What is Poverty?

Rich and poor – it’s a strange dichotomy that describes and divides our world. Surely, however, there is more to humanity than our economic condition and more to our story than being defined by one or the other. Poverty describes the everyday experience of people who are struggling to have their basic needs of food, clean water and shelter met – but it’s more than that.

The Poverty Line

There are some common ways of defining poverty. You may have heard the phrase ‘living below the poverty line’. This refers to those living in absolute poverty; living on less than $1.90 a day[1].  The World Bank and UN use this measure to underpin The Sustainable Development Goals, and estimate that 10% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty[2]. In 2000, world leaders agreed on The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to help eradicate extreme poverty. In the 15 years of the project, the number of people living in absolute poverty (then $1.25 a day) – dropped by almost half[3].  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), developed to continue this work for the next 15 years, aim to end extreme poverty by 2030.

Human Development Index

Another way to measure poverty is the Human Development Index (HDI). This takes into account the health (life expectancy), education level (average years of schooling) and income (GDP) of a country. Australia is 2nd in the world according to its HDI (0.939), under Norway. On the world’s scale, Australia is in a privileged position, especially compared to our near-by neighbours like Bangladesh and Timor-Leste, which rank 0.579 and 0.605 respectively. This is an ever-present reminder of Australia’s responsibility to contribute to the well-being of other nations.

Beyond the numbers 

The issue is that neither of these measures adequately answer the question – “what is poverty?”, nor do they give us an indication of the experience of poverty within our own nation. It is much more complex than this. A person, for example, may not only be finding it hard to scrape together money for food, but may also be discriminated against in their community, have health issues or need to fund their child’s education. A person struggling to find consistent work or accommodation may also be suffering from crippling mental illness or family breakdown. Factors of race, gender, education and location also come into play. Globally, women are up to 11 points more likely than men to report food insecurity[4]. People with multiple factors of disadvantage – like Nigerian women who are widows in rural areas[5] – are particularly at risk of poverty. In Australia, those in rural areas[6] are slightly more likely to experience poverty, and there are significant gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in terms of education and health outcomes[7]. Approaches to help alleviate poverty must account for this intersectionality.

Poverty involves whole people. It also involves whole families and whole communities, across long periods of time. Poverty is not just a transient state – a time of economic hardship – but can be ongoing and inter-generational. Moving out of poverty can mean breaking the cycle. That may mean learning new farming practices that cope with drought, or being the first in your family to finish school. It also means working in our communities to deal with the larger issues in society that influence social exclusion and deprivation.

As God’s people, we are empowered with a renewed vision for ourselves, our families and our communities. May we be kingdom-centered, and therefore people-centered, in the midst of the complexities of hardship and injustice.


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