Economic Justice · Human Rights · Hunger

What Is Poverty?

By Steve Evans (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Steve Evans (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Getting involved with organizations that wish to strike out poverty is a noble mission. In order to understand why so many people are concerned with the plight of those living in poverty, it’s important to first answer the question, “What is poverty?

The World Bank defines poverty this way:

“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 has many faces, changing from place to place and across time, and has been described in many ways.  Most often, poverty is a situation people want to escape. So poverty is a call to action — for the poor and the wealthy alike — a call to change the world so that many more may have enough to eat, adequate shelter, access to education and health, protection from violence, and a voice in what happens in their communities.”

The thing about defining poverty in this way is that it’s relative. Sure, we can talk about poverty about being sick and not being able to see a doctor, but it’s becoming increasingly common in the United States for someone who is viewed as middle class to have the same problem. It also doesn’t address those who are employed who have jobs, but who still are living one day at a time because their wage forces them to choose between shelter, food, and safety.

Instead, it’s important to think for a moment about what it means to live in poverty – there’s a lack of access to basic needs. Let’s take a moment and turn to psychology.

In 1943, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow wrote a paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” where he discussed the various stages of motivation that a person must move through to meet what he called “self-actualization.” Since it’s been a little while since I’ve looked at this paper in-depth, I will summarize the important parts, realizing that I’m oversimplifying things here for illustrating what I mean when I talk about “poverty.”

In order to become an exemplary person in Maslow’s eyes, one needed to have a certain level of needs met. To not have these needs met would bring about suffering and stunt an individual’s ability to meet higher levels of success.

At the very base of his hierarchy are the physiological needs. These are those very basic needs necessary for human survival. He put food, water, air, sex, clothing, and shelter in this category. One cannot even think about security until these needs are met. In a capitalist society, poverty prevents the ability to adequately meet these needs all the time.

Once one has physiological needs met, he or she can begin to think about how to support safety.  Safety needs include safety from elements, security, order, law, stability, and freedom from fear.

Once those needs are met, a person can begin to think about social needs – friendship, love, belonging, etc. Once social needs are met, a person looks to meeting esteem needs, and once esteem needs are met, one can look for self-actualization.

Setting aside for a moment the problems with Maslow’s theory (i.e. it seems as though one can be married and have love and acceptance from a church family but still be food insecure), it does give us a good place to start talking about what we mean when we talk about poverty in the broad sense and what we mean when we say we ought to help those who are living in poverty.

Now, I get that some people are jumping the conversation when we talk about “sex” as a first-level need. However, most humans have a sexual drive and a wish to reproduce. Let us then change this to – the choice to reproduce or avoid reproducing and the ability to care for offspring during the time that offspring are physically and emotionally dependent upon the parent for care.

For purposes on this blog, when poverty is discussed, it is discussed in terms of the lack of ability to get those first level needs met – a lack of access to food, health care, water, clean air, reproductive health care, shelter, and clothing to protect oneself from the elements. Governments tend to try to put a monetary figure on this – a number at which they believe these needs can be met since they need a standard by which they can measure whether someone is in need of aid or not. There are many problems with this as well, since numbers like the Federal Poverty Level don’t take into account the cost of living in different states, cities, etc. nor do they take into account inflation of goods. Nor does this take into account the cost of special equipment needed to survive in different climates.

When one is living in poverty, it is impossible to focus on other things like education for children (How can you worry about whether your child is reading if you aren’t sure how your child is going to eat tonight? How can that child focus on what he’s learning in the classroom when he hasn’t had a meal since dinner last night?), obtaining a better job (How can you do well at work when you don’t have enough to fill your stomach at home?) or fitting in with peers (Who cares about fashion when you need something – anything – to keep you warm in the cold?) The topic of poverty will come up many times on this blog, and when it does, this is what is meant by the term ‘poverty’: A lack of the ability to consistently meet basic level, physiological, needs.

What is poverty? Please share your thoughts in the comments. 

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