Poverty: challenging the myths


The people of Devonport are surrounded by a wall. Three metres high and six kilometres long, it serves to separate them from the military complex on their doorstep. But it has another, less obvious function. It marks out the boundaries of an estate known for its deprivation. Devonport, a suburb of Plymouth in south-west England, is labelled as an area with a high poverty rate, where crime, vandalism and drug-dealing abound.

My own reception in Devonport is warm and welcoming. I am picked up from the train station and driven to an apartment block overlooking the wall.

Karen and her son Chris give me a slap-up meal before taking me downstairs to meet 79-year-old Alice, who regales me with tales of being a submarine fitter during the War and puts me to bed with a cup of tea and an electric blanket. From the spare-room window I can see a yard, grim and dripping in the rain, but inside I am full, snug and warm.

This feeling stays with me for the whole of the next day as I attend a workshop that Devonport Action Against Poverty (DAP) is holding in the local community centre which has been refitted and decorated by local people.

Poverty, say the DAP members firmly: ‘is not about money, though it is about what you can do with money’. People should be respected not for what they have but for who they are. ‘We call ourselves “people experiencing poverty”, or “grassroots people” rather than poor people. We are people first. People who just happen to be poor,’ says Karen. ‘But we are rich in lots of other ways.’

Generosity, for one. I am not used to being housed and fed by complete strangers, let alone those who can little afford it.

Of course money is an issue, but so too are good housing, jobs, healthcare, education, leisure facilities, improved levels of benefit which don’t penalize people for working, better transport, and an improved environment. Then there are the things money can’t always buy: more time, good relationships, privacy (‘Poor people don’t have the luxury of privacy; their affairs are everyone’s business,’ says Karen), community spirit and, importantly, respect.

The need for respect comes high on the list of all those experiencing poverty. Moraene Roberts, another ‘grassroots person’ and a member of the UK Coalition Against Poverty, puts it plainly: ‘The very poor tell us over and over again that a human being’s greatest misfortune is not hunger or being unable to read, nor even being without work. The greatest misfortune of all is to know that you count for nothing, to the point where even your suffering is ignored. The worst blow of all is the contempt of your fellow-citizens.’^1^

Such intangible things are hard to measure or even define. Poverty itself is discussed, defined and measured in an infinite number of ways. The United Nations Development Programme talks about ‘human poverty’: ‘a denial of choices and opportunities for living a tolerable life’; the World Bank of ‘income poverty’ – ‘living on less than a dollar a day’. Then there is ‘absolute’ poverty – those below a defined poverty line or threshold – and ‘relative’ poverty – poor in relation to those around you. Recently, governments have begun to use the term ‘social exclusion’ as a useful tool for describing what poor people experience. This is fine, as long as it is not an excuse for failing to spend money. And it begs a number of questions: If some people, areas, or communities are ‘socially excluded’ what are they excluded from? Who then are the ‘included’? Is this simply a way of avoiding the word ‘poor’? (A word which people overseas have no problem claiming but which people in the West often reject because it comes with such stigma attached). What Devonport and other places of ‘social exclusion’ least need is yet another label.

The interesting thing about all these definitions is that they only define the poor. No-one thinks of finding labels for the rich – there are far more words for poverty than there are for wealth, as the dictionary on clearly shows. It is the poor who are the ‘problem’ – a belief hotly contested by ‘the poor’ themselves.

The other problem is gender; social exclusion doesn’t value economic roles and relationships at the household and community level, which are mainly performed by women. Yet women all over the world bear the brunt of poverty, partly because of the extra burden of responsibilities they have for the household and partly because they lack access to land, credit and employment.^2^

Money matters

Cash may be less important than respect but it dominates your life when you don’t have enough. Erica lives on the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow, Scotland with her husband Ivor and children Charlotte, Deirdre, Gilbert and Mary. She keeps a diary.


I get up and get the kids dressed for school and give them some tea and toast. Charlotte goes to the Post Office to collect the child benefit. I give Deirdre £2.80 for two days’ bus fares to school and back. Go to shop and spend money like this: 0.69 potatoes 0.69 loaf of bread 5.00 gas token 5.03 cigarettes 0.60 two tins beans 0.22 soap 0.49 washing-up liquid When they come home from school, Gilbert and Mary need money for school Christmas trips but I don’t have it to give to them. I can’t even start thinking about Christmas presents for the kids. I am still in debt paying for last Christmas. I am still paying for the kids’ clothes. Sometimes you have to borrow to eat. Once I borrowed from a man and put down my child benefit book. I worked out he took £450 to lend me £220. It was robbery but I had no other option. We watch some TV and then we all go to bed.


Get the kids up and to school. Spend money on: 0.69 potatoes 0.60 two tins beans 0.69 bread 5.03 cigarettes 0.73 sugar 1.98 soap powder 1.77 two packets of toilet towels 0.67 packet of toilet rolls 1.40 bus fare for Deidre tomorrow. I am left with £1.00. I get a letter from the Water Board. They say they are going to cut me off. I keep the £1.00 for the kids so they can get some sweets from the shops. It is not much but it will keep them happy for a little while. Make the tea, watch TV, then we all go to bed early.


Get up with the kids. Make them tea and toast and get them off to school. Peace at last. Charlotte goes to the Post Office to get our social money, £74.49. Spend money on: 10.00 gas token 10.00 electric token 5.00 water token 5.18 milk 0.69 bread 0.69 potatoes 0.49 margarine 1.96 two packets of meat pies 0.60 two tins beans 1.40 Deirdre’s bus ticket I have spent £40.96 and have £33.53 left. Gilbert is off school at the moment because he needs new shoes and that is £10.00. I can’t afford them just now so I will have to wait and see what I can do for him.I’ll go to the second-hand shop as soon as I can.

The kids come home from school. Thank God they get a meal at school. Ivor is making tea while I get the kids ready for bed. Deirdre and Charlotte are going out with some friends. So me and Ivor are on our own at last for the first time in ages. The kids come back and we all go to bed.


Get up as usual but my head hurts bad. The kids are running about mad so I have to shout at them so they are not pleased with me at all. Make them some toast. I have to send for bread plus some cigs. Must have my cigs or I can’t get through the day. I hate it that people say that because you are on social security you shouldn’t smoke. But it’s like Valium, it calms me. I wish I could give it up. I’ve tried and failed. 0.69 bread 2.93 cigs 5.00 electric token. I have £5.75 left. I have asked the kids to help clean up for me. They moaned but they did it. We all sit and watch TV. The TV set is on its last legs and I don’t know what I’d do without it.

The kids ask for some bread. I can only give them one slice each because it is all that is left. Ivor has not got up today. Kids and I have a game of cards and I win. The kids go to bed. I want to go for a bath but I have to keep the hot water for Sunday for the kids.

*This is an extract taken from _Faith in the Poor_ by Bob Holman with Carol, Bill, Erica, Anita, Denise, Penny and Cynthia, published in 1998 by Lion Publishing and reproduced by permission.*

Labels and measurements are useful tools for dealing with poverty; but sometimes they can detract from what being poor really means, like having to spend all your time worrying about where the next meal is coming from. It means hunger, isolation and disempowerment. And waste, not just for those experiencing it, but for everyone. In the words of Joseph Wreskinski, founder of ATD Fourth World, an organization set up to combat poverty: ‘Behind the silence of our records and our statistics lie children mutilated in their heart and spirit, young people condemned to despair, adults driven to doubt their very humanity.’^3^ Poverty is relentless; it grinds you down and leaves you deprived of hope, of opportunity, of confidence in yourself.

At first glance, the statistics give cause for optimism. In the last 50 years poverty has fallen more than in the previous 500. Over the century some three to four billion of the world’s people will have experienced substantial improvements in their quality of life. Since 1960, child death-rates in developing countries have been halved and malnutrition has declined by more than a third.^4^

However, such figures hide the fact that the absolute number of poor people is increasing as the world’s population rises. The number of people with incomes of less than a dollar a day rose by almost 100 million between 1987 and 1993. By next year more than half the people in sub-Saharan Africa will not have enough to live on, and the global economic crisis means that over one billion people will suffer a fall in their already-meagre living standards.^4^

And this is not just in the Majority World. In Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, the average incidence of income poverty increased sevenfold between 1988 and 1994.^4^ In the US, there are 35.5 million poor people.^5^ In Australia poverty levels are five per cent higher than when poverty was first measured in 1973 (and likely to increase again if the Government implements the proposed new tax on food).^6^ In Britain, nearly a quarter of old people and a fifth of children are poor – twice as many as in Taiwan and six times as many as in Finland. The proportion of poor people in ‘income poverty’ jumped by nearly 60 per cent under the Thatcher Government.

And yet the wealthiest fifth in Britain are among the richest in Europe. The most industrialized countries have 147 of the world’s 225 richest people (Asia has 43 and South America 22). Globally, the gap between rich and poor is increasing all the time – the three richest people in the world have assets that exceed the combined Gross Domestic Product of the 48 least-developed countries.^7^

And yet the cost of eradicating poverty has been estimated at a mere one per cent of global income. That’s about $80 billion.^4^ In 1995 the world spent $800 billion – ten times that amount – on the military alone. Poverty is not just about inequality – but it is the inequality that makes poverty so appalling.

The urgency of addressing what the UN calls the ‘scandal’ of poverty is being recognized at the highest levels. Poverty is very much on the international agenda; the papers, the statements, the targets are pouring in with the overall aim of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015.^8^

And participation is the new buzz-word. Every- one says they want to involve poor people in the debate about what should be done. It remains to be seen if theory becomes practice.

What should be done?

If poverty is to be eradicated, it must be more than talk. There needs to be an almighty push towards the following goals:

More but not too much: demonstration in Patna, India.

But many people experiencing poverty have another, even more radical point to make. One of the most extraordinary things about listening to people in poverty in different parts of the world is that so many are concerned not just about inequality, but about the way money has become the measure of all things.

Thousands of kilometres away from Devonport, in a small town in the middle of the forests of southern India, I am with a group of tribal people – considered by other Indians to be the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low. I tell them I am working on this magazine and they urge me not just to focus on money, in words similar to Karen’s in Devonport:

‘It’s about what you value,’ says Bomman. ‘When everything is valued in terms of money, it is those who have the money who are looked up to. But if we use other ways of valuing people, it is the poor who are rich...’

Bomman’s words are echoed too by studies on a macro level, which show that governments which go for economic growth alone fail to address the problem of poverty.^9^ It is only when social development policies go hand-in-hand with what is known as ‘pro-poor’ growth that poor people begin to benefit. The emphasis has to be on equity, not just economics, and on concrete policies to accompany the noble commitments to eradication.

But people experiencing poverty are often aware that any ‘help’ – whether from governments or charities – works best when those being ‘helped’ are organized in workers’ movements, trade unions or women’s networks. To this end, poor people are making links across the globe and learning new strategies for change from each other. This gives a strength in numbers enough to challenge the most powerful of systems.

‘If the poor of the world could start supporting each other then we would have a movement strong enough to change the world,’ said Chandran, one of the tribal people from India.

‘We’ll not give up,’ said Sam in Devonport. ‘If enough people keep shouting the same things loud and long then things might start to happen.’

International institutions are saying they want to listen to people in poverty. And the latter are laying siege to the assumptions we all hold about rich and poor and shaking the foundations on which wealth, status, and the myths about poverty are built.

Who knows? In the end it might even be enough to bring down the wall. Stranger things have happened.

  1. ‘Fighting Poverty and Social Exclusion: The European Experience’ paper by Moraene Roberts, June 1998.
  2. ‘Male and Female Social Exclusion’ by Fenella Porter, with Ines Smyth (Oxfam 1998).
  3. From _Eradicate Poverty!_ UK Coalition Against Poverty.
  4. _Human Development Report 1997_ (UNDP).
  5. US Bureau of the Census.
  6. Australian Council on Social Services.
  7. _Human Development Report 1998_ (UNDP).
  8. Goals set at the UN Social Summit in 1995.
  9. ‘Global poverty reduction: are we heading in the right direction?’ paper by Howard White at the DSA conference 1998.
  10. _The Reality of Aid 1998/99_ (Earthscan).

New Internationalist issue 310 magazine cover This article is from the March 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop