What is Poverty

Most of us have an intuitive understanding of what it means to be poor. Perhaps it looks like a child in tattered clothes. Or a bare pantry. Or perhaps an adult shivering on a cold winter’s night. Poverty describes the everyday experience of people who are struggling to have their basic needs of food, safety and shelter met – but it’s more than that.

Measuring Poverty

You may be surprised to know that there is not one agreed definition of poverty.

You may be familiar with the World Bank’s international poverty line, which measures living standards and purchasing power – the cost of basic food, clothing, and shelter needs – around the world. In 2015, 9.6 per cent of the world’s population (or 702 million people) was living in extreme poverty, with an income below the international poverty line of US$1.90 a day.[1]

As societies grow, what we consider to be a basic need changes. Ten years ago a mobile phone and internet access may still have been considered a luxury or ‘optional extra’. Now these would both be considered a necessity. Can you imagine applying for Centrelink or going to school during the COVID-19 pandemic without either?

To measure this, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has defined the poverty line as being half the median income of the total population. In Australia, this would be around $460 per week for a single adult or $960 per week for a couple with two children.[2] In 2018, 12.4 per cent of Australians were living in poverty[3] and 20 per cent of poor households were spending more than 40 per cent of their income on housing.[4] Meanwhile research found that 38 per cent of all Australians would be at risk of falling into poverty if they lost their income for three months.[5]

But humans are complex beings with complex needs. Just because we can afford to eat doesn’t meant that all our basic needs are met. This is why the United Nations developed the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, which measures poverty by looking at a person’s health, education and standard of living.[6]

Beyond the numbers 

The issue is that none of these measures paints a full picture of what poverty looks like. And poverty only describes part of the injustice and disadvantage present in our world. 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. A person struggling to find consistent work or accommodation may also be suffering from crippling mental illness or family breakdown.

Issues of race, gender, education and location also come into play. Globally, women, especially women living in rural areas, are more likely to be food insecure than men.[7] This is no different in Australia, where women and girls, sole parent families, older people who are renting, and people receiving welfare payments have a higher chance of living in poverty.[8] As a nation, we are still ‘closing the gap’ in life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Anything that we do to combat poverty must consider these differences.

Poverty and disadvantage do not just affect individuals. It involves whole families and whole communities, sometimes across decades and generations. For some people, poverty is a situation they find themselves in for a short amount of time, something that can be broken out of with learning a new skill or being the first person in your family to go to university.

For other people, it may not be so simple. Our experience, walking alongside people experiencing hardship and injustice in Australia, has shown us that the systems and structures that trap people in poverty. Breaking the cycle of poverty means we need to work alongside others in our communities to dismantle these barriers.

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

What next?

The Salvation Army’s vision is: Wherever there is hardship or injustice, Salvos will live, love and fight, alongside others, to transform Australia one life at a time with the love of Jesus.

For more information, check out:

Find out how you can be involved in The Salvation Army’s work to tackle the systems and structures that trap people in hardship and injustice in Australia.

By Yvonne Kwan – Policy and Advocacy Adviser


[1] World Bank. (2015, October 4). World Bank Forecasts Global Poverty to Fall Below 10% for First Time; Major Hurdles Remain in Goal to End Poverty by 2030 [Press Release]. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2015/10/04/world-bank-forecasts-global-poverty-to-fall-below-10-for-first-time-major-hurdles-remain-in-goal-to-end-poverty-by-2030

[2] Davidson, P., Saunders, P., Bradbury, B. and Wong, M. (2020). Poverty in Australia 2020: Part 1, Overview [ACOSS/UNSW Poverty and Inequality Partnership Report]. ACOSS.

[3] OECD. (2020). Poverty rate (indicator). doi: 10.1787/0fe1315d-en

[4] OECD. (2020). How’s Life in Australia? https://www.oecd.org/australia/Better-Life-Initiative-country-note-Australia.pdf

[5] OECD. (2020). How’s Life in Australia? https://www.oecd.org/australia/Better-Life-Initiative-country-note-Australia.pdf

[6] United Nations Development Programme. (2020). The 2020 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). http://hdr.undp.org/en/2020-MPI

[7] Botreau, H. and Cohen ,M. (2019). Gender Inequalities and Food Insecurity: ten years after the food price crisis, why are women farmers still food-insecure? Oxfam GB.

[8] Davidson, P., Bradbury, B., Hill, T. and Wong, W. (2020). Poverty in Australia 2020: Part 2, Who is affected? [ACOSS/UNSW Poverty and Inequality Partnership Report]. ACOSS.

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