If someone were to ask, “what is poverty?”, most people would likely be able to give a general answer. In the simplest terms, the meaning of poverty is when a household lacks the income and resources required to meet its most basic needs. However, a definition of poverty as simple as that doesn’t tell the whole story. The scope and complexity of poverty and the issues that cause it make it clear that poverty is not just about money.

This blog post will shed light on a more complex and accurate poverty meaning, and give some examples of poverty and the problems it creates for families. It will reveal what the main causes of poverty are. And when you have a detailed and accurate poverty definition, you’ll understand how Outreach International’s methodology for how to fight poverty is so successful and lasting.

What’s the Definition of Poverty?

At Outreach International, we focus on helping people lift themselves out of chronic, extreme poverty. We work in areas of the world where entire communities are stuck in an unending cycle of economic struggle that they’ve been unable to break for generations. What poverty is in cases like these is a lack of access to the most basic resources to function day-to-day. Here are some examples of poverty issues:

Food insecurity

Gardener in Bolivia using seeds sourced from a program to fight poverty.

Outreach partners in Bolivia helped the community of Sacha Sacha build 22 greenhouses and access thousands of quality seedlings for planting.

This is defined as a person not knowing where meals in the near future will come from. It’s the most common issue people consider when they think of what poverty is. More than 345 million people are projected to be food insecure in 2023, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

Inadequate access to safe water

2.2 billion people around the world do not have access to safe, clean water for drinking, cooking, and bathing, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

What is poverty? Sometimes it's a lack of water. This village in Malawi drills a water well.

Outreach partners in Ofesi, Malawi, witnessed the drilling of a well for adequate access to water for everyone.

Lack of sanitation services

4.2 billion people in the world lack the infrastructure to deal with human waste, causing contamination of property, water sources, and farmland (WHO). The issue of poor sanitation does not always come to mind when considering what poverty is. But the problems it causes can be catastrophic to a family.

Composting latrine to help fight poverty and create a clean and healthy environment

Since 2010, 111 composting latrines have been built in six communities in Nicaragua, and another 72 are soon to follow.

Inadequate or no access to healthcare

Half of the world’s population lacks access to essential healthcare services, causing negative health outcomes, often from preventable diseases. This affects more than just lifespan and quality of life. Sick people are unable to work or go to school, and others must often care for them, taking them away from work or school. This can have a negative lifelong or even generational impact.

Boyole, Malawi, a clinic for children and new mothers.

People in Boyole, Malawi, celebrate the opening of a clinic for children under 5 and young mothers to lower preventable illness and greatly reduce infant mortality rates.

Inadequate or no access to education

The most recent data from the UN states that 258 million children lack access to school. That’s nearly one-fifth of the world’s population of school-age children. And as of that same time, 773 million adults, two-thirds of whom are women, remain illiterate, defined as lacking the ability to read and write.

Clementina and Nicolas, Most Hardworking Teachers.

In Mapande, Zambia, people made their own bricks and built their own school. Later, Clementina and Nicholas received government awards for “Most Hardworking Teachers.”

Gender inequality or discrimination

Globally, just 39% of rural girls attend secondary school, as compared to 45% of boys. And on average, there are far fewer women than men in rural councils, and even fewer in leadership positions in these councils. UNWomen states, for example, that in Cambodia, only 7% of leaders in rural councils are women.

Women leaders in Cambodia

At Outreach, 65% of our local leaders are women. 56% of our program coordinator team members are women. 70% of all our community groups worldwide are majority women.

Causes of Poverty

There are, of course, many types of poverty. Outreach International works primarily to fight extreme poverty at the community level. A community exists in this state when it must deal with many or all of the examples of poverty listed above. This is also known as multidimensional poverty because there isn’t just a single issue or simple definition of what poverty is for a community living in these conditions.

Again, it’s impossible to pinpoint a single definition of poverty because the issues exist within several systems:

  • Political – limited capacity of local and national governments
  • Social – Inequality and marginalization of groups
  • Cultural – Predetermined notions based on cultural norms that lead to inequity
  • Geographic – Isolation or lack of access to infrastructure and resources
  • Educational – Lack of access to a quality school or job training
  • Economic – Limited or no access to adequate income, jobs, and livelihoods

These systems are interconnected and often reinforce one another. This is why poverty is a big challenge to face, and why people who live in extreme poverty are unlikely to overcome their problems alone.

How to Reduce Poverty

In every country where we work, we confront the injustice of chronic poverty by ensuring that the people most affected by poverty-related issues become those best equipped to permanently resolve them. Our partner organizations work with communities to create their own development organizations. They elect their own leaders, write their own bylaws, and identify the issues that are most important to them. They ask themselves “what is poverty to us?” “What keeps us in a cycle of poverty?” Then, they mobilize to solve their most urgent issue. Then the next. Then the next. And with hard work and brilliant problem solving, they lift themselves toward a future filled with prosperity and hope.

How to Help

Learn more about how Outreach works with communities in all our partner countries to show people they have the power within themselves to rise out of poverty and move toward a future filled with promise.