Absolute Poverty Definition and Threshold

The Mathare Valley Slum in Kenya - Photo Credit: Wikipedia

As defined in the Declaration of Copenhagen: absolute poverty is a condition characterized 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 social services” (UN, 1995). This definition does not take into consideration any other factors but the access (or lack thereof) an individual has to services critical to his survival. In this sense, it fails to acknowledge the social nature of men and that “individuals have important social and cultural needs” (UNESCO, W/D). Therefore, it could be said that the approach taken on tackling absolute poverty is one that seeks to secure the life of those living below the absolute poverty line by providing them with access to crucial services. Thus, it is not concerned with the quality of life of those individuals and households.

This relatively simplified view on such a complex issue led to coining the term “relative poverty” and subsequently, its definition. However, these two terms are largely based on income and consumption (UNESCO, W/D) —two items easily measurable in statistical analyses— and still fail to grasp the multi-faceted nature of poverty. Ever since, social scientists have brought other factors, such as social exclusion, into the discussion on poverty as an attempt to broaden its definition and achieve a better understanding of this phenomenon. The complexification of poverty in the global psyche then permitted the establishment of a poverty spectrum —often treated as a scale— with absolute poverty at the very end of it, despite the criticism of its definition mentioned above.


However incomplete it may be, though, the definition of absolute poverty facilitates the establishment of its threshold, in that it does not involve the nuance of social issues and therefore relies on merely statistic data. Consequently, the absolute poverty threshold is based around a minimum level of income that allows an individual or household to meet their basic needs. According to the World Bank, this level is often set by the cost of a basic nutritional basket “considered minimal for the healthy survival of the family”. What constitutes this nutritional basket is commonly determined using one of two methods:

  • The food-energy intake method, in which the absolute poverty line is defined by the level of income a household must have “to meet a predetermined food energy requirement” (World Bank, W/D). As prices vary within regions of the same country, this leads to discrepancies in the absolute poverty line established for said country.
  • The cost of basic needs method, in which the local prices for a list of foods regularly consumed by the poor in the region is taken into consideration. Then, “a specific allowance for nonfood goods, consistent with spending by the poor, is added”(World Bank, W/D) , setting the absolute poverty line.

Finally, it is worth noting that absolute poverty —and hence, its measuring— is a term more frequently associated with developing countries and as such, has little place on its own in developed countries, where it often needs aiding by indicators concerning relative poverty.

Relative Poverty
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