A richer definition of poverty

As conventionally defined, poverty is about money – or rather, the lack of it. People with lots of money are rich, those with little or none are poor. Lifting people out of poverty means raising their incomes until they cross the poverty line into the sunlit uplands of enough.

There are many reasons why it’s not that simple, including where the poverty line is and who gets to set it. Or whether we’re working to an absolute or relative definition of poverty. Then there are the many ways of raising incomes – do we attempt to give money to those who need it, or let those with lots of money make more in the hope that it trickles down?

Let’s back up a step though. Why is poverty bad? Why is it something we want to end? If we pause to ask those more fundamental questions, it gets more complicated again.

We could argue that extreme poverty is unsafe and unsanitary, or socially unsustainable. Those are arguments that have been made in Britain in the past. We might argue that it is unfair if some are poor while others have plenty, but that’s more to do with inequality and distribution than poverty per se. Perhaps the most compelling reason why we object to poverty is that it’s miserable and beneath human dignity.

And why is it miserable? Because human beings have needs, and it pains us when those needs aren’t met. It might be the basic needs for food and shelter, or missing out on opportunities. People experiencing poverty can’t live in the places that they want, or dress the way they would like, or access the things they require. If we boil it down, suggests the economist Amartya Sen, then what we’re really talking about is ‘unfreedom’.

Where we are ‘unfree’, we are experiencing a poverty, and that’s a definition that unlocks a wealth of new ideas.

  • We may be lonely, and living with a poverty of community.
  • Children growing up in a troubled home have a poverty of affection.
  • If we feel like there are never enough hours in the day, we are struggling with time poverty, which is closely related to poverty of leisure.
  • Social exclusion, on the basis of gender or race for example, is a poverty of participation.
  • If you live in conflict zone, you have a poverty of protection.
  • Those who can’t find rewarding work have a poverty of employment.

There is a hierarchy to human needs of course, and a poverty of basic survival needs is more important than some of the others on that list. But they still matter, and expanding freedom goes well beyond subsistence. Sen writes: “Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.”

As Katherine Trebeck and I describe in our book The Economics of Arrival, taking this broader view of poverty allows us to pursue new kinds of development in countries that are already rich. Extreme poverty is very rare in Britain, but time poverty is rife. How could we make that more of a priority? Without taking our eye off the real issues of subsistence poverty, what policies could we bring in that would increase participation and inclusion, community and leisure?

For Sen, ‘development’ is a process of expanding the freedom that people enjoy and the real choices they can make. Ending the ‘unfreedom’ of poverty is just the start. Under this definition, broadening people’s freedom to choose the lives they value should be the goal of development. And development could continue long after our material needs were satisfied, with or without growth in GDP.

This broader recognition of human needs and freedoms would give new purpose to politics in mature economies. Instead of pursuing the hollow more of economic growth long past the point of subsistence, we could pursue a better society. In short, we need a richer definition of poverty.


  1. These are exactly my thoughts around poverty too.

    When I first saw extreme poverty in my travels I always referred to it as a lack of access and opportunity – access to clean water, education, health, peace and to then have an opportunity to do more of what you want to do – whatever that may be…

    In a lot of time spent in low income countries I’ve always said that not everything is bad in them (as people often perceive), just like everything in my home country of Australia, is not all good. In Australia we live in a lot more community poverty, time poverty, purpose poverty, etc.

    I love having a passion of being a part of ending extreme poverty but from that point onwards if we can find a way to be moderately happy without detriment to people and the planet, then good luck! I’ve never sold a western-way of ‘development’ because many people are unfulfilled and purpose-less.

    I’m not making a point here but agreeing with the fact rich and poor are not about income, but experiences, for me at least.

    Nice post Jeremy – thanks helps me explain a few more details of my purpose and passion to others…

    1. Yes, and that perspective helps to explain why relative definitions of poverty are helpful in more developed countries. You can theoretically be out of extreme poverty, but still unable to participate in any meaningful way. We sell ourselves short on the full human experience if we limit our view of poverty to money.

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