Poverty Overview

People suffering from poverty lack the income or resources they need to maintain an acceptable standard of living. The inability to gain adequate food, shelter, clothing and other necessities is devastating; further, poverty tends to be self-perpetuating because it reduces opportunities for self-empowerment such as access to education and access to modern resources. Economic growth has caused global poverty to fall rapidly in the past three decades, along with global income inequality. Still, around 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 per day. Just as widespread poverty can result from a variety of political, environmental and social causes, individuals can also be especially vulnerable because of their ethnicity, gender or age.

Aid and Welfare

The gift of public resources from one government to another, or from governments and NGOs to individuals, is intended to contribute to economic and social progress. However, aid for humanitarian relief is controversial. Interest groups can become politically charged, especially where public resources are involved. More importantly, increased dependence by individuals and governments on aid is sometimes seen as ineffective, or even harmful. The practice of providing food aid to avert immediate disaster, for example, may be necessary in emergency, but in the long term depresses prices for local farmers and encourages recipient nations to adopt policies that discourage self-reliance.

Child Poverty

The vast majority of the world’s poorest people are children and their mothers. Children are more vulnerable to poverty than adults because they are less able to provide for themselves. About 90% of the world’s 1.2 billion adolescents live in developing countries. About half of all children live in poverty. Even in developed economies, there are 30 million children living in want. According to a 2012 report from UNICEF, the United States has one of the highest rates of child poverty (23%) in the developed world. A child in poverty is more likely to work than go to school, and more likely to suffer malnutrition, limiting growth and immune system strength. According to recent estimates, 115 million children under 5 years of age worldwide are underweight.

Economic Insecurity

Economic insecurity describes people who may not be poor by strict standards, but who struggle to pay bills and have no extra money for savings. Central to the issue is the divide between high- and low-skill workers, employment opportunities and pay gaps. Currently, economic insecurity is a challenge for youth worldwide who are experiencing joblessness at alarming rates. The UN estimates that 74.8 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 remain unemployed worldwide, while 6.4 million have dropped out of the labor force globally.

Ethical Trade

Trade policies between developed and developing nations are a subject of complex political debate. Human, social, economic and environmental concerns are intertwined with the way we buy products. Simply put, the interests of powerful nations and corporations should not outweigh the rights of the people producing a product for trade. Though favored by many economists for its open and unrestricted import and export of goods without government interference, “free trade” is criticized for driving potential profits for the suppliers too low. On the other hand, “fair trade,” intended to promote poverty alleviation, has been criticized for raising retail prices significantly for the sake of marginal economic advantages to certified growers. The challenge is how to ensure sustainable development, gender equity, fair living wages and all other issues associated with human rights.


Homelessness is the lack of a consistent residence. Not only are the homeless subject to social stigmatization, they are also vulnerable to other losses. For example, they have less educational opportunity, which impacts their potential for future employment and increases the likelihood of continued poverty. It’s estimated that up to 100 million people are homeless throughout the world. Like other types of aspects of poverty, homelessness disproportionately harms children, and is especially prevalent among people of minority ethnicity. Approximately 35% of all homeless in the US  deal with substance abuse, and 26% have mental health issues. Both conditions contribute to homelessness as they can disrupt the ability to maintain employment or healthy relationships.


Right now, almost one out of seven of us is hungry. Worldwide, that translates to 925 million under-fed, under-nourished and chronically hungry people. Children are the most visible victims. Every 6 seconds a child dies because of hunger and related causes. Poor nutrition plays a role in the deaths of at least 5 million kids each year, but lack of food also magnifies the effect of every disease that might plague young children, including measles and malaria. Additionally, hunger and malnutrition deter children from attending school and decrease their capacity for learning, thereby continuing the vicious cycle of poverty. Two-thirds of the world’s undernourished live in just 7 countries – Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India and Pakistan.

Modern Resources

Modern resources such as transportation, electricity and public sanitation allow individuals to contribute to society and improve their own standard of living. The lack of access to modern resources tends to go hand-in-hand with a lack of clean water, sanitation, and health care. It also presents a major barrier to economic development and prosperity. The UN says more than 20% of the global population, or 1.4 billion people, lack access to electricity. Other key needs such as public sanitation, healthcare and education often go unmet in regions where infrastructure or energy services are limited or ineffective.

Natural Resources

Poverty isn’t simply a lack of personal funds – it’s also a lack of access to important natural resources, such as water, land, wildlife, minerals, timber and oil. Water is perhaps the most critical natural resource. At least 11% of the world’s population – 783 million people – still lacks access to safe drinking water, and billions live without sanitation facilities. Unsanitary water is especially dangerous to children. Water-related diseases kill 1.4 million children every year. For those who survive, the lack of a nearby water source forces family members, usually girls and women, to spend much of their day fetching water rather than going to school or work. Since natural resources are necessary for life and growth, resource scarcity can contribute to -- or cause -- violent conflict.


Unemployment occurs among people who are seeking work but cannot find a job. Long-term, involuntary joblessness imposes financial and emotional burdens. According to the International Labor Organization, approximately 200 million people are unemployed worldwide. Not included in unemployment numbers are those who have given up looking for work or are underemployed. This crisis has led to an increase in poverty rates in half of all advanced economies, and one third of all developing economies. Though the causes and levels of unemployment vary throughout the world, youth and women are the most likely to be unemployed, especially during recession. Economic growth generally offers hope for reducing unemployment and poverty, although it does not guarantee greater income equality. In developed economies, a variety of government policy options also may serve to alleviate unemployment.