What if someone out of the blue requests you to define "poverty", what would you say as a response?

The answer to that question, no matter how it is uttered, would probably bring frustration to your soul. Whether you are one of those who believe that the underlying condition of poverty is directly linked to individual agency, "people's independent choices and actions" (Joseph Rowntree Foundation), or those who believe that poverty is the result of the way society is organized into dedicated groups, which is related to social structure and the core structure of opportunities.

The view that takes individuals or families as accountable for their own destiny is nevertheless built upon institutionalised claims. Those who advocate this position use specific linguistic terms, such as "undeserving poor", "lazy people".. to label the poor. These expressions have their roots in "stigma" and "shame". They often see poverty as a moral failing. As a result, the poor are unfit for society because they refuse by their own choice, to take advantage of the services the government offers. Whether education or job opportunities.

They often fail to see that the underprivileged poor are victims of the unequal opportunities that the structural society delivers. It is profoundly related to the social structures that the un-poor set for the poor. Dorling sets out that "life is more determined by where (and to whom) people were born than any other time in the last 651 years". 1 That doesn't only determine the destiny of people, it also contributes to a great extent to the structure of opportunities. Typically, wealth gazes down upon those at the bottom but never stoops to their level. Those at the bottom aren't lazy or lame; they are treated unequally, and for that reason, society arrogantly perceives the poor as different and usually fails to evaluate the dynamics perpetuating poverty.

In the recent history of the sociology of poverty, many theories have framed the concept of poverty in multiple aspects. Marx and Engels assumed that the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class was the main cause of inequality, while Max Weber argued that factors beyond economics, such as power and prestige, play a major role in deciding who is going to be poor. On the other side, Emile Durkheim viewed inequality as necessary for society to keep functioning. These early ideas continue to influence contemporary sociological thinking on poverty. Some contemporary theories still echo Marxist ideas, while others rely on notions of deservingness and individual failures.

Generally speaking, Poverty is a multidimensional concept. While it may appear to refer solely to the lack of resources that prevent individuals from meeting basic needs, poverty is actually experienced through many dimensions, including health, education, housing, nutrition, and many other examples. On the other hand, inequality refers to disparities in resources and opportunities across society. The post-war period saw a decline in the use of the term "poverty" due to the political belief, that full employment and the welfare state had largely eradicated it. In order to institute a deep insight into poverty, we need to study objectively how it connects to inequality.

In conclusion, the definition of poverty is a complex and multifaceted concept that is influenced by many factors, including individual agency and societal structures. Those who believe that poverty is solely the result of individual choice and lifestyle tend to stigmatize and shame the poor, failing to see the larger societal structures that contribute to their disadvantaged status. Meanwhile, contemporary sociological thinking on poverty draws on a range of theories, including Marxist ideas, deservingness, and individual failures. Finally, poverty is experienced through multiple dimensions and is intertwined with inequality, making it a critical issue for policymakers and society as a whole to address.


1 Tracy Shildrick and Jessica Rucell: sociological perspectives on poverty, June 2015.