What is Poverty?

In a study done in 2003 entitled A Sociological Analysis of Poverty in the United States, college student Sarah Gardner-Cox analyzed family structures and racial factors that might be associated with poverty. (http://www.millsaps.edu/socio/PDFs/gardnercox2004.pdf) Using data from the US Census Bureau, Gardner-Cox argued—as many other studies have also suggested—that there is a definite linkage between minority families and poverty. Statistics show Black and Hispanic family poverty to be much greater than that of white or Asian families. While only 8.1% of white or Asian families experienced poverty in 2001, 21.4% of blacks and 20.2% of Hispanics lived under the poverty line in this year. Furthermore, Gardner-Cox found distinctly persuasive statistics lending to the idea that the structure of the family (married-couple, single-father, or single-mother) is also strongly correlated to poverty. Mother-led households are distinctly more likely to experience poverty than the father-led or married couple counterparts. Perhaps the most interesting trend that Gardner-Cox’s analysis brings to light, is the fact that these differences in poverty have held pretty steady, even with the drastic declines in the overall poverty rate since the 1960s.

One question that this study inevitably raises is, how poverty is defined. In trying to fight poverty, it is first necessary to know what truly qualifies as poverty before it can be fought effectively. There are a few ways to define poverty. Absolute poverty is a food-based measurement that defines poverty as the “point at which a household’s income falls below the necessary level to purchase food to physically sustain its members.” (Conley, p. 599) This measure is calculated by dividing the cost of food by the percentage of income that goes to purchasing that food, and has been used to make the US poverty line since the 1960s. With such factors as inflation, a decrease in income spent on food, increase in income spent on housing, and other variations over time and place, many argue that this absolute measure is not very indicative of poverty. In addition, this method does not take into consideration the differences in cost of living from one area to another. The US Department of Health & Human Services set guidelines for poverty in the United States—a table of their standards for 2007 can be seen at (http://aspe.hhs.gov/POVERTY/07poverty.shtml)

While Alaska and Hawaii have different guidelines, amounting to a $500—1,000 difference for each individual, the other 48 states and D.C. are clumped into a single category. The problem arises when trying to compare people living in places like New York or California to those in Alabama or North Dakota—the cost of living in these areas is drastically different. Perhaps an income of $12,000 would be plenty for someone living in Mobile, Alabama, but that same income in San Francisco, California does not go nearly as far. On a larger scale, the same principles can be applied to definitions of poverty in different countries. Poverty is generally thought to be associated with the inability to meet the basic needs of life; however, the definition of these “basic needs” is socially constructed and, therefore, varies widely across borders, both domestic and international. (Absolute Poverty v. Relative Poverty: The Search for Survival, Volkov & Deneburg)

Many people, therefore, may turn to relative poverty for what they may consider a more accurate measure of poverty. The definition of poverty in this case is based on “a percentage of the median income” in a given area. (Conley, p. 603) The question then is where are the lines to be drawn in considering given “locations?” Should poverty be relative to state? City? County? Neighborhood? While the “relative poverty” system at least tries to take variations in location into account, it still experiences many problems such as defining the boundaries of relativity. Furthermore, relative poverty falls under criticism for being an income-based system of measurement. As people with the same income can actually be in very different circumstances in terms of debt and savings, some argue that net worth (a person’s total assets minus their total debts) is much more indicative of poverty.

The question that arises in considering all these different measurements of poverty is, can there ever really be an absolute measurement of poverty? Yes, distinctions can be made based on location, but how do you define what count as necessities? Food and shelter seem obvious conditions, but what about phones, cars, computers, or the Internet? Relative needs are socially constructed, regionally distinct, and perpetually changing, and it is difficult to decide on a single definition that will prove useful for any significant amount of time.

In his article Rethinking the Sociological Measurement of Poverty, David Brady presents us with five criteria to take into account when measuring poverty. Brady writes,

“First, scholars should use measures of poverty that effectively gauge comparative historical variation. Second, analysts should measure poverty as relative rather than absolute. Third, poverty should be conceptualized as social exclusion. Fourth, poverty indices should measure the depth and inequality among the poor. Finally, analysts should incorporate taxes, transfers, and state benefits when calculating household resources.”


Do you agree with Brady’s list of five criteria? If not, which one(s) would you remove? Would you add any criteria? In conclusion, is there any absolute measure of poverty or is there a “relativity” factor inherent in even the most absolute definitions?

For further readings on this topic, see:





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16 responses to “What is Poverty?

  1. 02ansonwilks

    I find Brady’s list of the five criteria regarding poverty very appropriate. His first criterion touches on the very nature of sociology itself. As defined in the textbook, the sociological imagination is the ability to relate intimate personal experiences with macroscopic historical trends. To extricate the two is fruitless, and when considering poverty from a sociological standpoint, the nature of poverty’s history and an individualistic approach are equally important. Moreover, Brady also considers poverty as a sociological force as well as a way of grouping people. This is absolutely necessary if one wants to mitigate poverty in the modern world. In analyzing poverty as a societal force, one sees other sources of poverty besides the “poor” themselves. By defining poverty as social exclusion, one sees that the middle class and upper class’s attitude towards the poor are debilitating and do not help their financial situation. On this issue, the textbook offers the example of the Shudra, or “untouchables,” in India. This group is the lowest in the caste system in India, and it has been engrained into the Indian culture for other castes to shun this group characterized by destitution. Poverty, in a strict definition based on income, does not take into account social forces that perpetuate the Shudra’s unfortunate situation. Finally, Brady’s second and fourth criteria are fitting and related, because poverty cannot be dealt with in absolutes. There is no perfect poverty line that will divide the “poor” and the “non-poor.” There are always sublevels within the poor and even the “wealthy” that need to be considered.

  2. Maddie McCluer

    I agree that the idea of an absolute poverty is one which cannot sensibly exist. The idea that a definite point exists past which people experience poverty is not sound. If a cut off point were to exist at earning x-number of dollars per year, who is to say that life is any easier for a person earning x + 75 number of dollars per year. The strain may be felt by both individuals equally and possibly even more so by the individual earning x + 75 dollars per year depending on his or her situation. As was stated in the post, taking into consideration the location and net worth of an individual’s assets and debts is necessary. However, such a consideration requires arbitrary decisions regarding how much to take into consideration one’s location or circumstances and how to assign numerical values to such matters. As such, it seems that poverty would be easier defined in a qualitative rather than quantitative manner. However, qualitative measures are subjective to the individual stating the strain he or she feels. Is there a way to transform such qualitative measures in an effort to make them more quantitative in nature? Even with conversion to a quantitative measure, could the conversion be susceptible to subjectivity?

  3. 03nateengstrom

    Brady’s five criteria seem very reasonable because I believe it’s essential, as Anson said, to think about poverty as a sociological force. All of the measures on Brady’s list are important factors to consider when thinking about what defines poverty. However, I think that “social exclusion” is difficult to define. The manner and degree to which people socialize varies so much between individuals that someone most people see as socially excluded may very well feel content with their level of participation.
    This notion of social inclusion reminds me of Durkheim’s discussion of anomie. Anomie is a feeling of alienation as a result of a lack of standards or values. Do unhappy poor people feel excluded because they don’t have the means to live up to normal standards and values? What would Durkheim say about the sociological effects of the unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S.?

  4. 03laurienordlund

    Relativity is most definitely an important factor in defining poverty. As mentioned in the post, poverty in one part of the country is very different from poverty in another part of the country. Each state, or even neighborhood, has its own culture and lifestyle and they have different costs, some more so than others. I agree with Brady’s list of criteria because poverty is relative and not absolute and it is important to understand the amount of inequality among the poor. By locating those who are the most affected by poverty, the government can seek to aide them first.

    If I were to remove any of these criteria, I would remove the idea that “poverty should be conceptualized as social exclusion.” While, yes, people living in poverty are prevented from entering certain wealthy social environments/situations, their class does not prevent them from upward social mobility. If they can find a means of changing their class status, they are not prohibited from doing so. They are not like the “untouchables” in India, here the poor can marry into other classes or by overcoming many obstacles work their way up.

  5. 02careyspitzer

    Referencing the video clip we watched in class this past Tuesday, the working poor definition is someone who works 40 hours a week, 8 hours a day and still falls below the poverty line. Causes for being in this situation include credit card debt, lack of education on financial responsibility, and no access to a car. Therefore, in response to this post as to whether luxuries like a car are a necessity, I believe that a car is a necessity while at the same time being a luxury.
    A car is a luxury in the sense that public transportation is continually expanding and becoming more accessible. Therefore, there are more ways for people to find transportation. However, the average family in America still owns 2.28 cars (http://www.autospies.com/news/Study-Finds-Americans-Own-2-28-Vehicles-Per-Household-26437/). While public transportation is expanding its services, it still does not bring you as directly to your destination as a personal vehicle would.
    A car is a necessity in the same sense. There are many families left without a vehicle and therefore, no easy way to get to work. A car could help a mother get a better job that is a little further away. A car could keep a father in the workforce than working odd jobs around town.

  6. 03ashleyburgess

    The statement made in the post “Perhaps an income of $12,000 would be plenty for someone living in Mobile, Alabama, but that same income in San Francisco, California does not go nearly as far” is making a good point, but I do not believe the wording is correct. The word “plenty” in relation to an income of $12,000 a year in any state is not particularly truthful. This just attests to the fact that measures of poverty are set too low. “In todays society many individuals make below the level of living comfortably. The average American makes approximately $35,000 a year. That is considered to be living near the poverty line. Many people have to choose between paying their mortgage and feeding their children,” says Angela D. in an article on Helium. She claims that to live comfortably a person should make at least $70,000, which is double that the average person makes, and fifty-eight thousand dollars more than the “plentiful” $12,ooo income. But the statement does address the faulty guidelines used to measure poverty. Location, possession of wealth, and circumstances are not considered, only income. Brady’s five criteria would be a much better way to measure poverty. Especially the second criteria, which is “analysts should measure poverty as relative rather than absolute.” Measurements of poverty should vary by location because the price of living is different in different areas. What should be done is more research into how little money does a person have to have until they are considered poor? I believe our base amount is too low, because when a family has to choose between paying their mortgage or feeding their children, I believe there should be help available. The poverty line needs to be redrawn, because standards of living have go up and many families are finding it hard to get by.

  7. 03ryanshea

    Poverty is something that will always be with us as a capitalist society, even if our definition of poverty is of a higher standard than the rest of the world’s. Economist Milton Freedman believed that a certain level of unemployment was necessary for a healthy economy (Concise Encyclopedia of Economics), so if we plan on continuing to pursue a relatively free market economy, we must accept that poverty will inevitably be a part of it. However, what needs to be addressed is the concept of cyclical poverty where social mobility is nonexistent.

    What the documentary on the working poor showed was that access to credit is a large part of this cyclical poverty. In order to effectively define relative unemployment, we must take into account more than just Brady’s criteria but also local lending practices and whether credit is accessible. Predatory lending accentuates this cycle of poverty and prevents social mobility, and therefore poverty lines should reflect this.

    A solution to this problem may lie in what has been done in the third world. Governments as well as private institutions have engaged in a process known as microfinance which makes smaller amounts of credit available to communities with bad or no credit. Because it is community based there is greater self-regulation and its small scale takes away much of the risk for the lender, which could potentially be the government. Regardless, there needs to be a reevaluation of poverty lines with credit access taken into account as well as a new approach to thinking about how to disrupt cyclical regional poverty.



  8. 02nancyli

    Like the previous posts, I also believe that Brady’s five criteria are very appropriate. Unlike some of the previous posts, however, I find the third criterion – that poverty be conceptualized as social exclusion – to be especially fitting. Although measuring the degree to which an individual is “socially excluded” is difficult, I believe that one of the defining characteristics of the poor in this country is the poor’s lack of social mobility. While the movement of members of the middle or working class into the upper class is not unheard of, those in poverty rarely experience vertical social mobility; reasons for this discrepancy are summarized by the following statement in our textbook: “The poor are, ironically, often said to resemble the rich in being more oriented toward the present and therefore less worried about the future than their middle-class and working-class counterparts… Day-to-day survival keeps the poor clearly planted in the present” (569). The poor are often too concerned with “day-to-day survival” to find ways to move into the middle class.

    This idea of “day-to-day survival” brings me to my next point: There is no absolute measure of poverty; even in the “most absolute” definitions, there exists a “relativity factor” involving what necessities an individual requires for “day-to-day survival.” While food is an obvious necessity and transportation to work can fall in the gray area between necessity and luxury, I believe things such as medicine and health care are also necessities for survival. In this case, unlike with food, it is difficult to find the point at which one’s income is insufficient for purchasing necessary health care; since “necessary” health care varies from one individual to the next, a measure of absolute poverty is difficult to construct.

  9. 02rebeccalee

    I also have to agree that the notion of social exclusion as criteria when measuring poverty cannot be left out because of the inherent separation from what is the norm. It is too simplistic to suggest that people living in poverty have the same access to mobility as someone who began in the easier conditions of the middle class. A certain stigma develops around people belonging to the lower class because of assumed laziness or fault in their current position as is obvious in the treatment for loans, etc. They become a “risky” and perhaps “unreliable” population, which while alienating them from society, also serves to destroy some possibilities through the strength of weak ties and exacerbate their situation.
    In response to earlier comments, I think there is a link between the need to classify poverty in relative terms rather than absolute and the discussion about what constitutes socially recognized necessities. For example, your location does not merely change your income relative to those around you, but it can also serve to limit your opportunities, especially when you are unable to move. A car may seem like a luxury in New York City rather than a necessity because of available public transportation, what about in rural Tennessee where the bus system does not reach? How then do you get to work every day? Not only are necessities defined differently throughout history, they can be defined geographically as well. This is a further argument for defining poverty based on location. Though it may be cumbersome, one answer to the “where are the lines drawn in considering given location” question would be at the county level for greatest accuracy.

  10. 02chasehorine

    I also agree that poverty must be defined on a relative basis. In the clip that we watched in class, the man made around 18-19,000 dollars a year. This is a little above minimum wage, but his job is one of the better ones in his community. This income is barely enough for him and his family to get by and his wife even took up babysitting to supplement their income. However, this same amount of money in a Third World country would be a tremendous amount. One report shows that around half of Africans live on less than 1$ a day (http://www.learningafrica.org.uk/general_facts.htm). This is a tremendous gap and it shows that poverty is relative. That same man, however, would be in a much worse situation if he lived in an expensive, big city like Los Angeles because his income would count for even less. I think that Brady’s second criterion is crucial for understanding poverty.

  11. 03judithmay

    I agree with Brady’s five characteristics to measure poverty. I agree that all five of these factors should be incorporated when discussing poverty, but I also think that education is a very large factor in poverty as well. It is not nearly a secret that poverty is associated with low levels of educational attainment and that thus, the impoverished can also be seen as the “uneducated,” or at least, people who have the lowest rates of educational achievement. Also, as education is equally as important and probably a factor in all five characteristics listed by Brady, it should be included as well. As to the second question, I do not believe there is any real way to measure absolute poverty because, as you said in your blog, society has constructed what defines “basic needs”. Therefore, a person living in Africa and a person living in America may have very different standards of basic needs. For example, in America, there may basic needs may be consisted of proper food and housing; the need for proper healthcare centers may not be considered a basic need or not put into this category, because there is a surplus of hospitals in America. Even though many poor people do not have the health insurance to be properly treated, there is not a lack of available centers, and according to the 1986 EMTALA, emergency rooms are required “to treat you, regardless of your ability to pay for services” (Conley, 2008). However in Africa, the lack of health centers and doctors means a lack of good health—a basic need in this country. Finally, poverty must be relatively because definitions of absolute poverty are constructed by the meanings and understandings of basic needs, the cost of living in different places, and the resources available in different areas.

  12. 02laurenharrill

    As with most measurable qualities, there is a certain degree of relativity based on the location of the individual in question and the standard of living that surrounds that particular area. However, this creates a sort of vicious cycle as we saw when studying education. If certain areas are characterized by lower standards of living, less expensive housing, and a overall higher poverty level, then these factors affect the culture in that area, often contributing to higher rate of crime and also lowering the quality of the education that the area children are receiving. These students are deprived of certain necessary resources for education and success and are more likely to fall into crime, drop out of school, or simply not reach their full potential. So, while the measurement of poverty is relative, we must recognize the implications that this fact poses.

    As for Brady’s criteria, the first, second, fourth, and fifth are accurate for the reasons I mentioned above. However, the third criterion has an obvious flaw: Poverty cannot be conceptualized as social exclusion because it is impossible to determine whether an individual, a family, or even a community is being “socially excluded” because of their level of poverty or for other reasons such as race, income, or cultural background.

  13. 02mathiasroberts

    David Brady, in his article “Rethinking the Sociological Measurement of Poverty,” presents five sensible and accurate criteria for gauging poverty throughout the world. Brady’s second point, that “analysts should measure the depth and inequality of the poor…” is one of his most poignant criterion. Instead of comparing vastly different areas such as rural Iowa and Los Angeles, an example of relative poverty is seen in New York City’s five boroughs. A young couple living in Manhattan may consider themselves poor, simply because they pay an exorbitant rent in Greenwich Village, and have trouble paying taxi, train, and bus fares. However, a similar couple living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn that works at the local Park Luncheonette may be much “poorer.” While the people in Manhattan may not even live below the poverty line, those in Brooklyn pay rent in a much cheaper building and still may struggle to make ends meet. Also, poverty can be measured “relatively” with respect to different time periods. For example, a family that did not have a personal computer or a color television in the 1980’s would not have been considered poor. However, a family lacking any type of cell phone or computer in today’s world would be considered disadvantaged, if not poor. One more criterion Brady may have considered when describing poverty is age. An 80-year-old man living in a shack in Jamaica is much poorer than his 13-year-old grandson living in the same house. Because the young boy, assuming he has no disabilities, has his health, his situation is not as dire as his grandfather’s. In contrast, the grandfather has lived his life in these conditions, and has adapted to a “culture of poverty.” This is defined by Conley as poor people “adapting and surviving in difficult economic circumstances different from the ‘mainstream.’” (p. 585). With the definition of relative poverty concerning age, Brady’s criteria are nearly perfect in describing poverty.

  14. 03katiecardenas

    Brady’s five points for poverty represent and in-depth and appropriate method by which to measure and define poverty today. However, I still believe that even these “absolute definitions” still contain some form of ambiguity. The same ambiguity can even be found in our text. For example, Conley writes that poverty can be described as when someone “cannot live without dignity”(Conley 581). This definition is highly relative. Who can really decide the exact point when someone looses his or her dignity? Is it when you can no longer feed your family (absolute poverty) or when your earnings fall below half of the median income (relative poverty)? The definition of poverty is thus flexible and changes from person to person and location to location. However, one thing that Brady does leave out of his measure of poverty is race. As much as we hope to ignore it race plays a major role in the determination of poverty. Author Chester Hartman of Double Exposure studied race and poverty and ultimately concluded the two were “inextricably linked”(Hartman 9). Rather than ignoring race in his guidelines, I believe Brady should have created a point specific defining how race should be taken into account in the measure of poverty. Also, along the same line I feel family providers should be discussed in relation to poverty. As stated by the blog, “structure of the family is strongly correlated to poverty”. It can be an important factor in delineating status and poverty of a family if there is one or two parents working. Thus, while Brady’s list does come close to encompassing all points that define poverty, he ultimately leaves out some of the more important social contractions and facts that influence and add to poverty.


  15. 03jerricaraglin

    I agree with Brady’s five points, especially the third one mentioning social exclusion. Social exclusion is a factor that Gardner-Cox does not acknowledge in her data. She does not try to understand why the majority of the “minority” families are in poverty. Brady attempts to acknowledge this matter by referring to it as social exclusion.

    If poverty is approached as if there is a “relativity” factor in the absolute definitions, then it can be dealt with more efficiently. Researchers can understand why a minority in one state may be in poverty, but another minority with the same net worth may not be in another state. Relativity can also identify why people of different ethnicities with the same income may experience different levels of poverty or not. Everything is relative to the different factors affecting each person’s life.

  16. Caitlin Donovan

    I agree with the above statement. I think it is very important to always consider relative poverty because like stated in the main post, having enough money to survive in rural Alabama may not even pay for a month’s rent in an urban city like New York. With that said, I think there should be a focus on studying and understanding relative poverty among different races in the SAME societal setting in order to understand the root of racially specified poverty. As mention in the text, “As a social scientist, your laboratory, so to speak, is the real world.” Personally, I think a factor which may be responsible for this racial inequality in relation to poverty is social mobility, which some races find greater access to then others in our society due to stereotypes.