Reducing poverty has become an international concern, yet there is no international consensus on guidelines for measuring poverty.
In pure economic terms, income poverty is when a family's income fails to meet a federally established threshold that differs across countries. Typically it is measured with respect to families and not the individual, and is adjusted for the number of persons in a family. Economists often seek to identify the families whose economic position (defined as command over resources) falls below some minimally acceptance level.1 Similarly, the international standard of extreme poverty is set to the possession of less than 1$ a day.
Frequently, poverty is defined in either relative or absolute terms. Absolute poverty measures poverty in relation to the amount of money necessary to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. The concept of absolute poverty is not concerned with broader quality of life issues or with the overall level of inequality in society. The concept therefore fails to recognise that individuals have important social and cultural needs. This, and similar criticisms, led to the development of the concept of relative poverty. Relative poverty defines poverty in relation to the economic status of other members of the society: people are poor if they fall below prevailing standards of living in a given societal context. An important criticism of both concepts is that they are largely concerned with income and consumption.
The concept of social exclusion emerged largely in reaction to this type of narrow definition of poverty. It has contributed significantly towards including multi-faceted indicators of ill-being into the conceptual understanding of poverty. To further develop the definition of the concept of relative poverty or relative deprivation, three perspectives are relevant; the income perspective indicates that a person is poor only if his or her income is below the country's poverty line (defined in terms of having income sufficient for a specified amount of food); the basic needs perspective goes beyond the income perspective to include the need for the provision by a community of the basic social services necessary to prevent individuals from falling into poverty; and finally, the capability (or empowerment) perspective suggests that poverty signify a lack of some basic capability to function.2
Social scientists' understanding of poverty, on the other hand, is critical of the economical idea of free choice models where individuals control their own destiny and are thus the cause of their own poverty. Rather than being interested in its measurement, sociologists generally study the reasons for poverty, such as the roles of culture, power, social structure and other factors largely out of the control of the individual. Accordingly, the multidimensional nature of poverty, in particular social aspects such as housing poor, health poor or time poor, needs to be understood in order to create more effective programs for poverty alleviation. Hypotheses that typically play a role in sociological theories of poverty are based on the idea that individuals are influenced by the physical and cultural context in which they live, and it gives importance to gender and household structure.
Today it is widely held that one cannot consider only the economic part of poverty. Poverty is also social, political and cultural. Moreover, it is considered to undermine human rights - economic (the right to work and have an adequate income), social (access to health care and education), political (freedom of thought, expression and association) and cultural (the right to maintain one's cultural identity and be involved in a community's cultural life).3 The Millennium Development Goals - global targets that the world's leaders set at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000 - are an agenda for reducing poverty, its causes and manifestations. As part of the goal of eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) seeks to halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than 1 $US a day.
1 Smelser, N. J. and Baltes, P. B. (eds.) 2001. International Encyclopaedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences. Elsevier. Oxford Science Ltd.
2 For more on this see 1997 UNDP Human Development Report.
3 Pierre Sané, in MOST-Newsletter, n° 10, 2001.