Poverty: Attempts at a Definition
There are times when the subject of poverty appears to be quite high on the academic and political agenda, when journalists analyze it in their papers and people never cease to discuss it on TV. But there are also times when poverty is almost completely ignored, played down or even made a virtual taboo. Quite often, any “poverty debate” is part of a political agenda. Poverty is explained as a social problem – or as the result of poor individual choices. The political debates about the subject are often characterized by hysteria, a search for culprits and, occasionally, by a fairly cynical treatment of the underlying problems. But the fact is that 17 percent of the European population, 85 million people, are living in poverty.
The history of our societies demonstrates that the development of poverty is conditioned by the level of wealth, the distribution of income, assets and property, the overall economic development, the situation on the labour market as well as social values and norms. The term “poverty” is not easy to define. From a strict economic angle, poverty is an inadequate supply of material goods and services. We generally distinguish between “absolute poverty“ which threatens people’s physical existence and “relative poverty” which is defined in relation to the surrounding society’s average wealth. In European societies, this average level of wealth is generally substantially higher than the minimum subsistence level, which is why we use a relative definition of poverty. Poverty means to have substantially less than an average standard of living. The EU member states have agreed on a “risk of poverty rate“ which identifies the proportion of people in households whose net equivalent incomes, taking into account their “individual needs” as defined by their age and family situation, fall below the threshold of 60 % of their country’s mean income. All definitions of poverty, however, share the insight that poverty is based on an uneven distribution of opportunities in a range of areas including housing, education, careers, income and the availability of technological as well as social infrastructures. Poverty may be as old as human society, but it can still assume a modern face. The issues of poverty and inequality challenge the basic concerns of our social policies, the welfare state and the principle of social security.