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Beggar with child by the roadside (India)

In the material sense (as the opposite of wealth ), poverty primarily refers to the insufficient satisfaction of basic needs (especially for food, water, clothing, living space, health). The lack of money , on the other hand, does not necessarily mean poverty, provided that subsistence strategies exist that can be used to meet the needs in other ways. The term “ penniless ” is sometimes used as a synonym for a lack of financial resources .

In a broader and figurative sense, poverty means any lack. The specific content of the term varies depending on the historical, cultural or sociological context and is partly based on subjective and partly emotional or culturally shaped values .


The origin of the underlying adjective poor is controversial, but is mostly traced back to the Germanic root * arҍma- , which means “lonely, orphaned, abandoned” and is associated with the Greek erḗmos (ἐρῆμος) “lonely”. An outdated term for “very great poverty” is mendicity (from Latin mendīcitās ).

Poor working-class family in Hamburg in 1902

Definition approaches

In modern industrialized countries, poverty is often only quantitatively related to prosperity and standard of living, although it cannot actually be reduced to the lack of material goods. The understanding of poverty differs in different societies. For example, members of indigenous communities only describe themselves as poor when they are confronted with the enormous variety of modern economic goods. In principle, poverty is a social phenomenon that is understood as a state of serious social disadvantage. The associated "shortage of material goods and services" is assessed very differently. Both the development policy of the second half of the 20th century and the current economic globalization declared the economic activity of traditional subsistence economies to be “poverty” in principle. This equates producing, processing and marketing for immediate supply with a condition that results from unemployment, homelessness or oppression. Household income is typically a measure of poverty, although it often refers to the lack of economic resources. This also means that self-sufficient people - even if they do not suffer materially and socially - are inevitably counted among the poor. To delimit it, one should speak more specifically of “economic poverty”. Poverty and wealth are opposites. The definitions described below are all against the background of economic poverty according to Western understanding.

Absolute and relative poverty

The definition of absolute poverty also applies to indigenous people and especially indigenous women, although the criterion of poverty is not essential for social self-assessment in some communities. Yanomami woman doing basket weaving.

There are two fundamentally different definitions of economic poverty in the narrower sense. On the one hand, there is absolute poverty, in which a person has less than 1.90 PPP US dollars per day at their disposal, and on the other hand, there is relative poverty , in which an income is significantly below the median income of a country or state. The first form is rarer today in industrialized countries, but dominates the situation in emerging and developing countries . In these extreme cases it can happen that a person is absolute, but not relatively poor. The second form, by definition, affects part of the population in practically every country. Both absolute and relative poverty lines cannot be determined without normative guidelines. Neither the choice of a certain percentage of the average income to determine relative poverty nor the determination of a basket of goods can be justified without judgment. That is why they are decided in political processes.

Absolute poverty

Proportion of the population in absolute poverty

To provide an overview of the problems in developing countries , the former President of the World Bank , Robert Strange McNamara , introduced the concept of absolute poverty. He defined absolute poverty as follows:

“Absolute poverty is living on the very edge of existence . The absolute poor are people who struggle to survive under dire deprivation and in a state of neglect and degradation that exceeds our imagination, which is shaped by intellectual imagination and privileged circumstances. "

The absolute poverty line is determined as the level of income or expenditure below which people can no longer afford the necessary nutrition and essential items of daily life. The World Bank regards people who have less than $ 1.90 PPP per day to be “poor”. Begging and hunger (death) go hand in hand with the concept of absolute poverty.

Critics note that the different living conditions in a society are not taken into account and, in particular according to the World Bank indicator , purchasing power parities, that according to its average basket of goods the relatively cheap services are taken into account, which, however, cannot be used by the poorer of a society. As a result, fewer affected people are considered poor.

Indicators of absolute poverty according to the International Development Association (IDA)

Relative poverty

Net wealth of German households in euros at certain points in the wealth distribution with the relative poverty threshold for wealth poverty. The wealth at the 50th% corresponds to the average wealth in Germany. The risk of poverty with wealth is determined here using a relative poverty threshold of 60% of the median, analogous to the risk of poverty for income. In contrast to the income poverty risk rate, there are no generally binding definitions of wealth poverty.

The term relative poverty means poverty in comparison to the respective social (also state, socio-geographical) environment of a person. In this context, relative poverty refers to various statistical measures for a society (for example the median of the weighted net equivalent income ). Relative poverty is also noticeable through socio-cultural impoverishment, which means a lack of participation in certain social activities as a result of the financial shortage (such as going to the theater, cinema or swimming pool, school trips).

Transitional and structural poverty

Poverty can be temporary or permanent.

Transient (temporary) poverty balances out for those affected over time. This is the case when at certain times the basic needs can be satisfied, but not at other times. This can fluctuate cyclically, such as times shortly before the harvest or in a young marriage, or acyclically, for example due to catastrophes . This is countered by the concept of structural poverty. This occurs when a person belongs to a fringe group of society whose members all fall below the poverty line, with very little chance of getting out of this fringe group. An example is the population of slums. In connection with this, there is often talk of a “vicious circle of poverty” or “poverty cycle”: Without outside help, the descendants of people living in structural poverty will also be poor all their lives (for example, lack of sexual education, which can lead to early pregnancies and lack of training, but also disadvantage because of the housing situation) - see also social structure .

Fought and hidden poverty

Fight against poverty includes various measures, especially in the western industrialized nations, in which attempts are made to alleviate the consequences of poverty. In the field of social policy, this includes combating through social benefits , compensatory upbringing and setting up soup kitchens , tables , clothing stores and emergency shelters . In addition to this so-called combated poverty, there is also the hidden poverty of people who are entitled to a basic security benefit, but do not claim it. ( See also: Unreported number of poverty .)


The approaches to defining poverty are subject to various criticisms.

Methodical and political criticism

It is discussed that the poverty reports are inscribed with a relationship of domination, since the poverty statistics often depend on who gets access to welfare assistance and who does not. Objective dimensions cannot be constructed here. Where the poverty line runs and how many people are located below this line was and is therefore also a political question. The validity of the data used to calculate poverty is also critically questioned. The more differentiated and complex the indices are, the more demanding they are compared to the methods used to collect the data on which they are based. In addition, so another point of criticism, the per capita figures cannot reflect the relationships in which individuals actually live. These figures do not express any power relations, such as the different allocation of food in the family group according to gender and age or the unequal access to educational opportunities for girls and boys, if such opportunities exist.

Globalized Eurocentrism

Most indigenous peoples should not be generally described as poor before they come into contact with the market economy. Their traditional forms of economy provided them with all the goods they needed to live. Numerous reports from travelers during the colonial period tell of people who did not suffer from want according to their needs, but on the contrary lived in abundance. Since material goods meant little to most of these people, they could not be called poor from their point of view. Today's Eurocentric definition of poverty in connection with the enormous material prosperity of the Western world leads to a distorted idea: "Aborigines" are considered poor, miserable and chronically undernourished because they have no material goods and no technological facilities. Indian scientist and social activist Vandana Shiva on this phenomenon:

“People who eat millet - instead of eating commercially produced and circulated industrial junk food - are said to be poor. This junk food is marketed by the global agrobusiness. [...] People are considered poor just because they live in houses that they have built themselves. The material they use for this is natural and mimics nature - bamboo, clay instead of cement. People are considered poor because they wear handcrafted clothes made from natural materials and not synthetic textiles. Subsistence - as culturally defined poverty - is not synonymous with a poor quality of life, on the contrary, subsistence agriculture helps the household of nature and makes a contribution to the social economy. In this way, it guarantees a high quality of life (...) it guarantees a sustainable existence, it guarantees a robust social and cultural identity and meaning in life. ""

Voluntarily chosen poverty

Relative and occasionally even absolute poverty does not always have to be involuntarily suffered. It can even be seen as a virtue , for example in the context of asceticism . The reasons can be religious or philosophical . Some represent and practice concepts of a simple life or a life in modesty for reasons of health or ecological or social sustainability .

Sadhus (Hindu mendicant monks) in Kathmandu
Giotto di Bondone - Christ drives the merchants out of the temple ( temple cleaning )

Numerous important religions such as Hinduism , Christianity , Buddhism and Islam know the voluntary renunciation of earthly goods. Jesus Christ lived in voluntarily chosen poverty. In the parable of the eye of the needle, poverty is sometimes interpreted as an imperative for salvation: “How difficult it is for people who have a lot to enter the kingdom of God! [...] A camel is more likely to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. ”( Mk 10,23-25  EU ).

Others, like St. Francis of Assisi , who came from a wealthy family, vowed a life in evangelical poverty and thus founded a mendicant order , followed the example of Jesus Christ. Since ancient times in particular hermits and virgins , later monks and nuns , chose a life in self-imposed poverty. Religious of the Catholic and Anglican Churches take religious vows with which they forego personal income and property. Poverty is one of the three evangelical counsels that are justified with the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount .

In Christian poetry, poverty is sometimes brought closer to freedom and the experience of God, while wealth is closer to bondage and alienation from God. Typical of this is the praise of the poverty of the Franciscan poet Iacopone da Todi :

"[...] noble poverty, noble knowledge,
Not having to serve anything
To miss everything with contempt
What created in time.
[...] Whoever wishes is a servant of property
Is sold for a gift;
Whoever thinks he has it
He only has vanity
God doesn't come to the heart
That caught up in the earthly;
Poverty so embraced,
That it takes the space of the godhead. "

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a poem in 1903, poverty is a great shine from within . However, poverty should also enable a deeper access to other people: While the rich automatically fear hard-heartedness and greed , the voluntarily poor can concentrate entirely on alleviating emotional poverty or on proclaiming the path to spiritual salvation , without the Having to fear accusations of hidden material selfishness.

Whirling dervish in Omdurman , Sudan

Faqr (poverty) is a central term in Sufism . However, the authors disagree on whether poverty includes material poverty or is to be understood only figuratively as a need for God. In any case, attachment to property is considered harmful as it makes it difficult to renounce and share. This mindset is seen as an obstacle on the way to God. Numerous dervishes choose a life of poverty and asceticism.

Similar ideas can be found in some branches of philosophy. The cynicism ( Greek κυνισμός, kynismós , literally "the doggedness" in the sense of "bitterness" and "abandonment", from κύων, kyon "the dog") is a philosophical direction of Greek antiquity and was developed by Antisthenes in the 5th century BC . Founded. The core of the teaching is the needlessness with simultaneous rejection of material goods. The shame of circumstances perceived as natural (e.g. exposure to exposure) - especially in the case of “naked” poverty - was also rejected. They showed this attitude uncompromisingly. Cynics often lived on alms .

The Stoa ( Greek stoá , Στοά ) is one of the most powerful philosophical educational buildings in Western history. In fact, the name (Greek στοὰ ποικίλη - "painted vestibule") goes back to a columned hall in the agora , the market square of Athens , in the Zenon of Kition around 300 BC. Began his teaching activity. A special feature of the Stoic philosophy is the cosmological approach aimed at the holistic understanding of the world, from which a divine principle prevails in all natural phenomena and natural contexts. For the Stoic as an individual, it is important to recognize and fill his place in this order by learning to accept his lot through the practice of emotional self-control and striving for wisdom with the help of serenity and peace of mind. Stoics reject material possessions and extol wantlessness .

Geography of poverty

Slum dwellers in Jakarta
less than $ 1 per day in local purchasing power
year proportion of Affected
2001 21% 1,100 million
1993 29% 1,314 million
1987 30% 1,227 million
1981 40% 1,500 million

The table on the right shows the steady decrease in poverty worldwide, but is not adjusted for inflation.

In 2001, according to the World Bank, 21% of the world population had less than one US dollar and 50% less than two US dollars a day in local purchasing power and were therefore considered extremely poor.

At the Millennium Summit in 2000, the members of the UN agreed on the goal of halving the number of those who have less than US $ 1 a day by 2015 (point 1 of the Millennium Development Goals ).

The greatest number of poor people live in Asia . In Africa , the proportion of the poor in the population is above average. While the proportion of the poor fell significantly due to an economic upswing in parts of Asia (from 58 to 16 percent in East Asia), the number of the poorest increased in Africa (almost doubled in sub-Saharan Africa from 1981 to 2001). In Eastern Europe and Central Asia , extreme poverty has been calculated to increase to 6 percent of the population.


There are various theories in science about what is the cause of (economic) poverty. In general, a distinction is made between the sociology of poverty , which primarily aims to find out the causes of poverty, and poverty research , which aims to help the poor to improve their lives.

Causes of the poverty of countries

Geodeterminism theory

The geo- determinism theory assumes that the poverty of a country is due to its unfavorable geographic location. The climate is named as an important factor. In addition to the climate, however, a connection to the ocean is a basic requirement for actively participating in world trade . Countries like Chad in central Africa do not have access to the sea, which is seen as one of the reasons why there is high poverty there. These countries are called landlocked developing countries or developing countries without access to the sea. At the same time, there are very highly developed landlocked countries like Switzerland .

Other factors are access to fertile land, fresh water, energy and natural resources. A country form that allows communication is just as important. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, communication with the rest of the world was made more difficult by the Sahara desert and the ocean. That is one of the reasons why there are few technologies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Resource Flight Theory

Diamond mining in Sierra Leone

Jeffrey Sachs , Andrew Warner and Richard Auty assume that there is a resource curse . In poor countries, people often do not benefit from their own resources, such as oil. The resources are being exploited by a small corrupt elite and entrepreneurs from Europe and the US. There is environmental degradation and armed conflicts over resources. The result is greater poverty. The term blood diamonds also comes from this context . It was coined in connection with the diamond implications and the civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and the Congo, where diamonds were used to fund troops and thus contributed to the prolongation of the conflict.

Demographic Theories

Thomas Malthus

Supporters of demographic theories see population growth as the reason for poverty and underdevelopment. The first adherent of demographic theories was Thomas Robert Malthus . Malthus had studied the relationship between population growth and famine in historic Europe. He assumed that a country's population would grow exponentially, but that food production would only increase linearly over the same period. If population growth cannot be prevented, there will be famine. This will reduce the population, but start to grow again after the famine has subsided until the next famine occurs. On the basis of these considerations, Malthus called for abstinence .

Today most development aid organizations see distributive injustice rather than overpopulation as causes of poverty and hunger.

Critics, however, argue that the industrialized countries are the really overpopulated. People in the industrialized countries would contribute far more to the consumption of non-renewable resources and to global CO 2 emissions. The people in developing countries, on the other hand, would have to bear the consequences for the lifestyle in the West, as they would be less able to defend themselves against the effects of climate change.

It is also pointed out that poverty itself is often the reason for high numbers of children. Surveys have shown that women in developing countries often have more children than they would like. Many women said they wanted to use contraception if they had the opportunity. This is where organizations such as the German Foundation for World Population , which promote family planning and education projects, come in.

Level or modernization theories

Friedrich Engels (1877)

Theories of stages assume that poverty is a normal development phase of every society, which is ultimately overcome ( see progress ).

Karl Marx was of the opinion that conflicting economic interests lead to class struggle . In the context of class struggles, the exploited (slaves, peasants or proletarians) could rise up in a revolutionary way . As the “last stand” in a lawful chain of such revolutions ends with a victory of the working class against the capitalists, exploitation in general also ends and a classless society comes , the “empire of freedom”, where there is no more poverty through exploitation. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels proclaimed this line of thought in the Communist Party's manifesto .

The theories of modernization also count among the theories of poverty levels . They see endogenous factors in traditional societies as the reason for poverty and underdevelopment, such as B. A lack of investment , corruption , mismanagement, lack of good governance . Overcoming poverty requires a process of technical, organizational and cultural modernization. Walt Whitman Rostow is one of the best-known modernization theorists . In his work The Stages of Economic Growth: A Noncommunist Manifesto he describes the sequence of five stages of economic development. A traditional society then develops to maturity and a society of mass consumption following a take off.

However, the aforementioned economic theories based set a consumerist and Euro-centric definition of poverty ahead ( so ). They fail to take into account that many traditional indigenous communities have a completely different view of poverty. B. is not measured by the extent of private property. According to this, the development does not begin with poverty, but - on the contrary - with the original affluent society (according to Marshall Sahlins ), which was characterized by extensive needs satisfaction and ample time off for all people. The theories are also contradicted by the fact that the gap between rich and poor in free-market societies is greater than in many traditional economies.

Vicious cycle of poverty

Depiction of the vicious circle (s) of poverty, as often found in school books.

The opinion that there is a vicious circle of poverty is often heard in science. Accordingly, it happens that when the poor see that they are unable to achieve their goals with their limited means, they fall into fatalism . This fatalism leads to greater poverty. Robert K. Merton and Mario Rainer Lepsius should be mentioned as representatives of this theory . The work of Oscar Lewis is also relevant . Lewis researched the living conditions in Latin American slums. For one of the cultural milieus that he found there, he coined the term “culture of poverty” . According to Lewis, the way of life of members of the culture of poverty is marked by fatalism on the one hand and the pursuit of immediate (often even wasteful ) needs satisfaction on the other. On the one hand, this way of life is a reaction to poverty, but on the other, it leads to even greater poverty. Lewis also emphasizes, however, that not every poor person is a member of a culture of poverty, but that other cultural milieus also exist among the poor.

The Mexican Oportunidades program is based on the concept of the “culture of poverty” and is in some cases very successful. For example, poor parents are paid to send their offspring to school instead of having them work in the fields. The program has greatly increased the rate of poor children who successfully complete school. More recent studies make it clear, however, that this effect arises to a considerable extent from the payment of money, i.e. the financial enabling of school attendance, and not from the condition.

Reasons for the poverty of individual (person) groups within a society

The reasons for the poverty of individual groups of people in otherwise prosperous societies are also controversial in science.

Structural theories

Structural theories are theories that see the reason for poverty in the structure of society. According to the structural theorists, poverty can be combated through social change.

Culture of poverty
Daniel Patrick Moynihan

According to Oscar Lewis , the way of life of members of the culture of poverty is shaped by patterns of thought and action that would be passed on from generation to generation within the cultural unit. This culture is on the one hand a functional reaction to living conditions in poverty, but on the other hand it also harms the poor. Broken families are characteristic. Sex life begins early and one marries by verbal agreement. The women are often beaten by their husbands and many are abandoned. The focus of the family is the (often single) mother with her children. This culture of poverty is characterized by the fact that the poor strive for immediate satisfaction of their needs. They are not in a position to put a need aside in order to benefit from it later. For example, the poor did not invest in their education or in the education of their children. This means that the next generation will also be poor. In order to break up this culture rooted in the socialization process, material support is insufficient : " The elimination of physical poverty per se may not eliminate the culture of poverty which is a whole way of life ". According to Lewis, the only way to end poverty is through outside intervention, for example through compensatory education , social work or psychotherapeutic care.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan saw family breakup as a cause of poverty. He lamented the high number of single mothers among African American women who would pass on deviant values ​​to their children. So it would happen that their children (who otherwise could become members of the middle class) would become members of the poverty class.

Karl Marx (1875)

According to Karl Marx , the establishment of property and the associated separation of need and means to satisfy it create two social classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat . The bourgeoisie is characterized by the fact that it already has property at its disposal, i.e. that it can use means of production such as land, factories or money to produce other property. The proletarian is characterized by his fundamental lack of property, he is separated from all means of satisfying needs and also has no access to the means of production with which he could create property. In this situation he is forced to allow himself to be used by the bourgeois to increase his wealth, for wages. The proletarian thus creates property, but that which is foreign, from which he is separated (which does not belong to him). As a proletarian he is excluded from the wealth of society, i.e. poor. And it is precisely by working that he increases his poverty (or his social exclusion).

According to Christoph Spehr , the current poverty in the Federal Republic of Germany is a class project from above .

Free economy

“Wealth and poverty do not belong in an orderly state” - with this statement the economic and social reformer Silvio Gesell summed up his conviction that wealth always creates poverty. Wealth, according to Gesell, arises mainly through income without performance at the expense of the poor through interest and compound interest , as well as through land speculation .

Discrimination Theories

Discrimination is mentioned as a further reason for poverty in certain groups of people . Discrimination can be either direct or indirect. One speaks of direct discrimination when someone is restricted in his ability to get money because of certain characteristics (such as ethnicity, social class and so on). An example of direct discrimination would be a job advertisement with the addition of applications from working-class children / foreigners / women / Jews useless . This is rare in most countries today. Indirect or indirect discrimination is considered more common . According to a definition of the European Union, there is indirect discrimination,

[...] if apparently neutral regulations, criteria or procedures can disadvantage certain people in a particular way because of their race or ethnic origin, their religion or belief, a disability, their age or their sexual orientation.

The work ban against women wearing headscarves is often discussed as an example of such discrimination. Pierre Bourdieu gave habitus discrimination as an example of indirect discrimination. People with the habitus of the working class are disadvantaged in European societies.

Change of the economic structure towards the information society

The theory of economic structural change states that shifts in the economic structure lead to unemployment and poverty. More and more jobs for low-skilled workers would be lost because they would be relocated abroad or taken over by machines. At the same time, however, the educational level of the population would not rise sufficiently. In the 1970s, only 5% of people without vocational training were unemployed. Today it is around 20-25%. For comparison: only 3.3% of academics are unemployed. Academic unemployment is therefore no higher today than it was in the 1970s. In 2004, according to a survey by the Institute for Labor Market Research (IAB), 10% of the apprenticeship positions in West Germany could not be filled. 77% of the companies stated that the reason was that they could not find a suitably qualified applicant. At the same time, 600,000 young people were involved in job creation measures by the employment agencies because they did not have an apprenticeship.

See also: Outsourcing in low-wage countries

Structural functionalism and individualistic theories

Structural functionalists like Herbert Gans believe that poverty fulfills a social function. For this reason, every society seeks to have its poor. According to Gans, the poor serve as a deterrent and scapegoat . In this way they help to maintain the dominant culture and ideology of a society.

Individualistic theories see the cause of poverty in the deficits of the poor themselves. These deficits are seen as either innate or acquired.

Social darwinism
Francis Galton

Social Darwinism is an interpretation of the theories of Charles Darwin . Darwin argued that among the individuals of a species there are well-adapted and less well-adapted ones. Well-adapted individuals would have a better chance of surviving into reproductive age and having large numbers of offspring in the struggle for existence . Well-adjusted individuals were described by Darwin as “fit”, poorly adjusted individuals as “unfit”. The Social Darwinists applied Darwin's theories to human coexistence. They believed that the genotype of an individual largely determines how far the individual will go. According to this theory, the poor are poor because they are poorly adjusted.

The Social Darwinism is a relatively old theory. Darwin's half-cousin Francis Galton already described himself as a social Darwinist. In 1869 Galton argued that it was primarily a person's intellectual abilities that determined whether they were rich or poor. However, since the word intelligence did not exist back then, Galton does not speak of intelligence, but of talent and genius. This is strongly hereditary.

This thesis is taken up again by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their book The Bell Curve . Herrnstein and Murray claim that they used empirical data from the American National Longitudinal Study of Youth to show that the question of whether one is poor is strongly related to IQ . The book has been criticized by numerous scholars. Jay Zagorsky from the Center for Human Resource Research at Ohio State University analyzed the same data and came to the conclusion that there was no connection between IQ and financial wealth. However, he was able to determine a relevant connection between IQ and income. He summarized his at first sight contradicting results with “Your IQ has really no relationship to your wealth. And being very smart does not protect you from getting into financial difficulty ”and noted that more research was needed on this.

Theory of learned helplessness

The psychologist Martin Seligman proposed that the poor suffer from learned helplessness . Their living conditions lead them to perceive personal decisions as irrelevant. According to Seligman, individuals in a state of learned helplessness view problems as personal, general, or permanent:

  • personal - they see themselves as the problem;
  • in general - they see the problem as pervasive and affecting all aspects of life;
  • permanent - they see the problem as immutable.

From this they would conclude that there is no point in doing something about a problem and they do nothing. Learned helplessness occurs in all classes, but is particularly common in the lower classes . This is so because people from these classes have more negative experiences than those from higher classes. However, learned helplessness can be overcome. The person affected must realize that he has learned helplessness and that he has the skills to act and can take his life into his own hands. The would -behavioral therapy help.

Poverty from bad character

The US political scientist Charles Murray was of the opinion that poverty can be explained by the bad character of the poor. In his book Losing Ground , Murray divides Arme into two classes : the “working class” and the “underclass” . The latter is also referred to by him as the “dangerous class” or “undeserving poor” (translation roughly: “poor people who do not deserve to be helped”). According to Murray, these “undeserving poor” are characterized by a lack of self-discipline. They do not have the ambition to earn a living by work, but prefer to live on alms. The underclass developed in response to excessive social benefits. Some people would have made welfare their lifestyle. Furthermore, social benefits for single mothers caused the family to break up. Women would consciously choose single motherhood in order to receive as much social benefits as possible. Murray sees the “working class” as the natural enemy of the “undeserving poor” because they financed the lifestyle of the underclass ; But what is even worse: The lifestyle of the underclass spoils the children of the working class, who adopt the wrong values ​​of the underclass. Murray later came to believe that poverty is primarily caused by low intelligence.

Consequences of absolute poverty in developing countries


Around 852 million people worldwide are starving. 815 million of them live in developing countries. Around 11 million children under the age of five die every year in developing countries - that's 30,000 children a day. About half of child mortality is due to malnutrition (of mother and child). ( See also: Right to adequate nutrition )

Limitation of life expectancy

AIDS is responsible for declining life expectancy in some South African countries (source: World Bank World Development Indicators, 2004)

Average life expectancy in developing countries ( Zambia 62 years, calculation from 2020) is generally shorter than in developed countries (Norway 78.9 years).

One of the reasons for this is AIDS. In Zambia, 16.5 percent of the population are infected with HIV, in Zimbabwe 25 percent. Poverty is seen as one of the reasons for the AIDS pandemic.

But not only is poverty one of the causes of AIDS, but also the AIDS epidemic is one of the causes of poverty. The disease reduces the workforce of those affected. AIDS kills the middle generation in particular, leaving old people and children behind. As a result, there is a shortage of workers. Valuable knowledge in handicrafts and agriculture can no longer be passed on to the next generation.

Restriction of child development

Poverty leads to poor health care and poor nutrition. This in turn has a negative effect on mental, motor and social-emotional development. The children affected are less productive, have a poor income later and are less able to look after their own children. This creates a vicious circle. Worldwide, 219 million children under the age of five are cognitively impaired by poverty. That is 39 percent of all children in this age group in developing countries. In Africa it is as much as 61%.

Poverty and civil wars

Studies show that civil wars break out more often in poor countries than in rich ones. Statistically speaking, a five percent drop in economic growth increases the likelihood of armed conflict by 50 percent.

Poverty and environmental degradation

In many parts of the world, poverty is also one of the most important causes of endangerment and destruction of nature. Because it is precisely the serious needs and problems caused by poverty that make environmental protection take a back seat. The financial resources that are sometimes necessary for protection cannot be raised in regions with great poverty. Klaus Töpfer , the head of the United Nations Environment Agency UNEP , described poverty as "the greatest poison for the environment" ; Success in environmental protection requires the fight against poverty.

At the same time, there is also an environmental injustice. The poor are more likely to be victims of environmental degradation and destruction (e.g. in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina ), but at the same time they have fewer coping options.

Main article: Environmental justice

Poverty and educational disadvantage

Poverty also leads to educational disadvantage in that access to educational opportunities is made more difficult, for example because school and study fees cannot be paid or necessary educational resources such as writing utensils or books cannot be financed. Conversely, the lack of education prevents them from breaking out of their poor conditions again.

Consequences of relative poverty in developed countries

Political inequality

Political equality is one of the prerequisites for democracy: ideally, every citizen should have the same vote. While it is impossible for a government to take into account the preference of every citizen at all times, from a democratic point of view there should not be any systematic inequality whose voice is heard. An analysis of 25 European countries shows, however, that there is hardly any equality of votes, especially on the question of social redistribution or the welfare state. Attitudes towards lower income groups tend to be underrepresented while higher income groups are overrepresented. The study also found that this different representation is more pronounced when the preferences of rich and poor differ more from one another. When these preferences mismatch, governments tend to follow the preferences of the rich more than those of the poor.

According to a research report from 2016 on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the preferences of social groups are taken into account to varying degrees not only in economic issues, but generally in political decisions . Data from the period between 1998 and 2015 were evaluated. There is a clear correlation between political decisions and the attitudes of people with higher incomes, but none or even a negative correlation for those with low incomes.

Mental health

In research there are different models of how poverty and mental health problems are related. The social selection hypothesis assumes that people with mental health problems lose socioeconomic status due to their psychopathology and the inability to fulfill expected role obligations. Conversely, the social causality hypothesis suggests that socio-economic deprivation causes subsequent mental health problems. An overview study compared studies on this question in children and adolescents. Six studies supported the hypothesis of social causality, two that of social selection. Overall, the results indicated a close connection between social causes and selection effects, with a low socio-economic status initially contributing significantly to the occurrence of psychological problems. Failure to recover from these problems then leads to a decline in socio-economic status in adulthood.

Concepts to fight poverty

Development policy

See main article development policy .

Muhammad Yunus (December 2004)

Entrepreneurial poverty reduction

The concept Base (or Bottom) of the Pyramid (BoP) describes business models and approaches for the successful integration of hitherto largely neglected sections of the population in corporate value chains. The lowest part of the world income pyramid is initially described as the “Base of the Pyramid”. These “poorest people in the world” should be included in the entrepreneurial value creation as customers, suppliers, distributors or similar within the framework of the action-guiding elements of the BoP concept. to get integrated. The basic idea is that in this way the pursuit of entrepreneurial opportunities can be purposefully combined with efforts to fight poverty over the long term.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and economist Muhammad Yunus also suggests introducing not only companies that maximize profit (more precisely: the return on equity ) , but also social companies whose aim is not to make a profit but to change the world in a positive way. Investors in these companies would get their money back later, but without dividends. Foundation activities of existing companies could be steered in this direction. According to Yunus, this would be a solution in the fight against poverty, which according to him threatens world peace .

Concepts to support poor population groups in rich countries

Self-help of those affected

The kind of self-help against material poverty that those affected are able to do depends on their personal skills and life situation.

Bob Holman points out that so-called neighborhood groups (neighborhood groups) an important form of self-help are poor people. Examples of this would be poor-run youth clubs or poor-run credit institutions that lend money to the poor. A self-help group for poor migrants who teach their children German is HIPPY .

This kind of poverty reduction has the advantage that it starts from the poor themselves. It can empower participants, instill self-esteem, and alleviate the effects of poverty.

The possibilities of self-help includes finding additional income - about the quest for a workplace or a promotion , the establishment of a self-employed or the inclusion of a secondary activity . In Germany, according to the Federal Employment Agency, the number of employees subject to social insurance with additional marginal employment rose nationwide by two thirds to 2.1 million between 2003 and 2007; most of them need the money for their daily living.

On the other hand, the possibilities also include extreme economy , such as doing without everything that can be dispensed with, possibly private cars and expensive technical equipment in general, accepting time expenditure instead of costs (e.g. do-it-yourself instead of craftsmen's services), and a selection of shopping options geared towards economy , such as discounters , second-hand shops and children's things flea markets , as well as participation in neighborhood help or exchange rings .

The use of counseling offers - individual help such as debt counseling or other forms of social counseling - can be a step towards self-help. Long-term self-help also occurs through the expansion of personal skills, in particular through education and training .

The self-help is highlighted as an important element of social support, as well as in § 1 , paragraph 1 of the First Book of the Social Code :

“The law of the Social Security Code is intended to create social benefits, including social and educational assistance, in order to achieve social justice and social security. It is intended to help ensure a dignified existence, to create equal conditions for the free development of the personality, especially for young people, to protect and promote the family, to enable a livelihood through a freely chosen activity and special Avoiding or compensating for the stresses of life, also by helping people to help themselves.

Political strategies

Strategies to fight poverty depend critically on what is believed to be the cause of poverty. The following are the most common strategies to fight poverty:

  • Fight poverty through financial donations

A tool used in many countries is social security , which intervenes in emergency situations. Other examples of ideas are social assistance . An instrument for the practical abolition of poverty that has been discussed in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the USA and tested in Namibia is an unconditional basic income . It is critical to apply against such approaches that they only consider the financial dimension of poverty. Allocation of a basic income does not necessarily lead to an improvement in the ability to cope with life and personal activities to increase educational activities. For this reason, scientists like the Berlin social scientist Klaus Hurrelmann advocate promoting incentives for an active way of life through increased education in addition to financial grants or even making part of the financial grants dependent on educational and qualification activities being taken up to reduce the "deprived lifestyle with passive behavior and strong feelings of inferiority".

The introduction of an activity income ("revenu universel d'activité" in contrast to the "Revenu d'inactivité" - French for unemployment benefits - or the Revenu de solidarité active ) is intended to enable more civic engagement , strengthen social cohesion and the ideals of equality and fraternity - (Liberté), égalité, fraternité - redeem. In the civil society , a basic income for all citizens is discussed after under the presidency of the September 2018 Emmanuel Macron , a more comprehensive plan to overcome poverty with merger of the social benefits had been introduced in France. However, sanctions for the unemployed, the obligation to look for work and if "lousy work" have to be accepted through the payment of money are strongly criticized. In France, around 8.8 million people live below the poverty line. The "activity income" planned in France is available to all citizens, but is not an unconditional basic income (UBI) paid out to all. The socialist Benoît Hamon had planned a basic income for low-wage earners when he ran.

  • Fighting poverty through compensatory measures

Such comprehensive strategies include, among other things, “compensatory” measures. They start from the knowledge that children in poor families receive little educational stimulation. In poor families, “the daily grappling with economic problems is degrading and sapping energy”, which is why mothers and fathers fail to give their children future prospects. Family trainings, counseling and so on try to compensate for the deficits. The main goal of compensatory upbringing is to promote cognitive skills and academic performance in children growing up in poverty. This is how you want to ensure that the next generation does not stay poor. Critics of the compensatory upbringing accuse the child of the middle class as a role model. Attempts are being made to re-educate poor children to become middle class children. The working class child is alienated from the world in which he lives. Other compensatory measures include parenting courses, parenting training, mentoring programs and the like.

It is often criticized that the school is too short. Poor children would come to school with deficits and the half-day school would not be able to make up for them. What is required is a school with an all-day program that includes “teaching, educational and socio-educational activities and measures” (Palentien 2005, p. 164). Such programs are rare in Germany. However, numerous exist in other countries. The best known programs here are the 21st Century Community Learning Centers . However, this program has also led to the fact that afternoon care in schools is now seen in a critical light, because it did not lead to any improvement in school performance, but to increased behavioral problems. Only for the group of elementary school students, who initially showed very poor performance, could a small improvement in the skills in English be shown.

  • Combating poverty through coercive measures
King Friedrich II. On one of his inspection trips, inspects the potato cultivation; Painting from 1886

With the transition from pre-modern to modern societies, attitudes towards poverty changed. “The poor of God” were considered natural and their support; giving alms is a religious duty in many religions . In the realm of Islam , the zakāt is still regarded as an important means of alleviating poverty because it is used to collect and redistribute accumulated wealth. In Europe, since the Renaissance , poverty has been increasingly viewed as a burden, and poor relief institutions that had existed earlier were retained, but coercive measures were increasingly used to combat poverty.

In Prussia, Frederick the Great issued a circular order on March 24, 1756 , which ordered the cultivation of potatoes in order to counteract the impoverishment caused by the overgrowth of cereals after poor harvests (see cultural history of the potato ).

But in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, the workhouse was at the center of the fight against poverty. Especially in Calvinist societies the prevailing view was that poverty is self-inflicted and comes from laziness . Workhouses were used to deter and re-educate beggars and vagabonds . In Germany, workhouses were abolished in 1969.

In Europe, in the course of industrialization and the dispute over the social question, the view prevailed that poverty could be reduced through cooperative or welfare policy measures. In the United Kingdom, for example, the fight against poverty was the starting point of modern social policy .
: See also: Social legislation

In the meantime, however, the effectiveness of socio-political poverty reduction is being called into question in many industrialized countries by new manifestations of poverty. In economics , the thesis is not infrequently put forward that too high a government quota can lead to an increase in the unemployment rate (especially in Western Europe).

  • Combating poverty through political organization

Political historiography has proven numerous pieces of evidence for self-organization by “those affected” who did not want to be exposed to their precarious situation without protection and who brought about forms of collective organization. The Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci speaks in this context of "subaltern", ie the its subjects that are characterized by association against a prevailing opinion (see. Hegemony contact) and claim the intrinsic value of their cultural identity against an experienced repressive subordination will (cf. . cultural hegemony ). Such organizations can be local self-help groups and exchange groups (see above); Industrialization is not only accompanied by a fundamental reshaping of previous identities and peasants become landless and day laborers become workers, but also the desire to protect one's own existence through protective measures against exploitation and destruction. Cooperatives ensure the inexpensive purchase of essential goods (food, clothing, but also raw and auxiliary materials for small producers) (see cooperative ). Trade unions put forward the demand for material participation and social protection rights against industrialists. Finally, there are also political parties that, at the beginning of bourgeois parliamentarism in the 19th century, demand the political participation of workers by workers and denounce the arbitrary exclusion of entire sections of the population. For this purpose, state law that is experienced as discriminatory and which is to be reformed through parliamentary channels is also criticized. The resulting dispute between reform-oriented social democracy and revolutionary Marxism, that is, aimed at the abolition of the unjust system as a whole, is the prelude to the split in the political labor movement to this day (see revisionism ). Political strikes and other symbolic actions aim to draw attention to the misery of the working class. If one follows the economic historian Karl Polanyi , then these measures represent social mechanisms of "embedding" the liberal-capitalist independent market in society.

Poverty in the course of history

Main article: Poverty through history

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow hierarchy of needs.svg

In 1943, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow published a model to describe human motivations. This is known as Maslow's hierarchy of needs . The human needs form the “levels” of the pyramid and build on one another according to this one-dimensional theory. So man tries to meet the needs of the lower levels first before the next levels become meaningful. Those who have become frustrated with a “low” need, that is, could not satisfy it, will find that need excessively important. For example, if you live in absolute poverty and are hungry, food will be the top priority. All other needs will take a back seat, and all his endeavors will inevitably be directed towards having enough to eat for his survival. Existential threats and deficits (deficiencies) in essential needs (“deficit needs”) shape - if they last long enough - the whole worldview. For a person who is hungry, paradise will be a place where there is always enough to eat. A person who grew up in great poverty will already consider himself lucky if he only has enough to eat. For a person who has never known hunger, however, food will have no special meaning. The fact that he has enough to eat seems natural to him and will not make him happy. Maslow's model was further developed by Ronald Inglehart , among others .

Poverty, wealth and changing values

Ronald Inglehart put forward the thesis of a change in values . According to Inglehart, people develop either materialistic or post-materialistic attitudes during their youth. His theory states that with increasing prosperity in a society, materialism (e.g. inclination for security and security of basic services) decreases while post-materialism (e.g. inclination to political freedom, environmental protection) increases. Inglehart created the so-called Inglehart index for statistical verification of the theory. However, this index is methodologically controversial among social scientists. In addition, empirical studies refute the one-dimensional development that Inglehart predicted (e.g. Klein 95). According to Inglehart, today's generation is more post-materialistic than previous generations. That is because she grew up in greater prosperity. Materialists are typically individuals who have experienced low formative security (Inglehart's word for poverty). For this reason, material possessions are important to them. They tend towards conservative values, are religious and patriotic. Inglehart attributes this to the fact that “absolute values” such as religion and patriotism offer stability and security. This is particularly important in a poverty situation. They reject abortion and homosexuality. Post materialists, on the other hand, have experienced a high level of formative security. Material possessions are not important to them. Instead, they strive for social relationships, recognition, and self-actualization. Politically, they tend to be on the left and are heavily involved in the “new political movements” such as the anti-nuclear power movement, the peace movement or the environmental protection movement. Inglehart explains the change in values ​​in the western world (decline of religiosity and patriotism, rise of new values ​​such as environmental protection) by the fact that the extent of absolute poverty has decreased.

Against a German background, Helmut Klages was of the opinion that generations who grew up in poverty tended to adopt values ​​of duty and acceptance. To the duty - and acceptance values include, for example, duty, hard work , selflessness and Hinnahmebereitschaft. Generations raised in wealth were more inclined to self-actualization values. These include B. Spontaneity and Self-Realization.

See also



For fighting"

  • Alexander Dill: Re-evaluate the world. Why poor countries stay poor and how we can change that . oekom Verlag, Munich 2017, ISBN 978-3-86581-841-6 .

To theory

To empiricism

On historical (and regional) development

  • Martin Dinges: Urban poverty in Bordeaux 1525–1675. Everyday life, politics, mentalities . (= Paris historical studies. 26). Bouvier, Bonn 1988, ISBN 3-7928-0566-9 . (Digitized version)
  • Bernhard Rathmayr: Poverty and Care. Introduction to the history of social work from antiquity to the present . Barbara Budrich, Leverkusen 2014, ISBN 978-3-8474-0161-2 .
  • Wolfgang Wüst: Chastised poverty. Social discipline in the labor and poor institutions of the "front" Reich circles. In: Journal of the Historical Association for Swabia. 89, 1996, pp. 95-124.

Literature that has decisively influenced political events

Web links

Commons : Poverty  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Poverty  - Sources and Full Texts
Wiktionary: Poverty  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

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