Poverty, economic condition in which people lack sufficient income to obtain certain minimal levels of health services, food, housing, clothing, and education generally recognized as necessary to ensure an adequate standard of living. What is considered adequate, however, depends on the average standard of living in a particular society.

Relative poverty is that experienced by those whose income falls considerably below the average for their particular society. Absolute poverty is that experienced by those who do not have enough food to remain healthy. However, estimating poverty on an income basis may not measure essential elements that also contribute to a healthy life. People without access to education or health services should be considered poor even if they have adequate food.


Individuals who have a lower-than-average ability to earn income, for whatever reason, are likely to be poor. Historically, this group has included the elderly, people with disabilities, single mothers, and members of some minorities. In the West today, a significantly large group in the poverty-stricken population consists of single mothers and their children; these families account for about one-third of all poor people. Not only do women who work outside the home generally earn less than men, but a single mother often has a difficult time caring for children, running a household, and earning an adequate income. Other groups disproportionately represented below the poverty threshold are people with disabilities and their dependents, very large families, and families in which the principal wage earner is either unemployed or works for low wages.

Lack of educational opportunity is another cause of poverty. In the developed world, a larger percentage of blacks than whites are poor today, in part because of a heritage of inferior education, meaning reduced employment opportunities later.

Much of the world’s poverty is due to a low level of economic development. China and India are examples of heavily populated, developing nations where, despite substantial recent industrialization, poverty is rampant. Even in economically developed countries, widespread unemployment can create poverty. The Great Depression impoverished millions of Americans and Europeans in the 1930s. Less severe economic contractions, called recessions, cause smaller increases in the poverty rate.

A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), known as GEO-2000, identified excessive consumption of energy, raw materials, and other resources in Western and some East Asian nations as one of the main causes of the continued poverty of the majority of world population. Extreme poverty in many parts of the world forces residents of those areas to exploit natural resources in an unsustainable manner. Both factors have considerable economic and environmental implications.


Tens of thousands of poor people throughout the world die every year from starvation and malnutrition. Infant mortality rates are higher and life expectancy lower among the poor.

Poverty is closely associated with crime. Most of the poor are not criminals, and many criminals are not poor, but people from environments dominated by poverty are more likely to commit crimes and to be punished. Other social problems, such as mental illness and alcoholism, are common among the poor, in part because they are causes as well as effects of poverty, and often because there is little medical provision for dealing effectively with them. Finally, poverty tends to breed poverty; in some cases, the handicap of poverty is passed from one generation to another, possibly as a result of the family being caught in a poverty trap—a situation in which a relatively small increase in income will take the family over the threshold for entitlement to benefits, thereby creating a net loss. One possibly the consequence of this is that members of the household may be discouraged from seeking employment, losing the opportunities for social advancement that such employment might afford them.


Poverty has been viewed as a measure of social class and sex inequality in industrial societies, with women and lower-class households experiencing the greater level of poverty. Similarly, poverty has been regarded as an indicator of inequitable economic dealings between the developed and the developing nations, with the poverty of the developing world being linked to the accumulation of wealth in the developed world—the so-called north-south divide. The poorest nations in the world are in: South Asia (Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan); sub-Saharan and North Africa; the Middle East; Latin America and the Caribbean; and East Asia (China).

The United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000 looked at issues of poverty distribution worldwide and set targets for 2015 that included reducing by half the number of people living on less than US$1 a day, providing safe drinking water for 50 per cent of people deprived of such access, primary education for all children, and reversing the spread of diseases such as malaria and AIDS. For 2020 a significant improvement in the circumstances of slum inhabitants and a greater access to modern technologies for poorer nations was also envisaged.