This blog was originally published in February 2016 by Mark Waddingon, CEO of Hope and Homes for Children, an NGO working to support the estimated 8 million children living in institutions across the globe. Hope and Homes is committed to working with governments to close their institutions through a process called Deinstitutionalisation (DI) by enabling children to return home to their families or into alternative, family-based services.

Through a series of three blogs, Mark challenges some of the widely held views on poverty, childhood and the role of aid in addressing child poverty.  In this blog, the first in the series, he asks if our definition of poverty reached its sell-by date. We will re-blog subsequent installments over the coming weeks.


In 2010, the World Bank defined extreme poverty:

“…. as an average daily consumption of $1.25 or less

Then just months ago, in Oct 2015, the bank revised its definition to US $1.90 a day. This is the most widely accepted and applied definition of extreme poverty.

But it’s not fit for purpose.

Multi-lateral organisations like the World Bank, as well as governments, love a good measurable. The problem with this one is that poverty is actually being defined by how it’s measured, as a monetary threshold, rather than by what it is: a human experience.

Getting the definition of poverty right is not merely an issue of semantics. It is a human imperative.

Have a quick look at this pie chart, taken from a recent UNICEF issue brief on child poverty.

Nearly half of the people living in poverty in the world today are children according to UNICEF.

Nearly half of the people living in poverty in the world today are children. That’s nearly as many children as all the people in every other age group put together.

But this could well be an under estimate.

UNICEF suggests that 22,000 children die every day from the consequences of poverty. Using a monetary threshold to construct estimates like this can mask the deprivation of those with incomes above the defined poverty line who might suffer disproportionately more than those with incomes below it. For example, many street working children earn well over $1.90 per day. The challenge they face is not earning money, but actually hiding it.

This presents the very worrying prospect of 22,000 children dying everyday (and that’s just children under the age of five) being an alarmingly low estimate.

Poverty is likely to be the single biggest underlying factor that has led to some eight million children being unnecessarily driven into damaging orphanage-type care around the world. So at Hope and Homes for Children we have a real interest in getting to grips with what poverty means in order to give ourselves a fighting chance to successfully prevent the separation of children from their families in the first place and rid the world of the injustice of orphanage care (see link to previous series of posts on Top Ten Bloopers of international child protection for how orphanage care damages children and violates their rights).

So while the $1.90 monetary threshold is a useful indicator of extreme poverty, as well as a great soundbite for campaigners and politicians, as a singular definition it has gone way past its sell-by date.

Here are five reasons why.

Firstly, it directs attention, almost exclusively, to those people living below the threshold. All well and good, but a large amount of research on poverty is based on snapshots only, taken at the time the studies were made. Poverty is dynamic. The Moving Out of Poverty study found that many of the same people are falling into or rising out of poverty at different times. And it presents evidence to suggest that while, globally, 23% of people living with poverty rose out of it, a similar amount descended into it – the fallers.

Poverty is dynamic

These fallers are often forgotten or ignored – until they have “fallen” – because a level of income is being used to define a threshold above which they do not qualify as extremely poor. They are often subsequently excluded from research, policy and aid interests. One of the overarching principles of the Sustainable Development Goals – now called the Global Goals – is leave no one behind. We might need to re-phrase this: leave no one out, in order to include those who are falling into extreme poverty.

Secondly, defining poverty as just a monetary threshold conceals how it might be experienced by children, which is often very different to the experience of adults. An adult might fall into poverty temporarily and will often have coping strategies, and sometimes the opportunity to rise out of it. However, falling into poverty during childhood can have lifelong consequences.

Using a monetary threshold to define poverty conceals how it is experienced by children

A child who suffers malnutrition or who is denied access to health services because of factors associated with poverty might, for example, have to live with the effects of stunting for the rest of their lives. The impact of this is often compounded by stigma which can limit access to or the completion of education, again with lifelong consequences. So the monetary threshold used to define extreme poverty severely limits our understanding of the difference in experiences between adults and children.

Thirdly, using a monetary threshold defines those living under $1.90 a day as being poor themselves. This can lead to widespread misrepresentations of people living with the consequences of poverty, cast by some politicians and policy directors as receivers rather than contributors. A burden. Lazy. And it can lead to profound misunderstandings about how development works. For example, according to research the main reason why people actually move out of poverty is through individual initiative.

Fourthly, using a monetary income threshold links how we define poverty to other economic metrics such as GDP. However, child poverty is not always associated with GDP.

Poverty is multi-dimensional

If we were to calculate the money allocated to supporting any of the 8 million children estimated to be confined in orphanages around the world we would almost certainly find that the per capita budget is significantly more than the threshold for extreme poverty. A World Bank study found the cost of institutional care ranged between USD$6.7 and USD$9.3 per child per day in Romania and $3 per day in Tanzania. Many of these children are living with multiple deprivations, but they will be left out when we use a monetary threshold to define extreme poverty as $1.90 per day.

Fifthly, using an income threshold to define poverty confines our understanding of the problem to the province of economics. But poverty is far more expansive in scope than that. An income threshold does not, for example, specify nutritional status, quality of shelter, water and sanitation conditions, access to health services or education, so it is a wholly inadequate proxy indicator – let alone a satisfactory definition – for understanding how the many dimensions of poverty are experienced.

Specifying the dimensions of poverty that children experience is particularly important, and more so than for adults, because of the often profound developmental consequences in a child’s life.

The multidimensional view of poverty was first developed at Bristol University in 2003. The measurement of multidimensional poverty is a discipline in its own right – the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) has been reported on by the United Nations Development Programme every year since 2010.

Which is why many of us are becoming very impatient with the persistent, singular use of the monetary threshold by the World Bank and others! Because how we define poverty counts.

Yes, the monetary definition is a useful metric but it can’t be used on its own for all the reasons I’ve outlined above, and because those who are living with low incomes are not always the same people that are living with different dimensions of poverty.

Alkire and Sumner make their point on this very clearly:

But here is the real surprise: if 20% of the population are income poor, and 20% are multidimensionally poor, we may presume they are the same people. But they are not. For example, in South Africa, 11% of the population are income poor and 11% are MPI poor, but only 3% are poor by both measures. Mis-matches of 40% to 80% are regularly observed. This means that by focusing on the $1.25/day (sic) poor alone, we may overlook and fail to support a significant percentage of people living in multidimensional poverty.

The MPI is far more useful than (but also complements) an income threshold definition because it provides a more comprehensive overview of how poverty is experienced, the information it relies upon can be disaggregated by region and group, and we can use this information to begin understanding not just who is living with the consequences of poverty but what that means for them. Being able to disaggregate information by age and gender is the first step to being able to understand the childhood experience of poverty.

However, the quote above still casts people as poor in themselves. Even the ten indicators used in the MPI characterises people by the very deprivations we ascribe to them. No human-being, least of all children, is characterised by poverty or deprivation. Poverty and deprivation are situations.

This is important because it can lead to policies and aid initiatives which seek to do development to or for people, rather than help address the structural barriers they face in determining their own development pathway out of poverty.

And there’s something else that we need to consider too. What we don’t want to do is limit our thinking to just what we are fighting against: such as various deprivations, or low income. If we do that, we won’t see what we are actually fighting for, which is far more important when planning and delivering aid in our efforts to support development.

Development is about the future. Children and young people live nearer to the future and will inhabit it.

So doesn’t that mean we need to understand how children and young people might be prepared for that future, what they can and want to do to actively shape that future, and what we can do to support them in this?

It is only by understanding childhood and its experience as a pathway to the future that we can actually understand what we are fighting for. And this will give us the critical, missing context to completing our understanding of what child poverty actually means in the here and now.

Which leads us to part two of this series of three posts: are the assumptions that we make about childhood limiting our understanding of child poverty and potentially undermining our efforts to address it?


To find out more about Hope and Homes for Children, please visit their website. Mark Waddington’s blog is here.

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