Understanding Poverty and Its Various Types

Definition, Types, and Socio-Economic Causes and Consequences

A child living in poverty in de-industrialized Utica, NY symbolizes the socio-economic causes and consequences of poverty.
A child sits on a stoop in a working class section of Utica on May 14, 2012 in Utica, New York. Like many upstate New York communities, Utica is struggling to make the transition from a former manufacturing hub. The city's individual poverty rate is twice the national average with an unemployment rate of 9.8% as of February 2012. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Poverty is a social condition that is characterized by the lack of resources necessary for basic survival or necessary to meet a certain minimum level of living standards expected for the place where one lives. The income level that determines poverty is different from place to place, so social scientists believe that it is best defined by conditions of existence, like lack of access to food, clothing, and shelter.

People in poverty typically experience persistent hunger or starvation, inadequate or absent education and health care, and are usually alienated from mainstream society.

Poverty is a consequence of the uneven distribution of material resources and wealth on a global scale and within nations. Sociologists see it as a social condition of societies with unequal and inequitable distribution of income and wealth, of the de-industrialization of Western societies, and the exploitative effects of global capitalism.

Poverty is not an equal opportunity social condition. Around the world and within the U.S., women, children, and people of color are far more likely to experience poverty than are white men.

While this description offers a general understanding of poverty, sociologists recognize a few different types of it.

Types of Poverty

Absolute poverty is what most people probably think of when they think of poverty, especially if they think about it at the global level.

It is defined as the total lack of resources and means required to meet the most basic standards of life. It is characterized by lack of access to food, clothing, and shelter. The characteristics of this type of poverty are the same from place to place.

Relative poverty is defined differently from place to place because it depends on the social and economic contexts in which one lives.

Relative poverty exists when one lacks the means and resources required to meet a minimum level of living standards that are considered normal in the society or community where one lives. In many parts of the world, for example, indoor plumbing is regarded as a sign of affluence, but in industrial societies it is taken for granted and its absence in a household is taken as a sign of poverty.

Income poverty is the type of poverty measured by the federal government in the U.S. and documented by the U.S. Census. It exists when a household does not meet a set national minimum income considered necessary for the members of that household to achieve basic standards of living. The figure used to define poverty on a global scale is living on less than $2 per day. In the U.S., income poverty is determined by size of household and number of children in the household, so there is no fixed income level that defines poverty for all. According to the U.S. Census, the poverty threshold for a single person living alone was $12,331 per year. For two adults living together it was $15,871, and for two adults with a child it was $16,337.

Cyclical poverty is a condition in which poverty is widespread but limited in its duration.

This type of poverty is typically linked to specific events that disrupt a society, like war, an economic crash or recession, or natural phenomena or disasters that disrupt distribution of food and other resources. For example, the poverty rate within the U.S. climbed throughout the Great Recession that began in 2008, and since 2010 has declined. This is a case in which an economic event caused a cycle of more intensive poverty that was fixed in duration (about three years).

Collective poverty is a lack of basic resources that is so widespread that it afflicts an entire society or subgroup of people within that society. This form of poverty persists over periods of time stretching across generations. It is common in formerly colonized places, frequently war-torn places, and places that have been heavily exploited by or excluded from participation in global commerce, including parts of Asia, the Middle East, much of Africa, and parts of Central and South America.

Concentrated collective poverty occurs when the kind of collective poverty described above is suffered by specific subgroups within a society, or localized in particular communities or regions that are devoid of industry, good paying jobs, and that lack access to fresh and healthy food. For example, within the U.S., poverty within metropolitan regions is concentrated within the principle cities of those regions, and often also within specific neighborhoods within cities.

Case poverty occurs when a person or family is unable to secure resources required to meet their basic needs despite the fact that resources are not scarce and those around them are generally living well. Case poverty might be produced by sudden loss of employment, inability to work, or injury or illness. While it might at first glance seem like an individual condition, it is actually a social one, because it is unlikely to occur in societies that provide economic safety nets to their populations.

Asset poverty is more common and widespread that income poverty and other forms. It exists when a person or household does not have enough wealth assets (in the form of property, investments, or money saved) to survive for three months if necessary. In fact, many people living in the U.S. today live in asset poverty. They may not be impoverished so long as they are employed, but could be thrown immediately into poverty if their pay were to stop.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.