Absolute and overall poverty

Joanna Mack

Absolute poverty has been seen as a matter of acute deprivation, hunger, premature death and suffering. This captures an important understanding of poverty and its relevance remains widespread in parts of the world today. It focuses attention on the urgent need for action.

However, while there are some circumstances, such as starvation or unsafe water, which do lead to immediate death, most of these criteria require judgements and comparisons. What is classed as acute deprivation will vary from society to society and through time, and what is counted as premature death will depend on average life expectancies. So while there is a core to ideas of absolute poverty relating to the severity of deprivation and the need for immediate action, in practice, it is part of a continuum of a measurement of poverty, indicating it is deeper and worse.

As such, in 1995 the United Nations adopted two definitions of poverty.

Absolute poverty was defined as:

a condition characterised 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 services.

Overall poverty takes various forms, including:

lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments and social discrimination and exclusion. It is also characterised by lack of participation in decision making and in civil, social and cultural life. It occurs in all countries: as mass poverty in many developing countries, pockets of poverty amid wealth in developed countries, loss of livelihoods as a result of economic recession, sudden poverty as a result of disaster or conflict, the poverty of low-wage workers, and the utter destitution of people who fall outside family support systems, social institutions and safety nets.

These are relative definitions of poverty, which see poverty in terms of minimum acceptable standards of living within the society in which a particular person lives. (UN, 1995)

Millennium Development Goals

In 2000, world leaders came together at United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration. This declaration committed their nations to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and set out a series of time-bound targets – with a deadline of 2015 – that have become known as the Millennium Development Goals. The development goals cover eight areas:

The goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger sets three targets to be reached by 2015. Using 1990 as the base, it aims to:

In 2010, the United Nations reported on progress towards these targets in The Millennium Development Goals Report. Detailed data on progress towards meeting these targets can be found on the UN's Millennium Development Goals Indicators website.

Setting a poverty reduction target has undoubtedly raised awareness of world poverty and directed action towards this goal. However, setting the target at halving the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day can be criticised, as with other income-based measures, as being arbitrary and the level of $1 a day limiting.

Combating Poverty and Inequality is a major report from the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. It sets progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals in the wider context of inequality.

Further reading

David Woodward of the London-based New Economics Foundation examines the fundamental problems with the $1-a-day approach in How Poor is 'Poor'? Towards a Rights-based Poverty Line. He proposes a rights-based poverty line, based on the level of income at which living standards consistent with economic and social rights are actually achieved in each country.

Other ways in which absolute definitions of human needs could be implemented are explored by Dr David Gordon in Indicators of Poverty and Hunger.


Gordon, D. (2005) Indicators of Poverty and Hunger, Presentation to Expert Group Meeting on Youth Development Indicators, United Nations Headquarters, New York.

United Nations (1995), The Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action, World Summit for Social Development, 6-12 March 1995, New York, United Nations

United Nations (2010) The Millennium Development Goals Report, New York, United Nations.

Woodward, D. (2010) How Poor is 'Poor'? Towards a Rights-based Poverty Line, London, New Economics Foundation.


Last updated: 21 January, 2016