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Methodologies for assessing world poverty

ESCWA Publication: E/ESCWA/CL2.GPID/2023/TP.15

Country: Global

Publication Type: Information material

Cluster: Gender Justice, Population and Inclusive Development

Focus Area: Inclusive development , Population dynamics & migration

Initiatives: Addressing multidimensional poverty

SDGs: Goal 1: No Poverty , Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth , Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities , Goal 12: Responsible Production and Consumption , Goal 13: Climate Action

Keywords: Poverty, Poverty mitigation, Income distribution, Households, Economic growth, Statistical methodology, Arab countries, Asia and the pacific, Europe, North america, Latin america and the caribbean, Africa south of sahara

The present paper describes the main methodology for poverty estimates included in the forthcoming world poverty report. It describes techniques applied in projections of the levels and trends of income poverty across all world regions, using poverty definitions that are closer to national definitions, yet are internationally and intertemporally comparable. This is achieved by identifying quasi-relative national poverty lines based on Engel’s law with strong axiomatic properties. The paper observes that the level of economic growth in most world regions has not strongly favoured poverty reduction, and even the observed national growth does not trickle down to household incomes one-for - one, typically falling short of perfect trickledown depending on the country context.

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Impacts of COVID‐19 on global poverty, food security, and diets: Insights from global model scenario analysis

David laborde.

1 Markets, Trade and Institutions Division at IFPRI, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington District of Columbia, USA

Will Martin

Associated data.

Table A2: Coverage of household surveys in POVANA database

Table A.5. Estimated Impacts of COVID‐19 on GDP and on Poverty

This study assesses the impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19) on poverty, food insecurity, and diets, accounting for the complex links between the crisis and the incomes and living costs of vulnerable households. Key elements are impacts on labor supply, effects of social distancing, shifts in demand from services involving close contact, increases in the cost of logistics in food and other supply chains, and reductions in savings and investment. These are examined using IFPRI's global general equilibrium model linked to epidemiological and household models. The simulations suggest that the global recession caused by COVID‐19 will be much deeper than that of the 2008–2009 financial crisis. The increases in poverty are concentrated in South Asia and sub‐Saharan Africa with impacts harder in urban areas than in rural. The COVID‐19‐related lockdown measures explain most of the fall in output, whereas declines in savings soften the adverse impacts on food consumption. Almost 150 million people are projected to fall into extreme poverty and food insecurity. Decomposition of the results shows that approaches assuming uniform income shocks would underestimate the impact by as much as one‐third, emphasizing the need for the more refined approach of this study.


Global cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19) worldwide have grown exponentially since February 2020, despite progress on managing this pandemic in some countries, with worldwide daily reported new cases rising from around 500 in late February to almost 600,000 by November, with the threat of further increases during the northern‐hemisphere winter. The epicenter of the pandemic shifted from China to Europe and then to the United States and Latin America, with the disease resurgent in the northern autumn. COVID‐19 is now also spreading rapidly in low‐ and middle‐income countries in Africa and Asia, many of which lack robust health systems or strong social safety nets that can soften the pandemic's public health and economic impacts.

More than half of the world population has been, still is, or is again under some form of social distancing regime designed to contain the health crisis. Business activity has fallen sharply because of a combination of policy action and personal responses designed to reduce risk of contracting the virus, with personal action probably more important than policy in reducing economic activity (Goolsbee & Syverson, 2020 ). The International Labour Organization estimates that during the first three quarters of 2020, the number of working hours worldwide declined by 17% relative to that in the last quarter of 2019; a drop equivalent to a loss of almost 500 million full‐time jobs (ILO, 2020a ). Governments in Europe, the United States, and other high‐income countries have taken unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus measures to compensate for the income losses of businesses and workers and contain an inevitable economic crisis. But the relief responses of low‐ and middle‐income countries have been more limited.

COVID‐19 poses a serious threat to global food security through various transmission mechanisms (Laborde, Martin, Swinnen, & Vos, 2020 ). From what is currently known, the worst of these threats is the global economic recession causing many to lose income and leaving many vulnerable people unable to afford the food they need. Income declines not only reduce demand for food but also induce shifts in the mix of products consumed, notably resulting in less consumption of more nutrient‐rich foods (like fruits, vegetables, and animal‐sourced foods) and relatively more of calorie‐rich foods (like basic grains and sugar). Other threats arise from disruptions in agricultural input markets, farm production, marketing, and distribution of food caused by the need for social distancing to combat the global health crisis.

As COVID‐19 and its economic fallout spread in the poorest parts of the world, more people have become poor and food insecure. Although some context‐specific estimates of the impacts of these shocks on poverty and food insecurity are available, it will be years before comprehensive and comparative survey‐based information on these impacts become available. A key contribution of this paper is to assess these impacts using an integrated global modeling framework that includes national and household models. In a new scenario analysis, presented in this study, we estimate that globally, absent adequate responses in poorer nations, close to 150 million more people could fall into extreme poverty (measured against the PPP$1.90 poverty line) in 2020—an increase of 20% from prepandemic levels. This, in turn, would drive up food insecurity.

Assessing the poverty impact of COVID‐19 is no trivial matter, however. This is so not only because the crisis is still unfolding and available information of its precise socioeconomic consequences is incomplete, but also because the channels of influence are multiple and interconnected globally. Although several analyses of the poverty impacts have used simple tools provided by the World Bank's PovcalNet website 1 and assumed uniform shifts in the distribution of income per country to provide estimates of the impacts on poverty (see, for example, the studies by the World Bank in Mahler, Lakner, Aguilar, & Wu, 2020 and World Bank, 2020b ; and that of UN‐WIDER by Sumner, Hoy, & Ortiz‐Juarez, 2020 ), we are concerned that this assumption fails to account for the complexity of the channels of effect and may substantially underestimate the impacts of the pandemic. Our methodology allows to account for the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the poor (Swinnen, 2020 ), something neglected in analyses using uniform shifts in all incomes. Results from a range of studies examining the impacts of COVID‐19 on GDP and on poverty are presented in Online Appendix A.5 . This shows that estimates of the severity of the impact increased dramatically after March 2020. The results of this study fall within the range of other estimates.

In this paper, we use information on the nature of the shocks to income, the structure of the global economy, and linked household models to provide more detailed estimates of the likely implications for income distribution, poverty, and the food security of vulnerable families. The next section of the paper looks at the transmission channels from COVID‐19 to poverty and food security. The third examines our modeling framework, including the MIRAGRODEP global computable general equilibrium (CGE) model and the POVANA framework. The fourth section presents the key assumptions of the COVID‐19 scenario used in the analysis, whereas the fifth presents key results from the analysis and identifies the main transmission channels of the global macroeconomic and poverty impacts. A sixth section provides an update of the reference scenario to illustrate the sensitivity of the results to changes in key assumptions and to validate those assumptions against the most recent available evidence about observed impacts of the pandemic. The final section concludes.


COVID‐19 has smaller direct impacts on agricultural production than many other pandemics. The 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic, for example, caused substantial losses in farm output because of high morbidity and mortality among working‐age males (Schultz, 1964 ). Some other pandemics, such as Swine flu and Avian flu, have directly reduced agricultural production. By contrast, COVID‐19 involves a relatively short period of sickness for most of its victims, has its highest mortality rates among older people, many of whom have left the formal workforce, and does not directly affect crops or livestock. However, it does have substantial impacts on agriculture and food security, generally through less direct channels of influence. Therefore, it is useful to begin the discussion by laying out the channels through which COVID‐19 affects food markets and food security. We then turn to the modeling framework that we use to evaluate these impacts.

The main channels of effect between the COVID‐19 pandemic and food security are:

  • income losses and demand shocks;
  • food supply chain disruptions;
  • consumer responses, such as hoarding, food waste, and dietary shifts;
  • policy responses: hoarding at country level (food export bans) and fiscal stimulus.

Income losses play an important role in reducing food security during the COVID‐19 pandemic. We know from the work of Amartya Sen ( 1981 ) that food insecurity and even famines frequently are not associated with physical shortages of food. What matters more is people's ability to access food. Some of the current income declines are direct consequences of the disease, such as working time lost due to the disease; whereas others are policy responses designed to reduce the rate of disease transmission. It appears that the most important are individual responses as people try to avoid situations where they are likely to catch (or transmit) the disease (Goolsbee & Syverson, 2020 ). Because individuals consider primarily their own risk of infection, some degree of coordinated distancing is appropriate to reduce the externalities imposed on others and particularly the loss of life associated with the pandemic. These social distancing policies range from simple measures such as encouraging wearing of masks and frequent handwashing, through more intrusive policies such as restricting activities with high transmission risk, to strict lockdown requirements.

The income losses resulting from these actions are primarily outside the food system as food‐related activities have generally been designated “essential” activities exempt from being locked down, except for some restaurants and other food‐away from home outlets. Hence, most of the direct income losses are outside the agri‐food system. Unskilled workers in nonessential activities are at greatest risk of falling into unemployment because they generally do not have the telecommuting options that have greatly reduced the impact of this pandemic on overall economic activity and employment.

Food supply chain disruptions caused by COVID‐19 are also affecting food security. Staple food production in high‐income countries has been relatively little affected, whereas labor‐intensive activities in some markets and processing activities have been strongly affected by disease outbreaks. Another key point of breakdown has been in processing of some agricultural products—and particularly production of meat—where low temperatures and proximity of workers can result in very high rates of disease transmission. Other disruptions to food supply chains have come from restriction on the movement of workers, the dramatic reduction in international air travel, and slowdowns in the administrative approvals for food trade. At the consumer end, restaurant services have been particularly hard hit both by lockdown policies and by consumer risk aversion.

Most consumer responses have been consequences of the COVID shocks, but some have injected additional volatility into the system. Uncertainty about the impact of the pandemic on availability of some foods has added volatility to food demand as consumers have sought to stockpile food items, such as meat and dairy products. Another early feature of adjustment to the pandemic was increased food loss as suppliers struggled to adjust their product mix in response to shifts in final sales away from food services to consumption at home. A third feature of adjustment appears to have been a run down in financial assets as affected households seek to reduce the impact of income losses on their access to food. In one carefully studied case, Abate, de Brauw, and Hirvonen ( 2020 ) found that only a small fraction of Ethiopian households appear to have enough savings to cover more than a month's food needs. The same study tracking households during the COVID‐19 outbreak also finds that income losses and food price changes appear to have changed demand for food, with declines in consumption of nutrient‐rich products like legumes, vegetables, and dairy.

Policy responses to the pandemic also play a major role in the outcome. Although economies would likely have had substantial reductions in economic activity as people sought to avoid catching (and/or transmitting) the disease, lockdown policies appear to have increased the adverse short‐run impact on output, while—where properly implemented—reducing the rate of transmission and potentially allowing a swifter recovery. In some cases, this has had a high payoff, by sharply reducing the impact of the disease, while, in other cases, such as the United States, the opportunity to reduce the incidence of the disease to low levels in the first round was missed. Even when containment policies were initially successful, frequent resurgences of the disease suggest that the economic impacts are likely to last until effective treatments and/or vaccines are widely available.

Fiscal and monetary stimulus appears to have had a substantial impact on output levels in many of the higher income countries, with initial fiscal stimulus of around 11% of GDP in the United States and substantial stimulus packages in many other high‐income countries. 2 Although fiscal stimulus packages have been announced in many developing countries, these generally appear to be much smaller as a share of GDP than those in the higher income countries. Expansion of social protection programs has been an important element in the response with 212 countries, mostly in the developing world, introducing almost 1200 measures by September 2020. 3 About half of the social assistance measures were cash based, with most being short term in duration. In developing countries, the size and duration of such responses seems to be highly variable. As little is known so far about the precise allocation of those resources across households, we do not account for the social protection measures taken by developing countries in the scenario analysis presented below. Our focus is rather on assessing the direct impact of the crisis on poverty in the absence of such social protection measures.

Many countries implemented restrictions on food exports early in the crisis designed to avoid increases in domestic food prices (Martin & Glauber, 2020 ). Fortunately, however, these restrictions did not set off an upward price spiral of the type seen in 2007–2008 (Anderson, Ivanic, & Martin, 2014 ). Although 22 countries had announced or imposed food export restrictions, affecting around 5% of calories embedded in traded food, early in the crisis, all but one had been eliminated by the end of September. 4


We use a global modeling framework to assess the potential impacts of the COVID‐19 crisis on global poverty and food security. Specifically, we combine two economic modeling frameworks: IFPRI's global CGE model, MIRAGRODEP, 5 and the POVANA household dataset and model. This framework has been used previously to study the impact of a macroeconomic slowdown on global poverty in Laborde and Martin ( 2018 ). The main differences between the current work and the previous study are twofold. First, the Laborde–Martin study looks at a change in economic growth projections for 2015–2030 and compared poverty outcomes in 2030, using the dynamic version of the CGE and projecting household surveys until 2030.

In the current exercise, we focus on single‐year (2020) scenario results under a range of assumptions about short‐term impacts of COVID‐19, as explained further below. Second, in Laborde and Martin ( 2018 ), alternative IMF projections for global growth are regenerated by imposing commensurate changes in total factor productivity on the corresponding MIRAGRODEP parameter values. In contrast, in the current exercise, the factors underlying the socioeconomic impacts of COVID‐19, such as health impacts, social distancing, restrictions on (labor) mobility, international transport, and the closure of some business activities, are translated into MIRAGRODEP's model terms to simulate endogenously the impacts on economic growth, incomes, employment, consumption, prices, trade, and ultimately, poverty.

The two modeling frameworks are linked in top‐down fashion; that is, the relevant results of the CGE model‐based scenario analysis are introduced, along with the direct impacts of the pandemic on households, as shocks to the household survey model to assess poverty outcomes. In addition, the health impacts of the disease on labor supply and productivity are linked to outcomes from epidemiological models. This process is summarized in Figure  1 .

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Implementation of the Covid‐19 scenarios [Color figure can be viewed at ]

Source : Authors’ depiction.

The main technical features of the MIRAGRODEP and POVANA models and their linkages are summarized in Online Appendix A.1 . For the present analysis, we assume in the MIRAGRODEP model that unskilled workers are harder hit than skilled workers by social distancing measures, as skilled workers are more likely able to continue work from home. We assume further that producers have very little ability to change the capital–labor utilization ratio within a single year. Governments in high‐income countries are assumed to have put in place economic stimulus measures (see below under scenario assumptions), while—for the present analysis—those of poorer countries are assumed to have limited ability to borrow to provide such substantial stimulus, and so maintain the public deficit/surplus to GDP constant.

The POVANA household model uses data on the full income distribution for around 300,000 households. 6 Having this detail avoids having to make ex‐ante or ad‐hoc assumptions about how the economic shocks caused by COVID‐19 change the distribution of income in any given country. In our approach, real incomes of households change endogenously with the simulated changes in the full vector of changes in employment; changes in prices of goods, services, and factors (including wages); and other income determinants (productivity). Changes in poverty levels are calculated by comparing the poverty rates before and after the changes in household incomes.

Finally, the POVANA database provides information about household consumption patterns. This also allows identification of the impacts of economic shocks (like the consequences of COVID‐19) on the costs of goods consumed by the household, and particularly on the costs of food consumed. Income losses and food price shocks will disproportionately hurt poor people's food security, because they spend most of their income on food: as much as 70%. Rich people spend only a small share—perhaps around 15%—of their incomes on food (Figure  2 ). The most immediate threat of COVID‐19 to food security arises from reductions in the incomes of poor and vulnerable people. Some of these losses arise from income losses in agriculture, but a much larger share of these income losses arises from disruption to nonagricultural income sources.

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Engel's law: Declining food expenditure shares with rising incomes [Color figure can be viewed at ]

Source : POVANA database. Authors’ computation. Note : The blue line represents the estimated share of food consumption in total expenditures estimated through a polynomial of degree 3 on the log of individual income household, normalized by their own country's poverty line.


We model a range of impacts of the COVID‐19 pandemic. Beyond the direct effects of the disease on the ability to work, income losses arise from people's desire to avoid catching the disease and their altruistic concerns to avoid infecting other people, and from policy responses designed to reduce the adverse externalities associated with an unmitigated pandemic. No global economy‐wide model incorporating these features is available to fully assess these potential impacts and behavioral changes. Many of the changes in behavior and in the functioning of economies are not yet fully understood and their impacts on economic activity were still not fully known when preparing this scenario analysis. It is also difficult to rely on experience from past events, because no events like the COVID‐19 pandemic have occurred on this scale in today's globalized world. Therefore, we have had to make several assumptions about the responses of economic agents to this unprecedented situation.

In crafting the scenarios used here, we have based our choices on earlier work, such as the analysis we undertook in March 2020, 7 when we looked at the differential impacts on productivity and trade costs for a 1% global economic slowdown during 2020. Before looking at the specific scenario assumptions, it is important to keep in mind that the model operates on an annual time step and the impacts of any shock are calculated as the average impact for the year. Therefore, a disruption lasting 10 days is associated with a 10/365 impact and a price shock, for example, such as the decline in oil prices, must be calibrated on the shift in annual average prices and not on the “peak” value.

We distinguish four drivers of COVID‐19 impacts: domestic supply disruptions, global market disruptions, household behavioral responses, and policy responses.

4.1. Domestic supply disruptions

4.1.1. disruptions in labor markets.

We consider two broad impacts on labor markets. The first is the direct impact of mortality and morbidity on labor supply. The second is the impacts on labor supply of social distancing actions undertaken to reduce transmission of the disease. The first impact is linked to the direct impact of the disease. For our reference scenario, we use estimates provided by Imperial College London for each country (Walker et al., 2020 ). 8 Specifically, we use the “Social distancing of the whole population” scenario for all countries. As their online materials do not provide results by age cohorts, we reestimated those, following a procedure explained in Online Appendix A.3 . We note that this direct effect is generally quite small due compared to the next type of disruption.

Social distancing results in some willing workers become unable to sell their labor. In our reference scenario, we use the “social‐distancing” parameter from the Imperial College estimates as a base value, and assume that 12 weeks of confinement is imposed in each country, except in African countries, for which we limit it to 8 weeks, due to the more limited ability of poor populations to manage long periods of economic disruption; lower population densities than in South Asian countries; the younger average age of people in the region and the consequent more relaxed implementation of confinement policies. These assumptions result in reductions in labor supply of 23% in most countries or 15% in Africa. We consider that one‐third of skilled workers impacted by social distancing can continue working through telecommuting. This crude estimate is based on the ILO's early review of the impact of COVID‐19 on jobs of April 2020 (ILO, 2020b ) and Dingel and Neiman ( 2020 ). 9

4.1.2. Disruptions in specific value chains

Although agriculture and food sectors have been identified as essential in most countries, we also assume some supply disruption caused by reduced labor mobility (e.g., for seasonal migrant labor) and further, that perishable farm products suffer greater postharvest losses due to logistics problems and demand fallout. An increase in postharvest losses of perishable products (fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy) of five points is included. Although this estimate is conjectural, anecdotal evidence suggests that losses have been substantial in some cases and minimal in others making an average loss of 5% seem a reasonable guesstimate for the present purpose of analysis

Total factor productivity in transportation is assumed to decline by 5% to capture losses of logistical efficiency. This number is extrapolated based on anecdotal evidence ranging from monitoring of GPS tracking devices on truck fleets in the United States (see the work of ATRI) 10 and from recent surveys conducted in West Africa. 11 While crude, this estimate provides at least a reasoned estimate of the extent of disruption to transportation sectors, especially in developing countries.

Because both autonomous social distancing (driven by fear of catching the disease) and lockdown policies designed to reduce externalities tend to reduce activity in high‐contact services such as restaurants, travel, bars, and gyms, we introduce a “shadow tax” 12 of 25% for both final and intermediate consumption of these services. This reduces the demand for these services, ceteris paribus , by about one‐third on average.

4.2. Global market disruptions

To capture the effects of the “oil war” between Saudi Arabia and Russia in late 2019 and early 2020 but predating COVID‐19, we introduce an exogenous expansion of the supply of oil. The combined effect of this larger supply of oil and the lower demand caused by the COVID‐19 crisis induces a drop in global real energy prices by 25% for crude oil and natural gas and 17% for refined oil and gas products. 13

The containment measures cause bottlenecks and delays in international freight and transport. In terms of the model parameters, this assumption has been translated into an increase in the average cost of international freight by 3%, not considering any feedback on energy prices. We calibrate these numbers to capture the increased time required to trade, because of logistical delays in harbors and at airports caused by new regulations, lack of inspectors, and other frictions associated with the pandemic. These lost days are converted into ad‐valorem equivalents using a procedure developed by Hummels and Schaur ( 2013 ).

4.3. Household and business responses

We assume that private sector agents and businesses reduce their savings as a coping mechanism to compensate for the adverse impact of the pandemic on current incomes. In the global CGE model, the savings reduction is defined for each country/region subject to two constraints: first, to the extent they can, private sector agents try to limit their welfare loss to 5% of initial income, but, second, they cannot cut their savings rates by more than 6% of initial income and cannot let their savings become negative. These boundaries were chosen based on changes in gross saving rates observed in previous crises. For instance, in the United States, between 2006 and 2009, the gross savings rate fell from 18.0% to 15.1%, whereas the world average declined from 26.6% to 24.1%. 14

It should be noted that MIRAGRODEP cannot fully capture the differences in savings behavior across economic agents. Typically, in contrast to the above, household savings tend to increase during recessions, which Keynes characterized as the “paradox of thrift” (Keynes, 1936 ). Although poor households may be unable to save and may even need to dispose of assets to survive, more affluent households try to save more in uncertain times, reducing consumption and thereby deepening the recession. In the United States, for instance, COVID‐19 substantially limited consumption spending, leading the personal savings rate (as a share of disposable income) to increase from around 7% in early 2020 to 32% in April to taper off to 23% in May of the same year. 15 Overall savings appear to be down, however, with the fall in corporate savings being larger than the increase in household savings, as happened during the Great Recession of 2008–2009, 16 and, as a result, investment decline as well. In MIRAGRODEP, the corporate sector is included with the household sector, so we assume that the expected impact of COVID‐19 on corporate savings predominates the aggregate impact, with overall savings declining.

The composition of food demand will also change during the recession. Households are expected to reduce demand for fresh products (such as fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish). This food demand shift is endogenous to income and price shifts in the model. The simulated impacts shown further below could underestimate the true effects, because we do not account for changes in consumer perceptions. Some recent survey‐based evidence suggests that consumers perceive fresh products as less safe in association with COVID‐19, as apparent in the study by Tamru, Hirvonen, and Minten ( 2020 ) for Ethiopia. In Europe and the United States, such perceptions plus awareness that better nourishment makes people less vulnerable to the virus have led to shifts in food demand from animal‐sourced toward plant‐based food products. 17 However, the evidence is too scarce as yet to be able to make proper assumptions about such shifts in consumer preferences, and hence, they are not accounted for in the scenario analysis.

4.4. Policy responses

Due to their limited actual role, we did not include specific export restriction measures regarding food products (see Section  2 and the IFPRI Food Trade Policy Tracker). The present scenario does account for the substantial economic stimulus packages being implemented by most high‐income countries, including significant income transfers to households. For the OECD countries, except Mexico, Chile, Israel, and Turkey, we assume a stimulus package of, on average, 3.2% of GDP. The fiscal stimulus is introduced in the form of higher net income transfers (or lower income taxes) from the government to the representative household.

Because of the paucity of information about stimulus packages in the rest of the world, and a concern that some of what is reported may be an exaggeration of the extent of new stimulus provided, we have omitted the impacts of fiscal stimulus in the rest of the world. We are thus measuring the unmitigated impact of the shock to help calibrate policy responses, rather than an assessment of the consequences after mitigation policies have been implemented.


5.1. global macroeconomic impacts.

Under the given assumptions, we conclude that COVID‐19 will result in a severe global recession with global GDP falling by 5% 18 in 2020. This COVID‐19 recession looks likely to be much deeper than that seen during the global financial crisis of 2008–2009. The economic fallout in the initial epicenters of the pandemic (China, Europe, and the United States) is also severely hurting net commodity‐exporting developing countries through declines in trade and other commodity prices, restrictions on international travel and freight, compounding the economic costs of poorer nations’ own COVID‐19‐related restrictions on movements of people and economic activity. We consider first the macroeconomic impacts and then the effects on poverty.

For developing countries as a group, we project the economic fallout to lead to a decline of aggregate GDP of 3.6% relative to 2019, but economies in Central Asia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America would be hit much harder due to their relatively high dependence on remittances, trade, and/or primary commodity exports. The recession is expected to be less severe in China and the rest of East Asia, where—with the present scenario assumptions—we expect the economic recovery to start sooner with the earlier lifting of containment measures.

We expect harsh economy‐wide impacts in sub‐Saharan Africa with GDP falling on average by almost 9% from the previous year, although agri‐food sectors may be spared and could even expand, as the collapse in export earnings and remittance incomes, 19 with domestic production rising in light of reduced ability to import food push. Lower labor demand in urban service sectors may push workers to return to agriculture, also contributing to greater domestic food production. With more workers in the sector, however, individual incomes would remain low.

5.2. Poverty impacts

Without social and economic mitigation measures such as fiscal stimulus and expansion of social safety nets in the global South (scenario assumption), the impact on extreme poverty (measured against the PPP$1.90 per person per day international poverty line) is devastating as shown in Figure  3 . The number of poor increases by 20% (almost 150 million people) with respect to the situation in the absence of COVID‐19, affecting urban and rural populations in Africa south of the Sahara the most, as 80 million more people join the ranks of the poor, a 23% increase. The poverty increase in rural areas is expected to be smaller than that in urban areas, partly because of the lower rate of transmission of the disease and partly because of the robustness of demand and supply for food relative to many other, more vulnerable sectors. Accordingly, we estimate that, in sub‐Saharan Africa, the number of poor people could increase by 15% in rural areas, but as much as 44% in urban areas. In this scenario, the number of poor people in South Asia is projected to increase by 15% or 42 million people.

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Global and Regional Poverty Impacts of MIRAGRODEP‐COVID 19 scenario (April 2020) by selected regions (Absolute and percentage change from 2020 baseline values) [Color figure can be viewed at ]

Source : MIRAGRODEP and POVANA Simulations.

In both cases, the impacts on rural populations are smaller because the direct impact of COVID‐19 on agriculture is less severe than on other sectors. As these estimates refer to the numbers of extremely poor people, that is, those who typically lack the means to buy enough food, we expect a commensurate rise in the number of food‐insecure people. The ability to distinguish the reduced sensitivity of rural households to COVID‐19 is an important advantage of the more complex framework used in this study. Applying uniform income declines to the initial distribution of income will almost always result in larger poverty increases for rural people because their initial incomes are so much lower than those of urban residents in developing countries.

The estimated income declines due to COVID‐19 are much larger than seen in many earlier studies such as in Vos, Martin, and Laborde ( 2020 ), Mahler et al. ( 2020 ), and World Bank ( 2020a ) and in most of the scenarios considered in McKibbin and Fernando ( 2020 ). However, they are substantially below the (uniform) income declines of 20% considered as an upper bound in Sumner et al. ( 2020 ). The estimates in this study fall within the range of studies surveyed in Appendix Table A.5 .

5.3. Changes in diets and impacts on nutrition

The income and price changes associated with the pandemic are likely to result in some quite substantial changes in patterns of food consumption, with adverse nutritional consequences. The declines in income and supply disruptions are likely to cause quite substantial shifts in demand away from nutrient‐dense foods such as fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and meats, and toward basic staple foods such as rice, maize, and other basic grains. Figure  4 confirms this as a global pattern. The dietary shift is (on average) similar in both developed and developing regions. The changes in consumption can be considerably sharper at the country level, as shown in Figure A.4 online.

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COVID‐19 impacts on diets (average effect for world) (percentage change in average global household consumption by product) [Color figure can be viewed at ]

Source : MIRAGRODEP Simulation (April 2020 scenario).

Note : Global average based on weighted changes at the estimated at the country or regional levels. Weights are based on base value of consumption, while changes are computed on the evolution of the volume of consumption for each national representative household.

5.4. Decomposition of impacts by main drivers

Given the multiple shocks used for these simulations, it is useful to understand which shocks influence the simulated outcomes the most. Not only does this provide insights into the driving forces behind both the macroeconomic and poverty outcomes, but also it allows a comparison of our approach relative to the much simpler approach of simply reducing consumption uniformly in line with the decline in GDP at constant prices used by Sumner et al. ( 2020 ), Mahler et al. ( 2020 ), and World Bank ( 2020b ). The decomposition was done by deleting one shock at a time from the full simulation and assessing the impact of that shock. Adding up these effects provides a good estimate of the total impact and allows a decomposition of the total effect into its sources.

The first three bars in Figure  5 show that the dominant influence on the loss of aggregate GDP due to the pandemic is the reductions in labor supply, both from individual health‐related responses and from social‐distancing policies. Disruptions in logistics and the savings adjustment play small to negligible roles in the declines in GDP. The second group of bars shows the decomposition for the impacts on agri‐food sector GDP. Again, reductions in supply are primarily driven by reductions in labor availability, although these are less important than for the whole economy because a large share of agricultural value‐added is treated as essential. The savings adjustment mitigates the impact on food consumption and hence also on agri‐food production.

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Object name is AGEC-52-375-g006.jpg

Decomposition of the simulated macroeconomic impacts by main transmission channel [Color figure can be viewed at ]

Source : MIRAGRODEP simulations results (April 2020 scenario). Note : Each bar in the graph represents 100% of the change in each variable in the COVID‐19 scenario and shows for each driver's positive or negative contribution (in percentage shares) to the overall change.

Income losses owing to the pandemic's direct impact on people's ability to work and that of the social distancing measures also explain most of the reduction in total food consumption, compounded by supply disruptions raising the logistical costs embedded in food prices. The savings adjustment is a mitigating factor. The increases in logistical costs affect demand for fruits and vegetables most strongly, outweighing income losses through social distancing; most notably in developing countries.

The estimates in this study fall within the range of studies surveyed in Appendix Table A.5 .

Figure  5 further shows that the adjustment rule regarding private savings mitigates the macroeconomic impact of the recession on overall household consumption. 20 The mitigating effect on consumption is generally stronger developed than in developing countries whose, on average, much poorer economic actors have less capacity to absorb the shock by drawing on own savings.

These results show that different shocks have different impacts on the different outcomes, with the direct reductions in labor having the largest impacts on GDP, whereas reductions in saving have important impacts on consumption, and increases in the cost of logistics in food supply chains having the greatest impact on consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Figure  6 provides a decomposition for the total poverty impacts parallel to that for the macroeconomic impacts presented in Figure  5 . Not surprisingly, it shows that the reductions in employment and in labor supply and social distancing have the largest impacts on poverty. Logistical costs have the second largest impacts, while other influences, such as oil price changes and changes in savings and investment, reduce the total increase in poverty in several regions.

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Simulated changes in extreme poverty by cause (shares of total impact) [Color figure can be viewed at ]

Source : MIRAGRODEP simulations results (April 2020 scenario).

Note : Each bar in the graph represents 100% of the change in each variable in the COVID‐19 scenario and shows for each driver's positive or negative contribution (in percentage shares) to the overall change.

To illustrate the difference between our approach and other studies assessing the poverty impact of the pandemic, we decompose in Figure  7 the change in the poverty rate into three components. The first, shown in the blue bar, is the impacts of average changes in incomes and in the cost of living on household real incomes. The second incorporates the nonneutral impacts of the COVID‐19 shocks on the cost of living to each household and the consequent impact on household incomes. The third considers, in addition, the nonneutral impact of the shocks on households’ individual incomes. It takes into account, for instance, the fact that many workers supplying unskilled labor—which is assumed to be the situation of the poorest—are unable to work remotely, and hence generally suffer greater income losses than higher income workers, both through the quantity of labor they can supply and the wage rates they receive.

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Decomposing the simulated changes in extreme poverty owing to COVID‐19 by average income and distributional shock (shares of total impact) [Color figure can be viewed at ]

It is clear from Figure  7 that the traditional estimate of the poverty impact of the pandemic—the observed changes in real incomes resulting from changes in average nominal incomes and consumer costs—explain most of the changes in poverty. At the global level, these uniform changes explain just over 110 million of the nearly 150 million increase in poverty. In sub‐Saharan Africa, both the uniform income effect and the differential impact on the incomes of the poor raise poverty, but this is substantially offset by many poor people being lifted out of poverty by declines in their idiosyncratic costs of living. This benefit, likely largely driven by declines in farm prices, explains why the increase in poverty observed in Figure  3 is so much smaller in Africa than in South Asia. The pattern for changes in rural poverty follows closely that observed for overall poverty.


In previous sections, we discussed at length the analytical framework used to assess the macroeconomic and poverty impacts of the COVID‐19 crisis and described the contributions of the different drivers to the outcomes for poverty and food insecurity. That reference scenario was elaborated in April 2020, based on our observations and interpretations of the world economy, the health crisis, and the mitigation options taken up to that point in time. Although our basic methodology has not changed, new information available by the final quarter of 2020 about COVID‐19 effects on social distancing, labor supply, and policy responses differs in a number of respects from used the underpin the assumption of the original reference scenario.

To illustrate the changes in information and approach over that time, we provide an updated scenario, based on new information available for the period up to September 2020, using updated assumptions as summarized in Table  2 . For health effects, we shifted from the estimates in the epidemiological model of Imperial College (Walker et al., 2020 ) to that of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (Pearson et al., 2020 ) that provides greater detail on pandemic mitigation options adopted by countries around the world. We further rely on Google Mobility reports (Google, 2020 ) to track the evolution of social distancing intensity and the changes in face‐to‐face services (e.g., mobility to recreation location). Also, more recent macroeconomic assessments, such as the ADB Economic Outlook (ADB, 2020 ), allow us to update the assumptions about changes in consumption behavior and participation to labor markets, and the value of some specific parameters (e.g., number of workday losses) under varying mitigation strategies adopted by countries.

Comparison of key assumptions for April and September 2020 MIRAGRODEP‐COVID 19 scenarios

Macroeconomic impacts of MIRAGRODEP‐COVID 19 scenario (April 2020) by country and country group, 2020

Source : MIRAGRODEP Simulation.

Note : Regions in bold aggregated results computed postsimulations, weighted by the relevant country‐level variable. Details for rich countries are omitted. Real consumption is limited to household private consumption and defined as the equivalent variation (welfare).

Note : Regions in bold aggregated results computed postsimulations, weighted by the relevant country‐level variable. Real household consumption is measured as the “equivalent variation” of welfare. Real GDP is computed following national accounting principles. Fisher price indices between base prices and simulation prices are used. Exports of goods and services are measured FOB at constant international dollars but final export prices.

The changes in results for macroeconomic outcomes, agri‐food value‐added, and poverty are shown in Table  3 . Although the scenarios are broadly similar in terms of the nature of the drivers, the magnitudes of the shocks have been updated and made more country‐specific. The broad upshot is that the global recession is expected to be even deeper in 2020 (a 7.1% decline in global GDP instead of a 5.1% decline). The revised assumptions do not change the earlier expectation that the agri‐food sector has held up relatively well, showing resilience compared to the rest of the economy. Globally, the agri‐food sector could even expand as agricultural production has remained relatively stable, whereas costs are down with the drop in prices for manufacturing and services.

Poverty and macroeconomic impacts of MIRAGRODEP‐COVID 19 scenarios for 2020 (April and September 2020 scenarios)

Source : MIRAGRODEP and POVANA simulations (April and September 2020 scenarios).

The aggregate findings of the updated scenario for global poverty are practically unchanged, with the number of poor expected to rise by just under 150 million. However, the regional distribution of poverty increases differs substantially from that presented in the previous sections. In the new scenario, the economic crisis is expected to be deeper than previously anticipated in South Asia, particularly in India, and milder in Africa. As a result, this simulation projects a smaller, though still significant increase in poverty sub‐Saharan Africa (50 million instead of near 80 million) and the larger increase affecting people in South Asia (72 million instead of 42 million).


The key goal of this paper was to provide a rigorous framework to assess the risks pandemics like COVID‐19 pose to global poverty and food security. Accordingly, we first considered the nature of the relationships between the COVID‐19 pandemic and the overall economy. This made clear that the major impacts of the pandemic on poverty and food security are more likely to come from shocks to household incomes, and hence to food access, than from impacts on food markets directly. However, we recognize that there are important direct impacts of the disease on food markets, particularly in the more labor‐intensive parts of the food chain, and in areas such as food services, where the need for social distancing is sharply reducing the operation of restaurants.

Given the multiplicity of links between the pandemic, household incomes, and food security, we concluded that a framework linking economy‐wide modeling with household models was needed to capture the impacts of the shock on poverty. We used the MIRAGRODEP global CGE model linked to epidemiological models to capture the impacts on the global economy, and the POVANA household models to capture the impacts at the household level.

The simulation experiments were designed to capture the impacts of the crisis begin with the direct, thus far seemingly minor, impacts of the disease on labor supply resulting from increases in morbidity and mortality. The next key shock was the impacts of social distancing, whether undertaken out of concern about catching the disease or as part of a concerted policy of suppressing the disease—a very important channel of effect with highly specific impacts by sector and type of labor. In addition, we considered the impacts of increases in logistical costs associated with the disease.

Our initial results suggested that COVID‐19 would cause a decline in global GDP of about 5% in 2020, with a similar decline in South Asia and a larger decline (−9%) in Africa South of the Sahara, and much larger declines in global trade because of both increases in logistical costs and declines in investment as consumers and governments seek to reduce the adverse impacts of the crisis on living standards by reducing private and government savings. Consumers are also expected to have shifted their food purchases, buying less nutrient dense, but more expensive, products such as fruits and vegetables, meat, and dairy products, and buying more calorie‐rich and cheaper cereals and processed foods. In an updated scenario, however, using new information about— inter alia —the spread of COVID‐19 and related social distancing measures, particularly taking into account the reduced estimates of the spread of the disease in Africa, we expect that the global recession could be steeper than previously anticipated, driven in part by a much stronger economic decline in South Asia.

To better understand these results, we decomposed them by major drivers. The economic consequences of reduced labor supply and social distancing drive most of the impacts on GDP worldwide. Fiscal stimulus in high‐income countries and declines in private savings mitigate some, but far from all, the adverse impact on total and food consumption.

The analysis concludes that the pandemic will likely increase the number of people in poverty by about 150 million people, or 20% of current poverty levels. In our reference scenario, most of this increase in extreme poverty was expected to occur in Africa South of the Sahara and South Asia, where many people are currently close to this poverty line. An updated analysis suggests that the increase in poverty may be smaller than originally anticipated in Africa and larger in South Asia, with the global total impact remaining very similar at just under 150 million.

The analytical framework that we use captures many important nonneutralities in the effects of the crisis that are ignored in simpler analyses assuming that all incomes change equally. For example, we find that poverty increases are likely to be smaller, both in absolute numbers and relative to current poverty rates, in rural areas that are likely less hard hit by the crisis. An analysis of these poverty results suggests that accounting for just the average changes in incomes and in consumer prices would capture only about three‐quarters of the total impact of the crisis on poverty rates. Many of the impacts are nonneutral between the poor and the rich and outcomes for the poor are, on average, substantially worse for higher income and more educated people, many of whom can continue to work productively at a distance.

The actual implications of COVID‐19 for poverty and food security will depend on a wide range factors, many of which are simply unknown at this point—such as resurgence of the disease during the northern winter and spring, and the efficacy and adoption of potential vaccines. Thus, the results in this paper should not be taken in any way as a precise forecast of the outcome. Rather, the paper provides an approach for evidence‐based “what‐if” scenario analysis of the impacts of broad‐based shocks such as COVID‐19 for poverty, food insecurity, and dietary change. As such it should help better understand the relative importance of the multiple channels of transmission and inform policymakers about the socioeconomic consequences of mitigation measures taken to reduce public health risks, and hence, the potential trade‐offs between efforts to safeguard lives and those to protect livelihoods.

Supporting information

Figure A4 COVID‐19 impacts on diets in China and Nigeria


The authors gratefully acknowledge helpful comments received from three anonymous reviewers and from Jo Swinnen on previous drafts of this paper. The authors are further grateful to the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and USAID for financial support to the research that formed the basis for this paper.

Laborde, D. , Martin, W. , & Vos, R. (2021). Impacts of COVID‐19 on global poverty, food security and diets: Insights from global model scenario analysis . Agricultural Economics . 2021; 52 :375–390. 10.1111/agec.12624 [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ] [ CrossRef ] [ Google Scholar ]

1 .

2 See‐and‐covid19/Policy‐Responses‐to‐COVID‐19#I

3 See the World Bank's “living paper” at

4 Up‐to‐date counts are available at IFPRI's food trade policy tracker.

5 Modelling International Relations under Applied General Equilibrium model enhanced for the AGRODEP modeling consortium ( ).

6 See Online Appendix A.2 for the coverage of the household survey data used for the present analysis.


8 In the updated scenario (discussed in Section  6 ), we use alternative projections for the spread of COVID‐19 of the epidemiological model of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) (Pearson et al., 2020 ).

9 See Online Appendix A.3 for the procedure for deriving this estimate.

10 American Transportation Research Institute; see, for instance,

11 Reuters, ‘West African food trade under strain as COVID‐19 shuts borders’, May 27, 2020.

12 We use a shadow tax instead of a preference shifter in the model to avoid changing the utility function that would compromise the welfare analysis.

13 For comparison, oil prices for WTI Crude contracts declined by 33% between June 2019 and June 2020 (from US$53 to US$35 per barrel) and by 35% between the start of 2020 and November 10 of the same year (from US$62 to US$40), after showing a steep decline between January and the end of April and a slow recovery. Since the model combines natural gas and crude oil into one variable, the simulated decline in global energy prices is somewhat lower than the observed 35%, given that the impact of the supply and demand shifts on the price of natural gas has been smaller than that on oil.

14 World Bank, World Development Indicators,‐development‐indicators# , accessed 24 July 2020.




18 This decline is relative to 2019 levels. Relative to the 2020 baseline (counterfactual without the COVID‐19 shock), this implies a 7% decline in global GDP. Only in Table  1 , do we present the macroeconomic impacts relative to the previous year (for ease of comparison with other estimates and projections). All other simulation results are with respect to the 2020 baseline (counterfactual without the COVID shock).

19 Remittance incomes make up more than 10% of gross foreign exchange earnings in sub‐Saharan Africa. In the model, we assume the region's earnings from remittances drop by 8%. Recent projections project a decline of 9% for 2020 (World Bank 2020c ).

20 It is important to point out that the impact on consumption is softened further in the model estimations because GDP is measured in real terms through a Fisher index, while the impact on consumption is measured through a welfare metric (equivalent variation) typically used in CGE models.

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Global Poverty, Human Rights and Development

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This thesis examines how effectively political philosophy contributes to solving the world’s biggest problems. It does this by considering one such problem – global poverty – and exploring the two major initiatives of the last seventy years - the Human Rights Approach and the Human Development Approach. It finds that both approaches have merit thanks in part to important philosophical input. However, it also concludes that progress has been disappointing and considers apparent gaps in both disciplines and possibilities for closure. It concludes that philosophers may have missed an important factor in overlooking the work of social scientists on cultural values. These values might explain why many developed countries fail to meet their transnational duties to developing countries. Put simply, we might make more progress on global poverty by focussing on the values of rich countries. The thesis concludes with proposals to reclaim and extend the scope of political philosophy to better equip it for the challenge of addressing society’s biggest issues.

worldwide poverty thesis statement

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Aspects of Global Poverty Research Paper

Introduction, aspects of global poverty.

Poverty is a very critical global issues that affects a majority of people from different parts of the world including the developed and the developing countries. This is brought about by poor living conditions where the income earning is far below the poverty line with combination of other factors like economic inflation and recession hence the inability to live a normal life above poverty level (Jones 11).

This piece of work looks into the different aspects associated with global poverty with much emphasis being given to the causes, the extent to which it has spread and the various ways of reducing and eliminating it.

There are various aspects that are linked with global poverty each of them contributing to our understanding on the general concept of global poverty.

There are arguments that have been put forth in regard to the causes of poverty in various nations with some people saying that the governments in various nations are there to be blamed for their poor policies while others argue that the poor are to blame for their own state as it is as a result of poor decisions and lack of positive efforts to save their situation.

All in all it is evident that every party has its part to play in order to deal with this ordeal that has affected a majority of people rather than blaming one another for what has already happened (Barr 27).

There are various causes of poverty for instance bad governance in terms of policy making and implementation where equality is not adhered to, lack of individual responsibility where people do not do anything about their deteriorating situations, destruction of the environment due to human indulgence in environmental unfriendly operations making it unproductive, exploitation of people by those with power for instance business enterprises or even a combination of some of these aspects (Shah par 3).

Poverty rates in many countries have risen with the economic crisis and recession which has in a way resulted to decreased loss of value of other currencies especially with respect to the dollar making it very hard for local people to make ends meet. The gap between the rich and the poor is also very wide where the rich have more than enough while the poor are left to struggle in very difficult situations.

The rich usually have a say in various policies formulation while the poor are powerless and not influential in any way hence making it difficult for them to escape poverty (Garcia 45).

According to Cook (par 6), more than forty millions Americans are officially poor with about ninety millions struggling to make ends meet and thus could be classified as poor or near the poverty line. He added that in addressing the poverty problem then policies must be put in place that ensures that the gap between the rich and the poor is narrowed. Despite the fact that poverty is a problem by itself, it is also associated with other problems for instance increased rates of crime and violence.

This is so because when people are poor, they tend to try all means to save their situations and hide their frustration and indulging in criminal activities like drug trafficking, substance abuse among others is usually a quick option to them. Hunger is also another aspect that is linked to poverty and it has had many adverse effects to individuals including deaths and so in order to eliminate hunger in the world, there is dire need to deal with the issue of poverty (Rivlin 53).

Poverty is a global issue and has affected a majority of people and there is therefore a need for various parties like the government, public organizations, private agencies as well as individual well wishers to join hands in an effort to alleviate this ordeal and save people from suffering from the adverse effects of poverty.

“Opportunity, empowerment, and security have intrinsic value for poor people. And given the important complementarities among them, an effective poverty reduction strategy will require action on all three fronts, by the full range of agents in society—government, civil” (Lodge and Wilson 102)

Stoner ( 112) asserts that there are various moves that can be adopted to deal with poverty for instance technical measures that allow for meaningful and long term solution for example improving the agricultural sector and also investing in empowerment projects aimed at providing individuals with a stable source of income which will in return make their living conditions better and bearable.

Promotion of opportunities is also a key aspect that can help in curbing the issue of global poverty. It entails the expansion of economic opportunities for the poor in various nations through the stimulation of the overall growth and building up assets as well as increasing returns on the assets.

Empowering the poor in other political and social aspects is also a recommended step which entails making state related institutions to be more accountable and responsive to the less fortunate individuals for instance through involving them in various political and social decision making which will in return ensure that their needs are incorporated in the policies and decision making procedures.

Empowering of the poor people will also ensure that the social barriers that exist between the poor and the rich are eliminated (Rector par 6). Security is also a critical issue when it comes to the concept of global poverty.

To curb poverty among the populations, it is important that the vulnerability of poor people to various poverty aspects like poor health, natural disasters, displacements, violence and discrimination, among others are reduced as well as laying down strategies that are necessary in coping with these problems in case they occur such that the poor people do not suffer much.

The above measures are positive and should be recommended as compared to provision of food aid which in the long run exacerbate the poverty situation as it only provide for a short term solution which make the vulnerable people more dependent and expecting food aid all the time an aspect that is not good (World bank 51).

It is evident that global poverty is an issue of concern and it cannot go unmentioned when it comes to the discussion of the ordeals facing people in various nations in the world especially the third world countries.

It is a condition that has caused a lot of negative effects to human beings for instance heath problems brought about by poor living conditions and insufficient and inappropriate nutrition coupled with poor health facilities. To the extreme end, global poverty has resulted to deaths of many people including children and adults where they are unable to withstand the adverse effects associated with poverty.

Barr, Nicholas. The economics of the welfare state . Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Cook, Richard. ‘‘Sustainable Economics to End Global Poverty’’. Global Research 2007. Web.

Garcia, Ginny. Mexican American and Immigrant Poverty in the United States . New York: Springer, 2011.

Jones Gruffydd Branwen. Explaining Global Poverty: A Critical Realist Approach . New York: Taylor & Francis, 2006.

Lodge, George and Wilson, Craig. A corporate Solution to Global Poverty: How Multinationals Can Help the Poor and Invigorate Their Own Legitimacy . New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006

Rector, Robert. “ Understanding and Reducing Poverty in America ”. The Heritage Foundation. 2008. Web.

Rivlin, Gary. Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty . New York: Harper Business INC, 2010.

Shah, Anup. “ Causes of Poverty ”. Global Issues 2011. Web.

Stoner Finch Arthur James. Innovative Approaches to Reducing Global Poverty . USA: IAP, 2007

World Bank. Causes of Poverty and a Framework for Action. World Development Report 2000/2001.

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IvyPanda. (2018, May 30). Aspects of Global Poverty.

"Aspects of Global Poverty." IvyPanda , 30 May 2018,

IvyPanda . (2018) 'Aspects of Global Poverty'. 30 May.

IvyPanda . 2018. "Aspects of Global Poverty." May 30, 2018.

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IvyPanda . "Aspects of Global Poverty." May 30, 2018.

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The Oxford Handbook of the Social Science of Poverty

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The Oxford Handbook of the Social Science of Poverty

11 Life, Death, and Resurrections: The Culture of Poverty Perspective

Jessi Streib, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Duke University.

SaunJuhi Verma, Assistant Professor in School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University.

Whitne Welsh, Research Scientist, The Social Science Research Institute, Duke University.

Linda M. Burton, Dean of Social Sciences and James B. Duke Professor of Sociology, Duke University.

  • Published: 05 April 2017
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This article examines the culture of poverty thesis, focusing on its many lives, deaths, and reincarnations. It first considers the intellectual history of the culture of poverty thesis before discussing how the argument has been interspersed throughout U.S. history and applied to various groups. It then considers the argument’s scholarly reproduction, noting how it is underlain by a binary whereby segments of the poor, racial minorities, and immigrants are positioned as having a deviant, morally suspect culture that undermines their potential upward mobility, whereas white middle- and upper-class Americans are positioned as having a normal, morally upstanding culture that secures their class position. The article also describes four routine scholarly practices that engender a specter of support for the culture of poverty thesis. Finally, it argues that the culture of poverty should either be put to rest or allowed to live based on its own merits, and suggests ways to end its unintentional resurrection.

This chapter is a critical treatise on the culture of poverty thesis. The thesis has lived many lives in scholarship about the poor, mostly in the United States, as it is repeatedly put to rest only to be resurrected again when a new wave of poverty research emerges. For example, a decade into the millennium and over a half century since the thesis emerged in the scholarly literature, sociologists Mario Small, David Harding, and Michele Lamont (2010) edited a volume of the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on new ways of studying culture and poverty. After a fierce backlash against the culture of poverty argument in the 1960s and 1970s, the edited volume revived academic and policy interests in the culture of poverty, albeit from a “new perspective.” Selective reactions to the ANNALS volume and its claim of offering a new perspective on culture and poverty were aptly reflected in a statement by an urban anthropologist with whom we consulted: “How many lives has this cat [referring to the culture of poverty] lived anyway? Surely it is more than nine!” This scholar’s sentiments matched our own. The thesis has been resurrected in many forms, some of which merely reflect a play on words, or a reconceptualization of culture, but not the overall thesis ( Vaisey 2010 ). Others attempt to sporadically revive the culture of poverty as a way of thinking about the poor by arguing that the thesis has been deeply misunderstood ( Harvey and Reed 1996 ).

The culture of poverty argument also lives, dies, and is reborn time and again in the public imagination and discourse. For example, shortly after the publication of Small, Harding, and Lamont’s (2010) special issue of the ANNALS, policy-makers, pundits, and average U.S. citizens debated the culture of poverty in the media. Each attached their own meaning to the thesis. A New York Times ( Cohen 2010 ) article seemed to celebrate, or at least eye with curiosity, the idea that cultural explanations of poverty, once “That Which Must Not Be Named” were now being discussed again. An NPR (2010) report raised the issue of whether the culture of poverty argument is an “insult that blames the victims of institutional racism.” An earlier book took a very different stance when it claimed that inner city poverty stems from a culture that devalues work and whose occupants may be genetically inferior ( Herrnstein and Murray 1994 ).

In this chapter we consider the many lives, deaths, and reincarnations of the culture of poverty thesis. We begin with a short intellectual history of the thesis and then show how the argument has been interspersed throughout U.S. history and applied to various groups. We illustrate that while the culture of poverty perspective is used often in the United States, it also ebbs and flows in countries as diverse as England and Bahrain. After discussing the public reproduction of the culture of poverty thesis, we turn our attention toward the main focus of this chapter: its scholarly reproduction. We begin with the observation that at the center of the culture of poverty argument is a binary whereby segments of the poor, racial minorities, and immigrants are positioned as having a deviant, morally suspect culture that undermines their potential upward mobility whereas white middle- and upper-class Americans are positioned as having a normal, morally upstanding culture that secures their class position. We argue that this binary receives little explicit support from academics, but that four routine scholarly practices implicitly and inadvertently reproduce it: (1) missing and false comparison groups, (2) the selection of one-sided research agendas, (3) biased interpretations of research findings, and (4) limited theoretical alternatives. Together, these practices engender a specter of support for the culture of poverty thesis, subtly breathing life into an argument that is regularly declared dead. We then draw upon exemplary work to suggest frameworks for avoiding these issues. We conclude by maintaining that the culture of poverty should either be put to rest or allowed to live based on its own merits, and suggest ways to end the unintentional resurrection of what may be social scientists’ most infamous paradigm.

The Culture of Poverty Argument

The culture of poverty is a loosely formulated theory associated with Oscar Lewis’s (1959 , 1966 ) studies of impoverished Latinos in the 1950s and 1960s. Lewis defined the culture of poverty as a set of adaptations that offer a solution to the problems of poverty in the short term but perpetuate poverty in the long term. Lewis named nearly six dozen adaptations, including feelings of dependency and helplessness, a present-time orientation, unemployment, a lack of class consciousness, out-of-wedlock child-rearing, female-headed households, and a general mistrust of institutions. According to Lewis, these adaptations become habitual for those who live in long-term poverty, are passed down to subsequent generations, and create a cycle of intergenerational poverty that is difficult to escape even when structural conditions change. In the wake of World War II, when theories invoking biological inferiority had largely been discredited, this turn to culture was initially well received. As the perspective gained recognition—first through Lewis’s work, then through Michael Harrington’s best-selling The Other America, and finally through the Moynihan Report—the authors’ claims that the culture of poverty stemmed from structural inequities dropped out of the public discourse, and the poor were viewed as mired in a culture of poverty of their own making (see O’Connor this volume). In addition, in some Americans’ minds, the culture of poverty thesis became tied to race, specifically to African Americans.

That Americans linked the culture of poverty to race was not surprising given that the theory gained popularity during a time of aggravated racial turmoil. The decades following World War II saw a huge migration of African Americans from the American South to the American North (see Wilson this volume). These new arrivals mainly settled in large predominately white cities, making their influx all the more noticeable. Legal and informal residential segregation practices then channeled them into old and rundown neighborhoods near the city center (again increasing their visibility), which were soon bursting at the seams from overcrowding ( Massey and Denton 1993 ). As the demographics shifted, African Americans became more politically active, raising their profiles locally as well as nationally through the Civil Rights and various nationalist movements. African Americans also garnered attention in the 1960s for their participation in urban revolts, which surprised and unsettled the white establishment. In the wake of the revolts, poverty became entrenched in northern African American neighborhoods as the larger community retreated from those precincts, and everyone who could afford to leave left ( Wilson this volume).

Into this charged atmosphere Daniel Moynihan, the Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Johnson, delivered his controversial conclusion on class and racial inequality—that is, the African American community was characterized by a “tangle of pathology.” Moynihan designated growing rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing as the center of the pathology, and, like Lewis, believed that the culture of the black poor would preclude their upward mobility even if all structural barriers were removed. The report, meant to bolster support for President Johnson’s War on Poverty initiatives, instead provoked a firestorm of controversy, as academics, community activists, and civil servants alike lined up to dispute and denounce its findings (see, e.g., Billingsley 1968 ; Ryan 1971 ; Stack 1974 ). The backlash was so fierce that no serious scholars of poverty ventured anywhere near culture for decades. The past few years, however, have begun to see a backlash to the backlash, with Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey (2014 :611) lamenting that “sociology did itself a grave disservice when it demonized and ostracized Lewis (1966) following the 1966 publication of his book, La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty. ” Others, however, still avoid talking about poverty and culture together.

The Public Reproduction of Culture of Poverty Arguments

While the culture of poverty argument is most often associated with Lewis’s and Moynihan’s writings in the tumultuous 1960s, the argument itself was neither new to the mid-twentieth century nor confined to scholarly journals. Rather, we show that these arguments have been deployed and reproduced by the public throughout American history and in countries across the world. Here we name several time periods and locations where the culture of poverty thesis has surfaced, demonstrating that it is repeatedly reproduced even when it is not named as such.

Decades before Lewis’s (1959) first major writing on the culture of poverty was published, Americans used a similar framework to describe Asian immigrants, including those from the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, China, and Japan. Many Asian immigrants entered the United States through Angel Island, an island in the San Francisco Bay known as the “Ellis Island of the West.” Here, American immigration officials detained and processed immigrants. The officials, like many of their contemporaries, considered Asian immigrants to be filthy, immoral, unassimilable, and therefore suitable only for low-wage jobs. More broadly, government officials drew upon beliefs about Asian immigrants’ cultural traits to limit their access to property ownership and citizenship. Some American thinkers of the time, including sociologist Robert E. Park, argued that Asian immigrants’ culture would also keep them in poverty even if legal and informal restrictions were removed ( Lee and Yung 2010 ).

Asian immigrants were not the only group accused of having norms, values, and behaviors that prevented their mobility. For much of the twentieth century, Italian Americans were accused of the same. Italian Americans did not achieve socioeconomic parity with whites until the 1970s—much slower than other ethnic groups ( Alba and Abdel-Hady 2005 ). Before achieving socioeconomic parity, the rhetoric deployed to explain the disparity was strikingly similar to that used decades later by proponents of the culture of poverty perspective: Italian Americans were said to have congenitally low intelligence, no interest in education, and were thus destined to remain in the lower strata of the working class. They were also considered predisposed to criminality, in large part because they lacked self-control and were often at the mercy of their emotions. For the same reasons, they were thought to have many children, and certainly more than they could afford ( Gans 1962 ; Whyte 1943 ). However, once Italian Americans acquired economic parity with their white peers, these cultural condemnations waned and were instead applied to other groups.

In recent decades, the culture of poverty argument has been applied to America’s poor in general and minority poor in particular. In 1996, President Bill Clinton worked with congressional Republicans to sign the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. This welfare reform bill was based upon key assumptions embedded in the culture of poverty framework—that poverty resulted from the poor’s inferior work ethic, women’s inability to remain chaste, and the poor’s disinclination to marry ( Daguerre 2008 ). More recently, congressman and 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was quoted as explaining that poverty derives from a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work” ( Isquith 2014 ). Contemporary calls for drug testing welfare recipients and cutting food stamps echo elements of culture of poverty arguments—that the poor are prone to criminality, irresponsibility, and indolence—and that changing their situation through governmental assistance will not improve their outlook but make them worse. Policymakers’ focus on welfare and inner cities also highlights who they think is engaged in a culture of poverty—the black poor.

The culture of poverty argument, however, is not only deployed in the United States. In post-Thatcher England, unions deteriorated, and many working-class jobs disappeared. As the working class’s economic conditions worsened, some British people changed their views of the white working class. Rather than seeing them as the morally righteous “salt of the earth,” they instead came to see them as morally inferior “Chavs.” Chavs—an acronym standing for “council housing and violent”—are framed as having a unique and cohesive culture that is distant from that of the middle class. Men in this group are labeled as aggressive, violent, lazy, and dumb; women are viewed as unruly, loud, tasteless, and promiscuous. The image of the Chav is used to imply that segments of the white working class are primitive, barbaric, morally flawed, and irresponsible. Their class position is viewed as the justified result of their inferior culture, and their culture is viewed as locking them in the lower class even if structural conditions change ( Jones 2011 ). In Scotland, the same phenomena occurs, but the stigmatized group is instead referred to as “Neds” (non-educated delinquents) ( Young 2012 ).

Likewise, the culture of poverty argument is perpetuated in Bahrain, a small country in the Middle East. In Bahrain, nearly 85 percent of the labor force consists of foreign workers, predominately from South Asia. Most lack access to citizenship and to avenues of upward mobility. Nevertheless, locals attribute foreigners’ class position to their culture—foreign workers are framed as violent, uneducated, lacking a work ethic, and from unstable families ( Gardner 2010 ). In a similar fashion, Filipino migrants are framed as deviant by the Philippine state; low-wage workers are characterized as embodying a morally scrupulous culture that is in need of state intervention ( Guevarra 2010 ). National training programs emphasize the need for transforming the domestic workforce into ideal global workers by reshaping their values and behaviors rather than emphasizing their structural exclusion from education and the domestic labor market ( Guevarra 2010 ). In England, Scotland, Bahrain, the Philippines, and countries across the globe, elements of the culture of poverty argument are retold and reproduced. In each case, the poor are blamed for their poverty.

It is not surprising that the culture of poverty argument receives such long and widespread support given the functions it serves. Culture of poverty arguments justify exclusion, relieve agencies and citizens of an obligation to help the poor, and enhance the image of the middle class as morally upstanding citizens who deserve their class position. Policymakers can use the argument as a rationale to leave exclusionary policies in tact; middle-class laypeople can use the argument to feel virtuous and innocent. In scholarly communities, however, there is less incentive to reproduce culture of poverty arguments. Nevertheless, scholars keep the culture of poverty argument alive.

The Scholarly Reproduction of Culture of Poverty Arguments

In the public, the culture of poverty argument is explicitly reproduced through political declarations and repeated stereotypes. Until the last few years, however, the scholarly community took pains to avoid explicitly endorsing culture of poverty arguments. At least since Oscar Lewis (1959 , 1966) published his thesis on the culture of poverty, scholars have criticized both his specific scholarship and the larger idea that the poor, minorities, and immigrants have inferior values, norms, and behaviors that lock them into lower class positions ( Bourgois 2001 ; Duneier 1999 ; Watkins-Hayes and Kovalsky this volume). Nevertheless, we argue that while academics typically lend little explicit support to culture of poverty arguments, key elements of the argument are implicitly reproduced by routine scholarly practices. Thus, while scholars proclaim the death of the culture of poverty, they simultaneously give it life.

At the center of the culture of poverty thesis is a binary: segments of the poor, racial minorities, and immigrants are positioned as having a deviant, morally suspect culture that undermines their potential upward mobility whereas white middle- and upper-class Americans are positioned as having a normal, morally upstanding culture that secures their class position. We argue that although this binary receives little explicit support from academics, four scholarly practices inadvertently reproduce it: (1) missing and false comparison groups, (2) the selection of one-sided research agendas, (3) biased interpretations of research findings, and (4) limited theoretical alternatives. Together, these practices engender a specter of support for the culture of poverty thesis, implicitly reproducing ideas associated with the culture of poverty argument.

Below we provide examples of ways that missing and false comparison groups, one-sided research agendas, biased interpretations of research findings, and limited theoretical alternatives bolster the binary of culturally suspect disadvantaged groups and culturally superior advantaged groups. We then provide examples of research that disrupts these common practices. Our intention is not to single out any particular study but to illuminate general patterns. We also emphasize that many of these patterns are not the fault of an individual scholar but occur due to the theoretical and methodological traditions of academic fields and the collective lack of reflexivity on specific issues. Finally, arguments about the culture of poverty use “culture” to mean anything from a subgroup with shared norms, values, and behaviors to a group with an overlapping set of beliefs and strategies that are used in fragmented, contradictory, and heterogeneous ways ( Small et al. 2010 ). In this chapter, we take an agnostic view of how to conceptualize culture. We often refer to culture as more homogeneous and cohesive than it is, simply because this is the way it has historically been referred to in culture of poverty debates.

Missing and False Comparison Groups

One way that the culture of poverty thesis is implicitly supported is by the failure to use a comparison group. Writing of Oscar Lewis’s version of the culture of poverty, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (1993 :35) revealed how this occurs: “Lewis recognized that ‘people with a culture of poverty are aware of middle-class values, talk about them, and even claim some of them as their own, but on the whole they do not live by them’ (ibid: xlvi). The untested assumption is that the ‘middle-class’ live by them ” (italics added). Yet, despite Bonilla-Silva’s criticism and that of others ( Lamont and Small 2008 ; Young 2004 ), the practice of assuming that segments of poor, nonwhite, and immigrant groups are uniquely deviant continues. This occurs not only because individual studies lack a white middle-class American comparison group, but also because existing studies of the white American middle class are not regularly considered in the culture of poverty debate.

One example of this trend is in studies about culture, poverty, and education. One strand of the culture of poverty argument suggests that segments of poor, black, American youth disengage in school and create an oppositional culture whereby status is created through distancing oneself from formal learning ( Fordham and Ogbu 1986 ; Ogbu 2003 ). Many scholars question the accuracy of this claim ( Carter 2005 ; Harris 2011 ). More relevant to this chapter, however, is that white middle- and upper-class youth could also be viewed as having an oppositional culture in regards to education. Many middle- and upper-class students regularly distance themselves from academic learning and publicly sanction their peers who do not conceal their academic investments ( Khan 2011 ; Tyson, Darrity, and Castellino 2005 ). Elite, historically white colleges have long been reputed to be epicenters of academic learning, but students at these universities regularly create status systems that reward distance from academic commitments ( Karabel 2005 ). Today, wealthy students at elite colleges report socializing more than studying ( Arum and Roksa 2011 ), and some upper-middle-class and elite white women report learning more about beauty-work than academic work ( Armstrong and Hamilton 2013 ; Holland and Eisenhart 1992 ). Given that many privileged white students engage in a status system that rewards behaviors that are in competition with school and learning, they could be considered to be engaging in an oppositional culture. They, however, are rarely labeled as having one, nor are many of these studies included in the culture of poverty debate. Leaving them out casts segments of the black poor as particularly culturally deviant as they are seen as uniquely disinterested in education.

A culture of poverty is also thought to be characterized by negative relations between men and women. Prominent works, such as Elijah Anderson’s (1990)   Streetwise , document that young black poor men and women have little trust in each other and use each other to gain status through sexual relations. Again, however, if we look at relationships between the sexes among the white American middle- and upper-classes, we find that the black American poor look less unique. White middle- and upper-class teenagers and young adults also talk about participating in a hook-up culture: one where respect between the sexes can be lacking, hooking up is partly about status, and sexual assault is a regular occurrence ( Armstrong, Hamilton, and Sweeney 2006 ; Wade and Heldman 2012 ). Among these youth, cheating in committed relationships is viewed simply as a normal part of being young and not overly deviant ( Wilkins and Dalessandro 2013 ). Likewise, ethnographies of poor black and Latino men sometimes frame them as culturally deviant due to their drug use ( Anderson 1990 ; Bourgois 2003 ; Vehnkatesh 2008 ), but white youths from higher classes use drugs at similar rates ( Johnston et al. 2008 ; Wightman, Schoeni, and Schulenberg 2012 ). While it is challenging for single ethnographies to study multiple groups, the lack of comparison to extant scholarship on other classes creates a skewed view in which only one group is viewed as culturally deviant.

Variants of the immigration literature also uphold the American white middle-class as culturally upstanding while casting nonwhite and poorer immigrants as culturally deviant. This, however, is accomplished through a false reference group rather than a missing one. In aspects of the American immigration literature, poor immigrants of color are compared to the white settlers who founded the United States. The representation of the white settlers, however, is too often false. Comparisons emphasize that poor immigrants of color unfairly and immorally extract native whites’ resources while overlooking that white settlers did the same to native groups ( Ignatiev 2009 ; Jung 2009 ). Other studies of immigration more explicitly reproduce the binaries present in the culture of poverty argument. Segmented assimilation theory suggests that immigrants will become upwardly mobile if they take on the culture of the American “mainstream”—the white middle class—while they will become downwardly mobile if they adopt the culture of the “underclass”—poor black communities ( Alba and Nee 2003 ). In this case, the cultural distinctions between the white middle class and black underclass are more assumed than tested but are reproduced nonetheless.

One-Sided Research Agendas

The binary of a culturally upstanding white American middle class whose efforts secure their class position and a culturally deviant minority and immigrant poor whose behaviors and values undermine their mobility is reinforced by the types of research agendas repeatedly engaged in and avoided. For example, the central studies in the culture of poverty debate focus on poor blacks and Hispanics ( Anderson 1990 ; Bourgois 2003 ; Hannerz 1969 ; Lewis 1966 ; Liebow 1967 ; Massey and Denton 1993 ; Rainwater 1970 ; Stack 1974 ; Wilson 1996 ; Young 1999 ). Even though many of these studies conclude that blacks and Hispanics are not mired in a culture of poverty, they engage in the culture of poverty debate when studying these groups. There are more poor whites than poor blacks in the United States ( National Center for Children in Poverty 2007 ), but few studies ask whether poor whites are engaged in a culture of poverty. When studies of poor whites are conducted, they are often regionalized, suggesting that the cultural problems pertaining to poor whites are limited to Appalachia rather than to poor whites as a whole. More often, studies of poor whites avoid the culture of poverty debate altogether as authors stress the structural issues or discrimination that they face ( McDermott 2006 ; Nelson and Smith 1999 ) or praise them for the same behaviors that poor blacks are criticized for, such as understanding structural constraints and creating oppositional cultures (MacLeod 1995; Willis 1977). Classic studies of whites at the lower end of the class structure also tend to focus on the working class—who are popularly coded white—rather than the poor. These books use empathetic frameworks to paint working-class whites as making reasonable and heart-wrenching adaptations to their economic conditions ( Rubin 1976 , 1994 ; Sennett and Cobb 1972; Skeggs 1997 ). The racialized focus and framing of research agendas may reproduce the idea that minorities have a culture of poverty and that whites do not.

Similarly, many studies analyze how the culture of the poor prevents their mobility ( Bourgois 2003 ; Harding 2010 ; Massey and Denton 1993 ; Smith 2007 ; Wilson 1996 ; Young 1999 ). Few, however, ask how the culture of the middle class encourages downward mobility or prevents upward mobility. Surely, however, this is a possibility given the relatively high rates of mobility of individuals born into the middle of the class structure ( Urahn et al. 2012 ). As noted, middle-class individuals engage in some of the same behaviors as the poor, but studies do not attribute them to their lack of further upward mobility.

Another way that the one-sided nature of research agendas offer implicit support for the binary embedded in cultural of poverty arguments is by repeatedly asking how the practices of the white American middle class would benefit minorities and the poor but not asking how the practices of minorities and the poor would benefit the white middle class. For example, middle-class children are more likely to be involved in organized—usually fee-paying—activities whereas poor children are more likely to create their own informal activities ( Lareau 2003 ). Many studies have examined the potential academic—thus potentially mobility enhancing—benefits of organized activities for children of all classes ( Bodovski and Farkas 2008 ; Cheadle 2008 ; Henderson 2013 ; Roksa and Potter 2011 ). Few have done the same for unorganized activities despite that these activities may teach skills that are useful for upward mobility such as creativity, initiative, and the ability to get along well with an age-diverse group ( Lareau 2003 ). Similarly, working-class parents’ more hands-off and hardened parenting style is thought to teach children resiliency and perseverance ( Kusserow 2004 ). Though these traits may be widely beneficial to people across classes, scholars tend not to study whether middle-class children suffer from a lack of resilience. In these cases, aspects of the culture of the middle class are cast as potentially universally useful whereas aspects of the culture of the poor are not.

Similarly, there is a long history of considering poor families dysfunctional ( Moynihan 1965 ). On average, the poor now marry less and divorce more than their middle- and upper-classes counterparts ( Cherlin 2010 ; Ellwood and Jencks 2004 ). Researchers often ask why the poor marry less (e.g., Edin and Kefalas 2005 ; Wilson 1996 ). While a legitimate question, researchers tend not to also ask how middle-class families could benefit from the strengths of poor families. For example, poor families tend to spend more of their leisure time with each other ( Lareau 2003 ; Petev 2013 ), and women at the bottom of the income distribution report warmer relationships with their mothers than those at the top ( Wharton and Thorne 1997 ). Indeed, among married couples in which each spouse was raised in a different social class, those from privileged class backgrounds tend to cast their spouse’s poor family as warmer, more fun, and less emotionally distant ( Streib 2015b ). These advantages may be linked to mobility as families that are emotionally close may share more economic, social, and cultural resources. Yet, despite these potential advantages, researchers tend to ask why poor families do not look like middle-class ones without also asking the reverse.

In another example, people of color, compared to whites, tend to have more accurate perceptions of structural constraints to mobility ( Kluegel and Smith 1986 ; Hunt and Bullock this volume). Research questions often center on whether and how blacks’ insights prevent their mobility ( Ogbu 1983 ). Even when scholars answer that blacks’ realism about the opportunity structure does not minimize their academic striving ( Harris 2008 ), the question is rarely reframed to ask how whites might benefit from more accurate perceptions of the class structure. Similarly, college students from minority, poor, and working-class families tend to view college as primarily about academic learning and credentials, whereas upper-middle- and upper-class white students tend to place greater emphasis on using college for socializing and self-discovery ( Armstrong and Hamilton 2013 ; Grisby 2009 ; Stuber 2011 ). Academics, however, seldom ask whether disadvantaged groups’ orientation toward college offers benefits to all class groups.

Similarly, the selection of research questions concerning immigrant and native populations tend to assume that the former’s behaviors are potentially problematic while the latter’s are not. Classic assimilation theory positions immigrants as having a potentially problematic culture unless they adopt the cultural practices of the white American middle class ( Park 1925 ). For instance, the skill set of immigrants in navigating multiple countries, cultural norms, languages, and political structures is overlooked ( Ong 1999 ; Lan 2006 ). Instead, their cultural asymmetry to the white middle class is critiqued as a hindrance to upward mobility ( Alba and Nee 2003 , Bean and Stevens 2003 ). More recently, segmented assimilation theory suggests that poor blacks are mired in a culture of poverty and that immigrants’ own culture can help them avoid it ( Alba and Nee 2003 ; Brubaker 2004 ). In addition to problematically assuming that poor blacks live in a culture of poverty, these theories also suffer from assuming that whites have cultural elements that could help immigrants’ mobility projects but not vice versa. Such assumptions may not be accurate. For example, immigrant groups tend to engage in grassroots organizing, collective claims making, legislation reform, and public demonstrations for basic rights to a greater extent than American middle-class whites, and these strategies may facilitate opportunities for social mobility ( Das Gupta 2007 ). Research agendas, however, tend to focus on why immigrants engage less in white middle-class forms of political participation such as voter registration and holding political office ( Calavita 1992 ; Das Gupta 2007 ; Hing 1993 ). Without focusing on the reverse, only one group’s culture is problematized.

Biased Interpretations of Research Findings

Interpretations of research findings also lend implicit support to the culture of poverty binary when they assume that the cultural practices of poor people of color are problematic whereas those of middle- and upper-class whites are beneficial. For example, when poor women engage in hook-up culture they are viewed as jeopardizing their chances of mobility ( Anderson 1990 ); when upper-middle and upper-class women engage in hook-up culture they are viewed as using hook-ups as a strategy to secure their mobility ( Hamilton and Armstrong 2009 ). When poor black teenagers party, they are viewed as not thinking about their future ( Anderson 1990 ); when upper-class white teenagers party, they are portrayed as networking and entering into marriage markets ( Armstrong and Hamilton 2013 ). Working-class parents are more likely to value conformity and obedience in their children; these values are thought to train their children for jobs in which they are managed ( Kohn 1969 ). Middle-class parents are more likely to value self-direction in their children; these values are thought to teach children to be managers ( Kohn 1969 ). Although values and practices can contradict—in aspects of their lives, working-class parents allow their children more self-direction whereas middle-class parents emphasize greater obedience ( Weininger and Lareau 2009 )—it is rarely suggested that working-class parents teach their children to be managers and middle-class parents teach their children to be managed. In addition, one could surmise that the experience of being raised by a managerial parent teaches children to follow their managerial parents’ orders, making them easily managed rather than managers. Without detailed longitudinal data, it is impossible to know which assumptions are correct. In the absence of the data needed to make these claims, it is remarkable that the common interpretations problematize only the culture of the poor and working class.

Similar interpretations privilege American whites over immigrant groups. When white middle- and upper-class Americans consume a large variety of culture they are viewed as engaging in a practice that maintains their privileged position ( Khan 2011 ; Peterson and Kern 1996 ). Immigrants hold a large variety of culture—some from their original country, and some from their new one—but their cultural omnivoreness is generally viewed as a liability to their upward mobility rather than an asset ( Agarwal 1991 ; Das Gupta 2007 ; Grewal and Kaplan 1994 ). In a more specific example, traveling abroad is viewed as an asset for the class reproduction of middle- and upper-middle-class Americans, but traveling across national borders and knowing home and second languages is viewed as a potential barrier to upward mobility for poor immigrants ( Alba and Nee 2003 ; Brubaker 2004 ; Rivera 2011 ). It is possible that these similar activities have different implications for different groups, but, again, in the absence of evidence, it is remarkable that privileged groups’ culture is so often viewed as maintaining their privilege whereas disadvantage groups’ culture is viewed as a cause for their disadvantage.

Limited Theoretical Alternatives

Though the culture of poverty theory has been proclaimed dead, theories that exist in its stead also posit that the poor’s use of culture locks them in poverty whereas the middle class’ use of culture keeps them in the middle class. For decades, social isolation theory ( Massey and Denton 1993 ; Wilson 1987 , 1996 ) suggested that segments of the poor were geographically segregated from the middle class, and as a result the segregated poor developed distinct cultural norms, values, and behaviors. The types of alternative culture the poor developed offered them avenues for status and the ability to navigate their social milieu, but deterred their upward mobility as their new culture was at odds with that of the middle class. Social isolation theory has been challenged as scholars have demonstrated that the poor are never fully isolated from middle-class culture ( Duneier 1992 ; Edin and Kefalas 2005 ; Newman 1999 ). Instead, scholars now argue that the cultural landscape of the poor is marked by cultural heterogeneity ( Harding 2007 , 2010 ). That is, the poor are viewed as having access to both alternative and mainstream cultural elements. However, such variety is considered problematic. The frames and scripts in alternative and mainstream culture are conflicting and contradictory, and the poor sometimes go back and forth between using both. Without sticking to mainstream culture, the poor are unlikely to be upwardly mobile.

In a different vein, Bourdieu’s (1977 , 1984 ) mismatch theory also maintains that the culture used by the poor prevents their mobility. He argues that individuals internalize aspects of culture—worldviews, perceptions of reality, and practical strategies—that help them succeed in their own classed environment. The poor and middle class then develop some distinct aspects of culture due to their different class locations. He emphasizes that institutions which serve as gatekeepers to the middle class reward the culture the middle class uses while penalizing the culture that the poor uses. Due to this institutional bias, cultural differences between the poor and middle class are likely to lead to class reproduction for each social class.

Social isolation, cultural heterogeneity, and cultural mismatch theories are all theories of how culture is used by the poor (and the middle class) to maintain the poor’s poverty. Theories of how the poor may use culture for upward mobility are more limited. Cultural mobility scholars ( DiMaggio 1982 ) argue that those born into social class disadvantage can learn to use the culture rewarded by middle-class institutions. Code-switching theory ( Pattillo 1999 ) suggests the same. However, these theories do not disrupt the binary inherent in the culture of poverty argument. Instead, they reinforce it by suggesting that some poor people can use the culture associated with the middle class to gain mobility, but that the culture associated with the poor is only associated with remaining impoverished. Only by assimilating can the poor become middle class.

Though each of these theories of culture and social class inequality has much to offer and effectively describes many instances in the social world, the existing theoretical landscape is unbalanced. None of the theoretical alternatives to the culture of poverty argument explain how in instances when the culture of the poor and middle class differ, the poor can use culture in any way other than to trap themselves in poverty. None explain how the middle class can use culture to deter their further upward mobility or to facilitate their downward mobility. The default assumption is that when the poor and middle class use culture in different ways, the poor’s culture will keep them poor and the middle-class’ culture will prevent them from being poor. Without theories that explain how cultural differences between the classes can facilitate the poor’s upward mobility and the middle class’ downward mobility, scholars are likely to unreflexively interpret their data in ways that reproduces the binary at the heart of the culture of poverty argument regardless of if it is true.

Disrupting the Binary

Aspects of the culture of poverty argument are then implicitly reproduced by scholarly practices that uphold the notion that white middle-class Americans have a culture that maintains their privilege while nonwhite, poor, and immigrants possess cultural traits that detract from theirs. However, not all scholarly practices have missing or false reference groups, one-sided research agendas, biased assumptions, or theoretical limitations. Many of these practices are challenged. For instance, researchers no longer see the culture associated with the middle class as entirely beneficial to the poor. This is partly because researchers have found that the same culture held by different groups does not necessarily yield the same outcomes. For example, poor black women are often criticized for entering parenthood at “young” ages, where young is defined in relation to the age when middle-class white women tend to give birth. Researchers have found, however, that poor black women who give birth at “young” ages tend to have equal or better health and academic outcomes for themselves and their children compared to if they gave birth at the same age as their white middle-class counterparts ( Geronimus 2003 ). Similarly, poor parents and parents of color who adopt the parenting style associated with the white middle class are not rewarded and may even be penalized by their children’s teachers ( Dumais et al. 2012 ). Poor children who go to a museum may see little change in their grades; middle-class children who go to a museum may benefit more ( Meier Jaeger 2011 ). Bangladeshi immigrants in the United Kingdom ( Blackledge 2001 ), Turkish immigrants in Germany ( Becker 2010 ) and former Soviet Republic immigrants in Israel ( Leopold and Shavit 2013 ) are not rewarded by teachers for their cultural capital, even if it is high cultural capital in their home countries.

Other approaches also challenge the idea that the culture of the middle class is necessarily advantageous for mobility. Older studies conceptualized the teaching of middle-class culture to the poor via role models as helpful for the latter’s mobility ( Anderson 1990 ; Wilson 1996 ). Now that approach is questioned. Middle-class “role models” who attempt to teach the poor to be more “cultured” are viewed as potentially harming the poor’s mobility options ( Pattillo 2007 ). Similarly, studies of upward mobility—though rarely incorporated into the culture of poverty literature—also undermine the idea that middle-class culture is a necessary precursor to mobility. People born into poverty who enter the middle class as adults regularly maintain many of the values, frames, and scripts they learned in their class of origin but are upwardly mobile anyway ( Karp 1986 ; Streib 2015b ; Stuber 2005 ).

Taking a different approach, economists and psychologists have also disrupted the binary. Economists find, for example, that both the rich and the poor use culture to their detriment. When either group faces scarcity—often time-scarcity for the rich and money-scarcity for the poor—they act in ways that worsen their situation ( Shah, Mullainathan, and Shafir 2012 ). Psychologists highlight that people in the middle class tend to be independent, whereas people in poverty tend to be interdependent. They argue that both approaches are associated with some mobility-enhancing and some mobility-detracting strategies ( Piff et al. 2010 ; Snibbe and Markus 2005 ; Stephens, Markus, and Townsend 2007 ; Stephens, Markus, and Phillips 2014 ). The binary that the culture of the poor is problematic whereas the culture of the middle class is not is then destabilized as the culture of the latter is not viewed as universally good or necessary for upward mobility.

Scholars are also able to dismiss the binary inherent in the culture of poverty argument by taking a more macro and historical perspective that includes an analysis of power. By focusing on how poverty is made likely for some groups and not others via national policies, laws, histories, and hegemonic forces, it is possible to see any deviant behaviors among disadvantaged groups as having a minimal impact on their class position compared to broader social forces ( Brady 2009 ). For example, when Lewis (1966) and Moynihan (1965) were writing, black women had children out of wedlock more than white poor and middle-class women. Yet, whereas each author locates single motherhood as part of a culture of poverty and as responsible for keeping black families locked in poverty, neither fully takes into account the many forces that were likely to keep black women in poverty regardless of their motherhood practices. Educational apartheid, employment discrimination, white violence against blacks, and the remnants of legal segregation combined to make upward mobility unlikely regardless of family structure. The laws, polices, and economic conditions that have changed—ones that Lewis predicted a segment of poor individuals would not be able to take advantage of—include those such as deindustrialization and mass incarceration that continue to lock groups in poverty with little regard to their behavior.

In addition, scholars have moved beyond the culture of poverty debates by examining how groups are constructed as culturally superior and inferior through their relationship to one another. This literature looks at how groups are labeled, evaluated, and reconstructed through micro- and macroprocesses. British social theorists, for example, show how the middle class constructs the poor as excessive and disgusting in order to maintain their own position as normal and deserving ( Lawler 2005 ; Skeggs 2004 ). Studies on migration patterns show that female employers construct domestic migrant workers as docile, obedient, and less agentic, while positioning themselves as skilled professionals entering the workforce ( Lan 2006 ). States also engage in labeling processes that uphold the binary. The Philippines, for example, constructs its emigrants as national heroes for working abroad and sharing remittance that alleviate poverty at home ( Rodriguez 2010 ). At the same time, the Filipino state constructs emigrants as commodities for export, facilitating other states’ ability to label Filipinos as a stigmatized group that is undeserving of high pay ( Rodriguez 2010 ). These studies draw our attention away from the values and behavior of the poor and to the ability of groups in power to label the poor in ways that reaffirm existing hierarchies. Thus, whereas some sets of studies inadvertently provide implicit support for the binary embedded in the culture of poverty thesis, others undermine it.

The culture of poverty argument casts a specter on poverty scholarship—a specter that lurks in the background even when not named, and one that continues to live on despite widespread declarations that the idea has been put to rest. That the idea continues to be a part of public discourse is not surprising as it justifies the position of those in power while leaving them unaccountable for assisting the economically marginalized. That the culture of poverty argument continues to infiltrate scholarly discourse, however, may be more surprising, as the same segment of scholars who proclaimed its death keep it alive. In this chapter, we argued that scholars have not killed the idea as thoroughly as they believed. Instead they unintentionally breathe life into it.

In the following, we lay out several ways that the routine reproduction of the culture of poverty argument may be avoided by scholars. Our point is not that the binary inherent in the culture of poverty argument is never correct, but merely that it should not be unintentionally reproduced through missing comparison groups, one-sided research agendas, biased interpretations of research findings, and limited theoretical alternatives. Others have suggested countering culture of poverty arguments by emphasizing frames rather than values or considering culture as a loose collection of elements rather than a cohesive whole ( Small et al. 2010 ). These approaches, while having other commendable attributes, will not disrupt the unreflexive and unintentional reproduction of the binary central to the culture of poverty argument. In addition to following the lead of the scholarship that is disrupting the binary, we suggest the following alternatives.

1. Develop theories of how culture facilitates upward mobility for the poor . A key reason why research agendas are one-sided and interpretations of research findings are biased is that the theories available to researchers are also one-sided. Theories of how culture is used in class reproduction dwarf theories of how culture is used for mobility. This theoretical bias primes researchers to ask some questions and not others, and to consider their findings as having some implications and not others. Developing a toolkit of how culture is used both for class reproduction and mobility would challenge scholars to weigh their evidence rather than unreflexively applying theories that suggest cultural differences between the classes keeps the poor in poverty.

2. Expand the cannon. While the above strategy is difficult, this strategy is not. Just as women’s studies became gender studies and race studies expanded to include research on whites, the study of culture and poverty should be reframed as the study of culture and class. Reimagining the canonical culture and poverty literature in this light would force comparisons to existing studies of how culture is used by poor people who become upwardly mobile and to how middle- and upper-class people deploy culture. Such comparisons would raise questions about the conclusions drawn in some of the culture and poverty literature and force a partial reinterpretation of the role of culture in the class reproduction of the poor. Furthermore, given that poverty is often coded black while other classes are coded as whites, broadening the cannon may also remind researchers that the study of culture and poverty should include the study of all racial groups.

3. Consider counterfactuals. Another easy strategy to avoid unreflexively reproducing the binary that the poor’s culture prevents their mobility and the middle-class’ culture secures their privilege is to ask counterfactual questions. If we lack the evidence to substantiate how cultural differences between the classes matter, would we interpret our results differently if the cultural strategies were used by members of different classes? Given the constraints the poor face, if they refrained from using specific cultural strategies or did more to mimic the middle class, would their mobility prospects change? If the poor did resemble the middle class more, would the middle class reinvent itself to create greater cultural distance from the poor?

4. Generate more sophisticated understandings of when cultural similarities and differences between the classes facilitate the poor’s mobility. One of the assumptions in the culture of poverty thesis is that if poor people resembled middle-class people their chances of upward mobility would increase. However, gatekeepers may not reward culture equally for all classes, and the same culture used in different-classed environments may lead to different results ( Geronimus 2003 ; Meier Jaeger 2011 ). More work should be done to understand when cultural similarities between classes are associated with similar outcomes for all class groups. Similarly, some work shows that cultural differences between class groups may be associated with mobility-enhancing outcomes ( Streib 2015a ). Asking when cultural similarities and differences are rewarded by gatekeepers and for whom may lead to research agendas that challenge the binary at the center of the culture of poverty argument.

5. Consider cross-national variation in culture and class. Much of the culture of poverty literature is based on American subjects. Americans, however, are the most individualistic people in the world, place an unusually strong emphasis on self-sufficiency, and exhibit comparatively little class consciousness ( Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan 2010 ). The implications of culture may vary in settings in which gatekeepers have less individualistic views. Cross-national studies could also reveal which cultural adaptations to poverty, if any, are universal, which are context specific, and which are most associated with the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Given different structural, economic, institutional, and demographic contexts of countries around the world, cross-national research (or even cross-context research within countries) could be used to generate theories of the scope conditions under which culture plays a causal role in keeping the poor in poverty.

6. Include comparison groups and check one-sided research agendas . The need for these strategies is clear. However, implementing them requires substantial changes to current research practices. Ethnography, for example, is typically single-sited. Multisite ethnographies, however, would better allow researchers to compare how culture is used across class and to what effect. Similarly, researchers tend to avoid asking questions about how the middle class could more effectively use culture, as scholars’ concern lies more with the poor. While we sympathize with this reasoning, we believe it has the unintended consequence of further problematizing the poor and valorizing the middle class.

7. Test the culture of poverty argument. Despite many heated debates about the culture of poverty perspective, some of its key claims have gone untested. Lewis argued that (1) a small segment of individuals in deep poverty develop and internalize cultural adaptations that (2) are passed down through generations and (3) prevent upward mobility even when structural conditions change. Much evidence has indicated that the poor do adapt to their class conditions (just as the middle class adapts to theirs) while also maintaining many mainstream values ( Bourgois 2003 ; Dunier 1992 ; Edin and Kefals 2005 ; Geronimus 2003 ; Liebow 1967 ; Stack 1974 ). Some research has demonstrated that parents attempt to, and sometimes successfully do, pass down cultural adaptations to their class conditions ( Calarco 2014 ; Lareau 2003 ; Kusserow 2004 ). However, research has generally ignored the last claim—that the poor cannot adapt to structural change. To fully understand the theory, this must be tested.

The culture of poverty argument should be maintained or defeated based upon its empirical accuracy. In this chapter, we have instead argued that scholars unintentionally maintain the theory through routine research practices. If researchers wish to dampen the argument’s unintentional resurrection, scholarly routines must be changed and greater reflexivity must be enforced. If these and other changes do not happen, the culture of poverty argument will go through more cycles of life, death, and resurrection.

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worldwide poverty thesis statement

The Effect Of Global Poverty Reduction On Wild Animal Welfare

worldwide poverty thesis statement

Tomáš studied bachelors in sociology at the Charles University in Prague and now switched to studying masters in zoology at the same university. [email protected]

Author’s Note

The aim of this thesis is to interface two concepts: wild animal welfare and human poverty. The primary objective of the thesis was to find an economic model that would explain a correlation between these two parameters. Such a model doesn’t seem to exist in the current literature. I found only the GDP per capita-based environmental Kuznets Curve, which, however, in many studies did not bring stable results, and its derivative Animal Welfare Kuznets Curve. This type of Curve tries to explain the relationship between the welfare of domestical animals and the development of the country economy. No Kuznets Curve in conjunction with wild animals was established yet. Thus, the benefit of this thesis might rest in revealing the requisite for future efforts to explore and implement the Wild Animal Welfare Kuznets Curve, which would distinctly explain the relationship between the welfare of wild animals with GDP per capita increase.

The second, qualitative, approach used in this thesis is based on a case study which, however, due to the character of the bachelor thesis, was modest in scope. In this section of the thesis, I did an analysis of the legislation of four states based on their economic development. Future and more rigorous research in this direction (ie. involving more countries) might provide stronger conclusions.

In the theoretical part of my thesis, I have relied on the assumption that the lives of wild animals are always positive and therefore habitat destruction and decreasing wild animal populations are negative. However, on reflection, this is still an open question to debate and although recent research suggests that the lives of animals in the wild might be net positive, other authors have suggested the opposite. I specify this epistemological problem in my thesis on p. 14 (the last paragraph): “Phenomena reducing animal welfare considered to be a “naturally” bound to ecosystems such as predation, starvation, diseases, excessive cold or heat, or natural disasters are not considered in this thesis, as these are not directly caused by human activities or lack predictability. For animal suffering concerning causes not rooted in human activities, we could refer to Delon & Purves (2018); Sözmen (2013) or Tomasik (2017).”

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A man wrapped in blankets sits in a chair on a sidewalk near plastic bags and trash.

Why some people receiving federal benefits don’t consider themselves poor − even though poverty rates have increased since the COVID-19  pandemic

worldwide poverty thesis statement

Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Wake Forest University

Disclosure statement

Sherri Lawson Clark has received funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (1999), The Center for Rural Pennsylvania (2005), The Center for Housing Policy (2008), the Strong@Home Partnership (NC) (2016-19). She is affiliated with Financial Pathways of the Piedmont (NC).

Wake Forest University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

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For the past 25 years, my research as a cultural anthropologist has taken me into the homes and neighborhoods of people living in poverty in cities and rural communities throughout the U.S.

To better understand their day-to-day lives, I also have spent time in grocery stores, churches, nightclubs, parks and health clinics.

I’ve asked countless questions, ranging from how many times they had moved to the types of social services they received.

But of all the answers, none has perplexed me more than the one I receive when I ask, “Are you poor?”

Not one has ever answered yes.

One mother was almost indignant. “My kids have food in their bellies, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs, so, no, I’m not poor,” she told me.

A decent standard of living

Who, then, decides who is poor in America?

The answer is the federal government, which has spent nearly the past 60 years trying to define and measure poverty and, ultimately, allocate money to provide families with a financial safety net.

Though many of the people I’ve interviewed over the years did not consider themselves poor, their incomes made them eligible to receive government subsidies such as cash assistance, Medicaid or public housing, thus placing them in categories the government considers poor.

Poverty in the U.S. is based on a person’s ability to purchase the things they need to achieve a certain standard of living. According to 2022 U.S. Census Bureau data – the most recent available – poverty for a family of four was an annual income of at or below US$29,960. For a single person, the poverty threshold was $14,891.

To put those numbers in perspective, the median U.S. household income in 2022 was $74,580 – more than two times the poverty threshold. About 38 million Americans – nearly 12% – live at or below the poverty line. And 16.1 of children under the age of 6 live in poverty.

Measuring US poverty

In the early 1960s, Mollie Orshansky , a government statistician, developed the official poverty measure that is still in use today.

In her earlier statistical work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Orshansky had calculated that people spend roughly a third of their incomes on food. Known as the bread basket method, the income level used to define poverty was calculated based on the cost of feeding a family.

Since the 1960s, the rate of people living in poverty has held steady between 11% and 15%.

But the measurement has a few shortcomings.

Take the regional differences in costs for the same products. In early 2024, for instance, a loaf of bread in Los Angeles, California, was $4.73, while in Louisville, Kentucky, the same loaf was $2.46.

Another flaw is the definition of what constitutes a family of four members.

The costs of feeding a family of four can be vastly different for a single mother with three school-age children than a married couple with two infant children.

The politics of poverty

Starting in 2011, the second metric that the Census Bureau officials use is the supplemental poverty rate .

Unlike the official poverty rate, the supplemental rate takes into account various types of government aid such as food, housing and energy assistance, as well as tax credits and stimulus payments. The measurement also calculates regional differences in the cost of living, medical care and housing.

An image showing two white middle-aged men dressed in business suits debating each other.

Though distinct, these two measurements are often used by politicians to score points over their political rivals.

Such was the case in September 2023 when the Census Bureau found that the supplemental rate had spiked from 7.8% in 2021 to 12.4% in 2022, the largest increase since 2010.

The same measurement for the share of children living in poverty also hit 12.4%, more than doubling from 5.2% in 2021.

When the numbers were released by the Census Bureau in September 2023, former President Donald Trump immediately attacked President Joe Biden and compared the decline in poverty during his presidency with an increase in poverty during Biden’s term.

But Trump left out key facts.

The supplemental rates did decline from 14% in 2016, before Trump took office in 2017, to 9.2% in his last full year as president in 2020 . But the drop was due in large part to coronavirus relief payments that were made available to qualifying people and families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The relief payments also helped lower the number of people in poverty under the Biden administration.

But those COVID-19 era payments expired in 2021. Without that same aid – and help from Biden’s American Rescue Plan – the share of people considered poor went up in 2022 under Biden. The sharp increase that year came on the heels of the previous year when the percentage of people in poverty was at its lowest level on record.

Temporary relief?

Starting after the Great Depression, U.S. presidents have made reducing poverty a priority in their administrations. Most notably, Franklin D. Roosevelt had the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson had the Great Society .

A middle-aged Black woman fills up her shopping cart with free food.

But thus far during the 2024 presidential campaign, the issue of reducing poverty has been overshadowed by Trump’s legal troubles and Biden’s inability to force an end to the Israel-Hamas war.

In the world’s richest nation, more than 23 million people – a little more than 1 in 10 adults – live in households where there was not enough food to eat, according to the Census Bureau’s March 2024 Household Pulse Survey . And many of these people have jobs.

Despite trillions of U.S. dollars spent on lifting people out of poverty – $1.9 trillion in 2022 alone – it appears the federal government’s ability to provide a safety net for all those in need has fallen short.

As economist Bob Pfeiffer once said: “Our welfare system is designed to make lives more comfortable, not to solve poverty.”

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Home — Essay Samples — Literature — The Singer Solution to World Poverty — Critical Analysis Of Peter Singer’s The Solution To World Poverty


Critical Analysis of Peter Singer’s The Solution to World Poverty

  • Categories: The Singer Solution to World Poverty

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Words: 1021 |

Published: Jun 9, 2021

Words: 1021 | Pages: 2 | 6 min read

Works Cited

  • Singer, P. (1999). The singer solution to world poverty. The New York Times Magazine, 5, 60-63.
  • Hardin, G. (1974). Lifeboat ethics: The case against helping the poor. Psychology Today, 8(10), 38-43.
  • Williams, B. (1973). A critique of utilitarianism. In J. J. C. Smart & B. Williams (Eds.), Utilitarianism: For and Against (pp. 77-150). Cambridge University Press.
  • Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3), 229-243.
  • Asghar, R. J., & Blakemore, E. (2009). Peter Singer’s argument for utilitarianism. In A. Bailey (Ed.), Philosophy of education: An anthology (pp. 173-178). Blackwell.
  • Campbell, T. D. (2005). The morality of spending money on others. Journal of Social Philosophy, 36(2), 204-217.
  • Donaldson, S. (2009). The ethics of global poverty: An introduction. Routledge.
  • Temkin, L. S. (2009). Equality, priority, and compassion. Philosophical Review, 118(3), 325-358.
  • Dambudzo, M. (2018). An ethical review of poverty. Ethics and Social Welfare, 12(3), 234-249.
  • Uzgalis, W. (2017). John Locke. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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worldwide poverty thesis statement

Sanford Celebrates the Class of 2024

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Our newest graduates join more than 9,500 Duke Sanford alumni worldwide.

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For undergraduates, public policy is a liberal arts major. Students learn to read critically, think analytically, and write concisely.

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The celebrations coincided with Duke University's centennial celebration .

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Families joined us from around the world.

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Duke Sanford is one of the nation's premier schools of public policy, recognized both nationally and abroad for teaching, policy engagement and research.

The Sanford School of Public Policy graduation ceremonies on May 10 recognized more than 300 graduates from six academic programs this spring:

  • Executive Master of National Security Policy (MNSP);
  • International Master of Environmental Policy (IMEP);
  • Master of International Development Policy (MIDP);
  • Master of Public Policy (MPP);
  • Public Policy doctoral program (PhD); and
  • Public Policy undergraduate major (PPS).

Graduate Degree Ceremony Overview

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Both the graduate (9AM) and undergraduate (1PM) ceremonies were introduced by Sanford Dean Judith Kelley. She began her remarks by connecting the graduating students to an ancient story of the “red thread” told through ancient Greek mythology, relating it to the thread of community that will always guide Sanford graduates back to their common roots.

As new members of the 9,500-plus Sanford alumni population that spans over 100 countries, Kelley reminded graduates of the lifetime of aspirations and expectations that await Sanford students.

Her address was punctuated by the inclusion of an actual red ribbon in each student program, a reminder not only of the Greek reference but also of her own Danish heritage, “The story of Theseus and Adriadne’s thread was part of the inspiration for what has become a concept in Scandinavian countries, including Denmark, my home country. “Den røde tråd.” The red thread,” said Kelley.

Distinguished Alumni Speaker Ryan Smith, MPP’14

The Distinguished Alumni Speaker was Ryan Smith, MPP’14. Currently serving as the Innovation Team Project Manager for the City of Durham, Smith delivered a poignant speech to the graduating class of 2024, reflecting on his journey and sharing insights gleaned from his experiences. Smith, who leads a rapidly growing department, expressed his deep honor in addressing the class and welcomed them as fellow alumni. He compared the graduates to his own team and welcomed them as alums. "I’m so glad you’re a part of our team. And I’m excited for what we can accomplish with the addition of your heart, talents, and experience that we could not have otherwise,” said Smith.

Reflecting on his own journey, Smith shared instances where he found purpose and joy in serving his community. He recounted initiatives such as the development of a legal services program, collaboration with formerly incarcerated individuals, and leading a branch of public safety focused on compassionate responses to behavioral health crises. Through these experiences, Smith emphasized the fulfillment derived from making a positive impact on society.

Smith acknowledged the inevitability of facing difficult days and encouraged the graduates to embrace them. He shared two guiding principles for navigating challenging times: drawing near to those impacted by their work and taking action despite limitations. "When you are working on really challenging issues, you have to make sure you’re taking time to draw close and center those most impacted and marginalized,” Smith expressed.

Drawing from his work with the Durham Community Safety Department, Smith emphasized the importance of empathizing with marginalized communities and centering their experiences in policymaking. He shared the story of Martin, a homeless individual struggling with mental illness, to illustrate the significance of understanding individual needs and addressing systemic barriers.

Smith emphasized the role of leadership in mobilizing collective efforts to address societal challenges. He recounted how his team collaborated with various stakeholders to establish emergency shelters for the homeless during cold weather, demonstrating the power of unified action in effecting change. "Leadership is about the ability to bring people together around a common challenge and finding a way forward, drawing upon the group’s collective power, resources, and talent."

Finally, Smith encouraged the graduates to celebrate small victories and to remain connected to their support networks. He emphasized the importance of cherishing every step forward and expressed optimism for the graduates' future endeavors.

"Don’t take the small wins for granted. Celebrate every step you can along the way."

Read more about Ryan Smith.  

2024 Richard Stubbing Award: Professor Mallory SoRelle

Mallory SoRelle with Senior Associate Dean of Faculty Manoj Mohanan.

Professor Mallory SoRelle won the 2024 Stubbing Award for teaching and mentoring graduate students. The award recognizes outstanding contributions to the school's graduate programs and commitment to the personal and professional development of their students.  

Senior Associate Dean of Faculty Manoj Mohanan announced the award during the 2024 Graduate Commencement ceremony, congratulating SoRelle for her extraordinary care for students and the greater Sanford community.

This award, established in honor of the late Richard Stubbing (a celebrated Sanford professor), is nominated by graduate students. SoRelle received numerous nominations, one of which included this summary of SoRelle's excellence in teaching.

“Professor Mallory SoRelle is deeply committed to teaching at all levels. This semester, she created a new undergraduate course on policy feedback with a hands-on survey lab component. She also teaches a core course for PhD first-year students, laying the foundation for a successful PhD journey. For me personally, she has been invaluable in terms of my professional and personal development. I would not be finishing my PhD this year with a tenure-track position without her.”

Read more about SoRelle and the Stubbing Award.  

3 PhDs awarded

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Public Policy: Xinyue "Alison" Pei | Essays on Labor Market Dynamics and Innovation. Advisor: Prof Matthew S. Johnson. Posing with: Prof Kate Bundorf.

man and woman in caps and gowns, woman with diploma

Environmental Policy: Maya Chandrasekaran| Energy Access, Time Use, and Women’s Empowerment in Low- and Middle-Income Countries. Advisor: Prof Marc Jeuland. Posing with Prof Subhrendu Pattanayak.

Man in blue cap and gown standing with two professors in red.

Environmental Policy: Zhenxuan Wang | The Economics of Energy Infrastructure and Climate Change. Advisor: Prof Robyn Meeks. Posing with: Robyn Meeks and Prof Billy Pizer.

Undergraduate Degree Ceremony Overview

Undergraduate speaker: laya sathyan.

Undergraduate speaker Laya Sathyan emphasized potential for positive change.

Laya Sathyan delivered Sanford’s 2024 student address. As a graduating student focused on Public Policy and Global Health, she began by expressing her gratitude for the opportunity to address her fellow graduates, faculty, and guests, reflecting on her journey since arriving at Duke in 2020. "If you're like me, you graduated high school by reaching for your diploma out of your car window, like picking up a hashbrown at the McDonalds drive-through,” said Sathyan, eliciting laughter from her classmates.

From there, Sathyan acknowledged the transformative power of her education at Duke and Sanford, emphasizing the importance of embracing change. She highlighted the impact of the pandemic on their academic journey and personal growth, noting the resilience required to navigate through unfamiliar circumstances. She compared her personal change to the potential for change in all people. "Sanford has changed all of us, in our maturity, capabilities, and understandings of the world,” she pointed out. "I hope we can all run towards [change] rather than away."

To illustrate this, Sathyan shared a powerful anecdote about Durham racial justice advocate Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, the former leader of the Durham Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating the transformative potential of forgiveness in overcoming deep-seated differences. She emphasized the importance of forgiveness as a catalyst for progress and unity in a divided world.

"Society has become more divisive and fragmented than ever before. We are encouraged to hate and to hate blindly with no compassion for those on the other side. As Sanford graduates, we have the power to either further this divide or bridge it."

In her closing remarks, Sathyan urged her fellow graduates to honor their education and continue the legacy of Sanford by advocating for positive change. She emphasized the importance of forgiveness, self-reflection, and the belief in the capacity for personal and societal transformation. "In a world that is marked by division, to love and forgive is a radical act,” said Sathyan.

She finished again encouraging the audience to embrace change. “I ask my classmates, the class of 2024, for one thing. Do not leave Sanford behind. This graduation marks our transformation from students into policymakers, advocates, and leaders. As you move forward into the next stage of your lives, I ask you to honor the gift that was our education here, and to carry Sanford, and everything this school stands for into the future. I ask you to remember the importance of forgiveness, to others and to yourself. And I ask you to remember that everyone has the capacity to change.”

Read more about Laya Sathyan.  

Fleishman Award Winner (Highest Grade Point Average)

Katie Heath, Hannah Galdes, Grace Endrud and Anisha Reddy posing with Sanford's founding director Joel Fleishman for whom the award is named.

Best Honors Thesis: Christina Wang

Christina Wang is Sanford’s 2024 Best Thesis winner with an Honors Thesis titled "What Do Americans Think Democracy Means?” which includes research that reflects her dedication to understanding democratic principles and amplifying the voices of the American people. Read more about Christina and her research.

Featured Video

2024 Terry Sanford Leadership Award Winner: Grace Endrud

Grace is one of two 2024 Terry Sanford Leadership Award winners, a prestigious award for public policy undergraduates at Duke. She says when she first came to Duke, she didn’t see herself as a leader, instead she focused on her work in the classroom. But when she applied for Duke’s Nakayama Public Service Scholars program, something clicked.

2024 Terry Sanford Leadership Award Winner: Chloe Nguyen

Chloe Nguyen is one of two winners of the 2024 Terry Sanford Leadership Award. Chloe is passionate about understanding the psychological drivers of intergroup conflict like political polarization and developing interventions to address them. 

More awards

  • Charles B. Rangel Fellowship : Manon Fuchs
  • Critical Language Scholarship : Manon Fuchs, Charles Hester and Samyuktha Sreeram
  • Schwarzman Scholarship: Sejal Mayer-Patel
  • Gaither Junior Fellowship: Kristin Zhu
  • Fulbright Scholarship: Andrew Greene

Watch Fleishman and Terry Sanford Leadership Award Winners on stage.

Tifft Teaching Award: Lisa Gennetian

Named after the esteemed Susan Tifft, the Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice of Communications and Journalism, this award celebrates educators who excel in guiding and nurturing undergraduate students.

Students nominated Lisa Gennetian for the 2024 award, and the praise for her instruction was glowing. Gennetian is Pritzker Professor of Early Learning Policy Studies at Sanford and is an applied economist who studies how poverty and policy interventions to alleviate it affect children’s development, education, and other outcomes.

Gennetian teaches the core microeconomics course for Sanford undergraduates. The many students who nominated her for this award praised her ability to make economics less daunting by engaging the class with accessible real-world examples, including from her own research.

The nominations called her a “phenomenal” and “passionate” teacher who cares deeply about her students, always wanting them to see how economic principles matter to understanding and addressing the policy problems they care about. Students appreciated her flexibility, accessibility, and sense of humor, as well as the welcoming and lively environment she created in the classroom.

Read more about Lisa Gennetian and the Tifft Teaching Award.  | Watch her receive the award

More Graduation Stories

We have profiled a wide variety of Duke Sanford School of Public Policy graduates. 

Matt LoJacono

Matt LoJacono is Sanford's Senior Public Relations Manager. With a focus on media relations, Matt oversees and nurtures connections between the institution and various outlets, ensuring effective communication about faculty, staff, and students. He is also responsible for crafting engaging news stories and in-depth articles that highlight the events and achievements within Sanford. As such, when the need arises, Matt is in charge of updating printed materials including the faculty guide throughout the year.

Matt holds a BA in Public Relations from George Mason University and an MS in Communication from North Carolina State University. He is an active member of the Public Relations Society of America, further expanding his and Sanford's network. Outside of work, Matt enjoys going to baseball games and is an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox.

Related Stories

2024 Graduation Stories: Solomon Ayehu

2024 Graduation Stories: Chloe Nguyen

Graduation Stories 2024: Grace Endrud


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