Unearthing the Roots of Poverty

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Recognising the Complexity of Poverty

Over a fortnight in April, I shared stories which I referred to as symbols of poverty. While running a busy foodbank some years ago, I would often ask people how they would practically, rather than philosophically, define poverty. One single mum once said: “Poverty is going to my nearest supermarket after 7pm knowing tomorrow’s dinner is dependent upon the reduced items section.” After several years of engaging in poverty relief efforts, I have come to the conclusion that poverty is a complex tapestry of interwoven threads often culminating in a crisis. However, I also believe that there are both external and internal components that drive poverty.

It was, therefore, disappointing to see a leading spokesperson of a UK charity recently quoted as saying: “Political decisions got us into this situation and political decisions can get us out.” The situation they were describing related to the epidemic levels of poverty but their analysis did not reflect the multi-faceted matrix that contributes to poverty. Political decisions are just one component but they are neither the fullness of the problem nor the panacea but if our leading UK charities fail to identify the ailment how can they possibly be expected to administer the cure? Surely understanding this complexity is crucial to designing a healthy response.

The late and great British sociologist, Peter Townsend, has done much to shape our modern understanding and definitions of poverty. In his defining work Poverty in the United Kingdom, he wrote: “Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong.”[1] Townsend’s definition, admittedly, focuses primarily on the external forces but fails to capture the full extent of the internal impact that poverty can have.

The UK Government has generally defined poverty by the point at which household income falls 60% below the median income[2]  and even the Oxford English Dictionary defines poverty in material terms, describing poverty as lacking “sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.”[3] However, as I hope to unpack, our economic status is only one component in a more complex framework. Marshall Sahlins appeared to agree, in his formidable Stone Age Economics (1972) where he wrote: “Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods… above all it is a relation between people.”[4]

Revising our Definition of Poverty

One organisation I believe has acknowledged this broader complexity is The Joseph Rowntree Foundation. They have launched a comprehensive strategy to solve poverty that “looks beyond temporary political change, aiming for a major shift in attitudes, society and the economy.”[5] Among some of the other manifestations of poverty, they include discrimination, weak relationships, chaotic lives, abuse or trauma which capture some of the more broad external and internal complexities. Identifying a solution would be much easier if political decision-making was at the heart of the problem but, sadly, not all of these manifestations can be solved by a party policy.

In When Helping Hurts, Corbett and Fikkert (2012) talk about the investments made by the World Bank to promote poverty reduction and stimulate economic growth, which yielded successful results in developed nations but less than successful results in developing nations.[6] In a change of approach, they describe how the World Bank decided to consult people experiencing poverty and realised that they had limited their definition of poverty to material deprivation without understanding the emotional component. People experiencing poverty talked less about limited access to housing and healthcare and more about hopelessness and humiliation.

It is ultimately my belief that poverty is rooted in a lack of wholeness. There are external political, economic and social realities that contribute to our sense of wholeness, over which we have a limited sphere of influence. Then, there are the internal physical, emotional and spiritual realities that contribute but which lie much more within our sphere of influence. The failure of the left has been to define poverty primarily by external factors and the failure of the right has been to define it primarily by the internal. In this simplified context, poverty is done to you or by you. In short, you have either been mistreated or manufactured your own misfortune.

I perceive wholeness as a sense of stability in one’s self and sustainability in the world, which is eased or exacerbated by external and internal forces. We might think of wholeness as akin to a jigsaw puzzle with many constituent pieces and all of us, if we are being truly honest, have gaps inside ourselves. For instance, our missing piece could be a lack of employment meaning that our external reality is economic. As a result, however, this lack of employment might impact upon our sense of well-being which means there is an internal emotional dynamic to that reality also. Our sense of stability and our sustainability are not exclusive in this situation – both are affected.

Unearthing the Roots of Poverty

Unearthing the Roots (Part Two)

Unearthing the Roots (Part Three)



[1] Townsend, P. 1979, Poverty in the United Kingdom, Allen Lane, London (p. 31)

[2] Department for Work and Pensions, Households Below Average Income: An analysis of the UK income distribution: 1994/95-2016/17 [Online] Available: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/691917/households-below-average-income-1994-1995-2016-2017.pdf [Accessed: 2018, May 29]

[3] The Oxford English Dictionary [Online] Available: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/poor [Accessed: 2018, May 29]

[4] Shalins, M. 1972, Stone Age Economics, Aldine · Atherton, Inc., Chicago (p. 38)

[5] Joseph Rowntree Foundation, What is poverty? [Online] Available: https://www.jrf.org.uk/our-work/what-is-poverty [Accessed: 2018, May 18]

[6] Corbett, S. and Fikkert, B. 2012, When Helping Hurts, Moody Publishers, Chicago (p. 49)