For the term as defined in the United States, see Poverty thresholds (United States Census Bureau).
Percentage of population living on less than $1.25 per day. UN estimates 2000–2007.
Graph of global population living on under 1, 1.25 and 2 equivalent of 2005 US dollars daily (red) and as a proportion of world population (blue) based on 1981–2008 World Bank data

The poverty threshold, poverty limit or poverty line is the minimum level of income deemed adequate in a particular country.[1] In practice, like the definition of poverty, the official or common understanding of the poverty line is significantly higher in developed countries (with HDI of under than 0.700 score) than in developing countries.[2][3] In 2008, the World Bank came out with a figure (revised largely due to inflation) of $1.25 at 2005 purchasing-power parity (PPP).[4] In October 2015, the World Bank updated the international poverty line to $1.90 a day.The new figure of $1.90 is based on ICP purchasing power parity (PPP) calculations and represent the international equivalent of what $1.90 could buy in the US in 2011. The new IPL replaces the $1.25 per day figure, which used 2005 data. [5] Most scholars agree that it better reflects today's reality, particularly new price levels in developing countries.[6] The common international poverty line has in the past been roughly $1 a day.[7] At present the percentage of the global population living under extreme poverty is likely to fall below 10% according to the World Bank projections released in 2015.[8]

Determining the poverty line is usually done by finding the total cost of all the essential resources that an average human adult consumes in one year.[9] The largest of these expenses is typically the rent required to live in an apartment, so historically, economists have paid particular attention to the real estate market and housing prices as a strong poverty line affector. Individual factors are often used to account for various circumstances, such as whether one is a parent, elderly, a child, married, etc. The poverty threshold may be adjusted annually.



Charles Booth, a pioneering investigator of poverty in London at the turn of the 20th century, popularised the idea of a poverty line, a concept originally conceived by the London School Board.[10] Booth set the line at 10 (50p) to 20 shillings (£1) per week, which he considered to be the minimum amount necessary for a family of 4 or 5 people to subsist on.[11] Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871–1954), a British sociological researcher, social reformer and industrialist, surveyed rich families in York, and drew a poverty line in terms of a minimum weekly sum of money "necessary to enable families ... to secure the necessaries of a healthy life", which included fuel and light, rent, food, clothing, and household and personal items. Based on data from leading nutritionists of the period, he calculated the cheapest price for the minimum calorific intake and nutritional balance necessary, before people got ill or lost weight. He considered this amount to set his poverty line and concluded that 27.84% of the total population of York lived below this poverty line.[12] This result corresponded with that from Charles Booth's study of poverty in London and so challenged the view, commonly held at the time, that abject poverty was a problem particular to London and was not widespread in the rest of Britain. Rowntree distinguished between primary poverty, those lacking in income and secondary poverty, those who had enough income, but spent it elsewhere (1901:295–6).[12]

Absolute povertyEdit

See also: Extreme poverty

Absolute poverty is the level of poverty as defined in terms of the minimal requirements necessary to afford minimal standards of food, clothing, health care and shelter.[citation needed] For the measure to be absolute, the line must be the same in different countries, cultures, and technological levels. Such an absolute measure should look only at the individual's power to consume and it should be independent of any changes in income distribution. The intuition behind an absolute measure is that mere survival takes essentially the same amount of resources across the world and that everybody should be subject to the same standards if meaningful comparisons of policies and progress are to be made. Notice that if everyone's real income in an economy increases, and the income distribution does not change, absolute poverty will decline.

Measuring poverty by an absolute threshold has the advantage of applying the same standard across different locations and time periods: it makes comparisons easier. On the other hand, it suffers from the disadvantage that any absolute poverty threshold is to some extent arbitrary; the amount of wealth required for survival is not the same in all places and time periods. For example, a person living in far northern Scandinavia requires a source of heat during colder months, while a person living on a tropical island does not.

This type of measure is often contrasted with measures of relative poverty (see below), which classify individuals or families as "poor" not by comparing them to a fixed cutoff point, but by comparing them to others in the population under study.

The term absolute poverty is also sometimes used as a synonym for extreme poverty. Absolute poverty is the absence of enough resources to secure basic life necessities.

According to a UN declaration that resulted from the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995, absolute poverty is "a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services."[13]

David Gordon's paper, "Indicators of Poverty & Hunger", for the United Nations, further defines absolute poverty as the absence of any two of the following eight basic needs:[13]

  • Food: Body Mass Index must be above 16.
  • Safe drinking water: Water must not come solely from rivers and ponds, and must be available nearby (less than 15 minutes' walk each way).
  • Sanitation facilities: Toilets or latrines must be accessible in or near the home.
  • Health: Treatment must be received for serious illnesses and pregnancy.
  • Shelter: Homes must have fewer than four people living in each room. Floors must not be made of dirt, mud, or clay.
  • Education: Everyone must attend school or otherwise learn to read.
  • Information: Everyone must have access to newspapers, radios, televisions, computers, or telephones at home.
  • Access to services: This item is undefined by Gordon, but normally is used to indicate the complete panoply of education, health, legal, social, and financial (credit) services.

For example, a person who lives in a home with a mud floor is considered severely deprived of shelter. A person who never attended school and cannot read is considered severely deprived of education. A person who has no newspaper, radio, television, computer, or telephone is considered severely deprived of information. All people who meet any two of these conditions – for example, they live in homes with mud floors and cannot read – are considered to be living in absolute poverty.

The term "Absolute Poverty" is slightly misleading when defined in this manner, as there are great numbers of people who have none of these eight basic needs met, but are still grouped with those who lack only 2.[citation needed]

Basic needsEdit

See also: Basic needs

The basic needs approach is one of the major approaches to the measurement of absolute poverty in developing countries. It attempts to define the absolute minimum resources necessary for long-term physical well-being, usually in terms of consumption goods. The poverty line is then defined as the amount of income required to satisfy those needs. The 'basic needs' approach was introduced by the International Labour Organization's World Employment Conference in 1976.[14][15] "Perhaps the high point of the WEP was the World Employment Conference of 1976, which proposed the satisfaction of basic human needs as the overriding objective of national and international development policy. The basic needs approach to development was endorsed by governments and workers' and employers' organizations from all over the world. It influenced the programmes and policies of major multilateral and bilateral development agencies, and was the precursor to the human development approach."[14][15]

A traditional list of immediate "basic needs" is food (including water), shelter and clothing.[16] Many modern lists emphasize the minimum level of consumption of 'basic needs' of not just food, water, and shelter, but also sanitation, education, and health care. Different agencies use different lists.

In 1978, Ghai investigated the literature that criticized the basic needs approach. Critics argued that the basic needs approach lacked scientific rigour; it was consumption-oriented and anti-growth. Some considered it to be "a recipe for perpetuating economic backwardness" and for giving the impression "that poverty elimination is all too easy".[17] Amartya Sen focused on 'capabilities' rather than consumption.

In the development discourse, the basic needs model focuses on the measurement of what is believed to be an eradicable level of poverty.

Relative povertyEdit

Relative poverty means low income relative to others in a country; for example, below 60% of the median income of people in that country. It is the "most useful measure for ascertaining poverty rates in wealthy developed nations".[18][19][20][21][22] Relative poverty measure is used by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Canadian poverty researchers.[18][19][20][21][22] In the European Union, the "relative poverty measure is the most prominent and most–quoted of the EU social inclusion indicators."[23]

"Relative poverty reflects better the cost of social inclusion and equality of opportunity in a specific time and space."[24]

"Once economic development has progressed beyond a certain minimum level, the rub of the poverty problem – from the point of view of both the poor individual and of the societies in which they live – is not so much the effects of poverty in any absolute form but the effects of the contrast, daily perceived, between the lives of the poor and the lives of those around them. For practical purposes, the problem of poverty in the industrialized nations today is a problem of relative poverty (page 9)."[24][25]

However, some have argued that as relative poverty is merely a measure of inequality, using the term 'poverty' for it is misleading. For example, if everyone in a country's income doubled, it would not reduce the amount of 'relative poverty' at all.

History of the concept of relative povertyEdit

In 1776, Adam Smith argued that poverty is the inability to afford "not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without."[26][27]

In 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith argued, "People are poverty stricken when their income, even if adequate for survival, falls markedly behind that of their community."[27][28]

In 1964, in a joint committee economic President's report in the United States, Republicans endorsed the concept of relative poverty: "No objective definition of poverty exists. ... The definition varies from place to place and time to time. In America as our standard of living rises, so does our idea of what is substandard."[27][29]

In 1965, Rose Friedman argued for the use of relative poverty claiming that the definition of poverty changes with general living standards. Those labelled as poor in 1995, would have had "a higher standard of living than many labelled not poor" in 1965.[27][30]

In 1979, British sociologist, Peter Townsend published his famous definition: "individuals... 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 (page 31)."[31]

Brian Nolan and Christopher T. Whelan of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in Ireland explained that "poverty has to be seen in terms of the standard of living of the society in question."[32]

Relative poverty measures are used as official poverty rates by the European Union, UNICEF and the OEDC. The main poverty line used in the OECD and the European Union is based on "economic distance", a level of income set at 60% of the median household income.[33]

Relative poverty compared with other standardsEdit

A measure of relative poverty defines "poverty" as being below some relative poverty threshold. For example, the statement that "those individuals who are employed and whose household equivalised disposable income is below 60% of national median equivalised income are poor" uses a relative measure to define poverty.[34]

The term relative poverty can also be used in a different sense to mean "moderate poverty" – for example, a standard of living or level of income that is high enough to satisfy basic needs (like water, food, clothing, housing, and basic health care), but still significantly lower than that of the majority of the population under consideration.[35]

National poverty linesEdit

CIA World Factbook-based map showing the percentage of population by country living below that country's official poverty line

National estimates are based on population-weighted subgroup estimates from household surveys. Definitions of the poverty line do vary considerably among nations. For example, rich nations generally employ more generous standards of poverty than poor nations. Even among rich nations, the standards differ greatly. Thus, the numbers are not comparable among countries. Even when nations do use the same method, some issues may remain.[36]

In 2015, in the United States, the poverty threshold for a single person under 65 was at an annual income of US$11,770; the threshold for a family group of four, including two children, was US$24,250.[37][38] According to the U.S. Census Bureau data released on 13 September 2011, the nation's poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent in 2010

In the UK, "more than five million people – over a fifth (23 percent) of all employees – were paid less than £6.67 an hour in April 2006. This value is based on a low pay rate of 60 percent of full-time median earnings, equivalent to a little over £12,000 a year for a 35-hour working week. In April 2006, a 35-hour week would have earned someone £9,191 a year – before tax or National Insurance".[39][40]

India's official poverty level, on the other hand, is split according to rural vs. urban thresholds. For urban dwellers, the poverty line is defined as living on less than 538.60 rupees (approximately US$12) per month, whereas for rural dwellers, it is defined as living on less than 356.35 rupees per month (approximately US$7.50).[41]


Using a poverty threshold is problematic because having an income slightly above or below it is not substantially different; the negative effects of poverty tend to be continuous rather than discrete, and the same low income affects different people in different ways. To overcome this problem, a poverty index or indices can be used instead; see income inequality metrics.

A poverty threshold relies on a quantitative, or purely numbers-based, measure of income. If other human development-indicators like health and education are used, they must be quantified, which is not a simple (if even achievable) task.

Using a single monetary poverty threshold is problematic when applied worldwide, due to the difficulty of comparing prices between countries. Prices of the same goods vary dramatically from country to country; while this is typically corrected for by using purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates, the basket of goods used to determine such rates is usually unrepresentative of the poor, most of whose expenditure is on basic foodstuffs rather than the relatively luxurious items (washing machines, air travel, healthcare) often included in PPP baskets. The economist Robert C. Allen has attempted to solve this by using standardized baskets of goods typical of those bought by the poor across countries and historical time, for example including a fixed calorific quantity of the cheapest local grain (such as corn, rice, or oats).

Overstating povertyEdit

Some critics point out that stated poverty lines in countries with substantial welfare systems (such as the United States and Europe) fail to count in-kind transfers, whether from public or private sources, when calculating a poverty threshold. For example, if a parent pays the rent on an apartment for an adult son directly to the apartment owner, instead of giving the money to the son to pay the rent, the money does not count as direct income to the son. If a church or non-profit organization gives food to an elderly person, the value of the food is not counted as direct income to the elderly person. Rea Hederman, a senior policy analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation, said:

The official poverty measure counts only direct monetary income. It considers antipoverty programs such as food stamps, housing assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid and school lunches, among others, "in-kind benefits" – and hence not income. So, despite everything these programs do to relieve poverty, they aren't counted as income when Washington measures the poverty rate.[42]

Understating povertyEdit

In addition to wage and salary income, investment income and government transfers such as SNAP (also known as food stamps) and housing subsidies are included in a household's income. Studies measuring the differences between income before and after taxes and government transfers, have found that without social support programs, poverty would be roughly 30% to 40% higher than the official poverty line indicates.[43][44]

Further, the U.S. Census Bureau calculates the poverty line the same throughout the U.S. regardless of the cost-of-living in a state or urban area. For instance, the cost-of-living in California, the most populous state, was 42% greater than the U.S. average in 2010 while the cost-of-living in Texas, the second most populous state, was 10% less than the U.S. average.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Ravallion, Martin Poverty freak: A Guide to Concepts and Methods. Living Standards Measurement Papers, The World Bank, 1992, p. 25
  2. ^ Hagenaars, Aldi & de Vos, Klaas The Definition and Measurement of Poverty. Journal of Human Resources, 1988
  3. ^ Hagenaars, Aldi & van Praag, Bernard A Synthesis of Poverty Line Definitions. Review of Income and Wealth, 1985
  4. ^ Ravallion, Martin; Chen Shaohua & Sangraula, Prem Dollar a day The World Bank Economic Review, 23, 2, 2009, pp. 163–184
  5. ^ "World Bank Forecasts Global Poverty to Fall Below 10% for First Time; Major Hurdles Remain in Goal to End Poverty by 2030". Retrieved 6 October 2015. 
  6. ^ Hildegard Lingnau (19 February 2016). "Major breakthrough". D+C, development&cooperation. Retrieved 27 April 2016. 
  7. ^ Sachs, Jeffrey D. The End of Poverty 2005, p. 20
  8. ^ Hickel, Jason (2015-11-01). "Could you live on $1.90 a day? That's the international poverty line". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-01-10. 
  9. ^ Poverty Lines - Martin Ravallion, in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Edition, London: Palgrave Macmillan
  10. ^ Alan Gillie, 'The Origin of the Poverty Line', Economic History Review, XLIX/4 (1996), 726
  11. ^ David Boyle - The Tyranny of Numbers p. 116
  12. ^ a b Rowntree, Benjamin Seebohm (1901). Poverty: A Study in Town Life. Macmillan and Co.  page 298
  13. ^ a b "Indicators of Poverty and Hunger" (PDF). Retrieved 14 February 2008. 
  14. ^ a b "The World Employment Programme at ILO" (PDF). 
  15. ^ a b Richard Jolly (October 1976). "The World Employment Conference: The Enthronement of Basic Needs". Development Policy Review. A9 (2): 31–44. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7679.1976.tb00338.x. 
  16. ^ Denton, John A. (1990). Society and the official world: a reintroduction to sociology. Dix Hills, N.Y: General Hall. p. 17. ISBN 0-930390-94-6. 
  17. ^ Dharam Ghai (June 1978). "Basic Needs and its Critics". Institute of Development Studies. 9 (4): 16–18. doi:10.1111/j.1759-5436.1978.mp9004004.x. 
  18. ^ a b Raphael, Dennis (June 2009). "Poverty, Human Development, and Health in Canada: Research, Practice, and Advocacy Dilemmas". Canadian Journal of Nursing Research (CJNR). 41 (2): 7–18. 
  19. ^ a b Child poverty in rich nations: Report card no. 6 (Report). Innocenti Research Centre. 2005. 
  20. ^ a b "Growing unequal? Income distribution and poverty in OECD countries". Paris, France: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2008. 
  21. ^ a b Human development report: Capacity development: Empowering people and institutions (Report). Geneva: United Nations Development Program. 2008. 
  22. ^ a b "Child Poverty". Ottawa, ON: Conference Board of Canada. 2013. 
  23. ^ Ive Marx; Karel van den Bosch. "How poverty differs from inequality on poverty management in an enlarged EU context: Conventional and alternate approaches" (PDF). Antwerp, Belgium: Centre for Social Policy. 
  24. ^ a b Jonathan Bradshaw; Yekaterina Chzhen; Gill Main; Bruno Martorano; Leonardo Menchini; Chris de Neubourg (January 2012). Relative Income Poverty among Children in Rich Countries (PDF) (Report). Innocenti Working Paper. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre. ISSN 1014-7837. 
  25. ^ A League Table of Child Poverty in Rich Nations (Report). Innocenti Report Card No.1. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre. 
  26. ^ Adam Smith (1776). An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 5. 
  27. ^ a b c d Peter Adamson; UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (2012). Measuring child poverty: New league tables of child poverty in the world's rich countries (PDF) (Report). UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre Report Card. Florence, Italy. 
  28. ^ Galbraith, J. K. (1958). The Affluent Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 
  29. ^ Minority [Republican] views, p. 46 in U.S. Congress, Report of the Joint Economic Committee on the January 1964 Economic Report of the President with Minority and Additional Views (Report). Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office. January 1964. 
  30. ^ Friedman, Rose. D. (1965). Poverty: Definition and Perspective. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (Report). Washington, D.C. 
  31. ^ Townsend, P. (1979). Poverty in the United Kingdom. London: Penguin. 
  32. ^ Callan, T.; Nolan, Brian; Whelan, Christopher T. (1993). "Resources, Deprivation and the Measurement of Poverty". Journal of Social Policy. 22: 141–172. doi:10.1017/s0047279400019280. 
  33. ^ Michael Blastland (31 July 2009). "Just what is poor?". BBC NEWS. Retrieved 25 September 2008. 
  34. ^ Bardone, Laura; Guio, Anne-Catherine (2005). "In-Work Poverty: New commonly agreed indicators at the EU level" (PDF). Statistics in Focus: Population and Social Conditions. Eurostat. ISSN 1024-4352. Retrieved 18 February 2015. 
  35. ^ "Inequality in Focus, October 2013: Analyzing the World Bank's Goal of Achieving "Shared Prosperity"". World Bank. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  36. ^ "" Eurostat 2010
  37. ^ "Annual Update of the HHS Poverty Guidelines". 22 January 2015. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  38. ^ US Census Bureau. "How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty". Retrieved 22 December 2010. 
  39. ^ Working out of Poverty: A study of the low paid and the working poor by Graeme Cooke and Kayte Lawton
  40. ^ IPPR Article: "Government must rescue 'forgotten million children' in poverty"
  41. ^ "Poverty Estimates for 2004-05" (PDF). Retrieved 19 November 2009. 
  42. ^ "Poor poverty yardsticks", Rea S. Hederman, Jr., September 8, 2006, The Heritage Foundation
  43. ^ Kenworthy, L (1999). "Do social-welfare policies reduce poverty? A cross-national assessment". Social Forces. 77 (3): 1119–1139. doi:10.1093/sf/77.3.1119. 
  44. ^ Bradley, D.; Huber, E.; Moller, S.; Nielson, F.; Stephens, J. D. (2003). "Determinants of relative poverty in advanced capitalist democracies". American Sociological Review. 68 (3): 22–51. doi:10.2307/3088901. JSTOR 3088901. 

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit