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Poverty can be defined in a range of different ways: as lack of resources or income available to purchase necessities or to achieve an acceptable standard of living; through actual levels of expenditure; as deprivation indicated by the lack of essentials; as lack of the capability to achieve particular standard of living, whether or not that standard of living is achieved;

or as inability to participate in the activities of everyday life. At the same time, sociological attention to inequality has focused on a range of different inequalities: inequality of income; health inequalities; educational inequalities, or inequality of educational opportunity.

According to sociologists and researchers there are two different approaches to poverty: absolute poverty and relative poverty. The concept of absolute poverty is grounded in the idea of subsistence, the basic conditions that must be met in order to sustain a physically healthy existence. People who lack these fundamental requirements for human existence such as sufficient food, shelter and clothing are said to live in poverty. The concept of absolute poverty is seen as universally applicable. It is held that standards for human subsistence are more or less the same for all people of an equivalent age and physique, regardless of where they live. Any individual, anywhere in the world, can be said to live in poverty if he or she falls below this universal standard.

The data shows that many developing countries have large sections of their population living in extreme poverty, more than one-third in Bangladesh, Mozambique and Namibia and over 60 per cent in Rwanda and 70 per cent in Nigeria live under poverty. The material conditions of life in the developed countries are very different from those in developing countries. Advocates of the concept of relative poverty hold that poverty is culturally defined and should not be measured according to some universal standard of deprivation. It is wrong to assume that human needs are everywhere identical in fact; they differ both within and across societies. Things that are seen as essential in one society might be regarded as luxuries in another. For example, in most industrialized countries, running water, flush toilets and the regular consumption of fruit and vegetables are regarded as basic necessities for a healthy life; people who live without them could be said to live in poverty.

Yet in many developing societies, such items are not standard among the bulk of the population and it would not make sense to measure poverty according to their presence or absence. Critics of the concept of absolute poverty also point out that its definition has changed over time according to the existing knowledge that is available in particular periods. In short, therefore, even the definition of absolute poverty is relative.

The face of poverty is diverse and ever changing, so it is difficult to present a profile of 'the poor. The people who are disadvantaged or discriminated against in other aspects of life have an increased chance of being poor. The explanations of poverty can be grouped under two main headings: theories that see poor individuals as responsible for their own poverty, and theories that view poverty as produced and reproduced by structural forces in society.

There is a long history of attitudes that hold the poor as responsible for their own disadvantaged positions. Early efforts to address the effects of poverty, such as the poor houses of the nineteenth century, were grounded in a belief that poverty was the result of an inadequacy or pathology of individuals. The poor were seen as those who were unable because of a lack of skills, moral or physical weakness, absence of motivation, or below average ability to succeed in society. Social standing was taken as a reflection of a person's talent and effort; those who deserved to succeed did so, while others less capable were doomed to fail.

Explanations for poverty were sought in the lifestyles of poor people, along with the attitudes and outlooks they supposedly espoused. In his study of poverty in Latin American cities, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis (1961) noted that many poor become trapped in a culture of poverty, a lower-class subculture that can destroy people's ambition to improve their lives. Raised in poor families, children become resigned to their situation, producing a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty.

The American sociologist Charles Murray put his version of this thesis forward. Murray (1984) argues that there is an underclass of individual who must take personal responsibility for their poverty. This group forms part of a dependency culture. By this term, Murray refers to poor people who rely on government welfare provision rather than entering the labour market. He argues that the growth of the welfare state has created a subculture that undermines personal ambition and the capacity for self- help. Welfare, Murray argues, has eroded people's incentive to work. He makes a contrast between those individuals who must take personal responsibility for their poverty and those who are poor through 'no fault of their own' such as widows, orphans or people who are disabled.

The second approach to explaining poverty emphasizes larger social processes that produce conditions of poverty that are difficult for individuals to overcome. According to such a view, structural forces within society factors like class, gender, ethnicity, occupational position, and educational attainment shape the way in which resources are distributed. Writers who advocate structural explanations for poverty argue that the lack of ambition among the poor, which is often taken for the 'dependency culture', is in fact a consequence of their constrained situations, not a cause of it.

An early exponent of this type of argument was R H. Tawney who saw poverty as an aspect of social inequality. For Tawney, social inequality led to extremes of both wealth and poverty and both were dehumanizing. Extreme poverty limited life to mere subsistence, while extreme wealth led to pampering of the rich. Both were reprehensible, but the key to tackling poverty was therefore to reduce structural social inequality, not simply to blame individuals for their situation. Reducing poverty is not simply a matter of changing individual outlooks, but requires policy measures aimed at distributing income and resources more equally throughout society.

In America, sociologist William Julius Wilson put forward one important version in his book 'When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor' (1996). Wilson argued that persistent urban poverty stems primarily from the structural transformation of the inner-city economy. The decline of manufacturing industries, the 'suburbanization' of employment and the rise of a low-wage service sector dramatically reduced the number of jobs available to those immediately leaving education that pay wages sufficient to support a family. The high rate of joblessness resulting from economic shifts has led to a shrinking pool of 'marriageable' men those financially able to support a family. Thus, marriage has become less attractive to poor women, the number of children born out of wedlock has increased and female-headed families have proliferated. New generations of children are born into poverty, and the vicious cycle is perpetuated.

In Britain, Will Hutton in his book 'The State We're In' (1995), described the emergence of a 'thirty, thirty, forty' society in the analysis of the UK, says that similar processes of economic restructuring during the 1970s and '80s created new divides within the population. Around 30 per cent were disadvantaged. That is, they were either out of work (but seeking employment), in irregular part-time and short-term jobs, or 'economically inactive' for other reasons, such as those we discussed above in relation to single parents. The disadvantaged groups live in poverty on the margins of society. Another 30 per cent, the marginalized insecure, had jobs and regular work, but because of economic restructuring, which weakened the trade unions and led to many more fixed-term contracts, their income levels were low and the jobs were relatively insecure. This group includes many women in generally poorly paid, part-time jobs. Finally, around 40% the privileged are in full-time employment or are self-employed. The majority of this group is not rich, but their employment is more secure and their income tends to be higher; compared to the other two groups, therefore, they are relatively advantaged. Hutton concludes that economic restructuring and the loss of industrial workplaces and well-paid jobs has served to produce a more divided society and perceptions that 'nothing can be done' to redress the issue of poverty.

For both Wilson and Hutton, poverty cannot be explained by reference to individual motivations and personal attitudes. Instead, poverty levels have to be explained with reference to structural changes in society and these do not happen in isolation from developments within the global economy.

Many countries have an official measurement of poverty: a poverty line. This is a level below which people are said to live in poverty. Subjective measurements of poverty are based on people's own understandings of what is needed for an acceptable standard of living.

Giddens, A. (2009). Poverty, Social Exclusion and Welfare. In Sociology (6th ed.). UK: Polity Press.
Poverty and Inequality. (2006). In S. John (Ed.), Sociology The key Concepts. London: Rutledge.