaned by AIDS or abandoned by his father? It means he may have received HIV at birth or he becomes a child soldier. It means extreme vulnerability and greater risk of exploitation. It means learning how to trust others and to dream again.

What does poverty mean to the widowed grandmother unable to work and taking care of five grandchildren? It means fear. Fear that the family won't survive. Fear that someone may take the children away from her.

What does poverty mean to a mother who lost her 2-year old child to pneumonia while waiting at the hospital for treatment? It means the Body of Christ can be a refuge.

What does poverty mean to a boy who learns about Jesus Christ on a regular basis? It means self-respect and an ability to love.

What does poverty mean to a child without a sponsor? It means a sponsor is needed.

Help one of these children dream. Give them courage to fight their fear. Lay the foundation for self-confidence. Provide some hope to a child who may be in the midst of losing hope.

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With Compassion, your donation is used wisely to help children around the world.

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