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Defining poverty in words

Determining who we consider to be poor in our society can be a challenging task. Our values as a society are implicit in the way we define poverty, and such definitions may have important implications for social policy.

Three different ways of thinking about poverty can be found below. Think about the strengths and weaknesses of each one.

Absolute Poverty means having less than an objectively defined minimum. This minimum may be based on the estimated costs of basic necessities.[1]

Relative Poverty means having significantly less than the rest of the population. For example, poverty might be defined as having an income a certain percentage below the average income.[1]

Subjective Poverty measures poverty by asking people how much they feel they need to get by, and takes into account that responses vary by the respondent’s income.[1]


Have you experienced poverty in any of these ways ?

Have you experienced absolute, relative or subjective affluence ?


What does this mean for you about your ability to care for people who are experiencing poverty ?


Reflect on individuals you may know, or have met, that experience poverty in these different ways. What have you learned from them ?


How do you, will you, approach people who are experiencing poverty given your experiences of poverty and affluence ?


1. Phipps, S. The impact of poverty on health. A scan of the research literature. 2003. Ottawa, Canadian Institute for Health Information.

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