Poverty is a violation of human rights. With more than a billion people living in extreme poverty, it is the most widespread violation of human rights in the world. Poverty exists not only in the developing countries, but is also a dramatic and hidden reality in the industrialized countries. Particularly affected are disadvantaged and underrepresented groups - indigenous people, people with disabilities, women, children, youth, and the elderly. Hunger and the HIV/AIDS pandemic are also highly related to poverty. Processes of impoverishment inherent in the global economic system are resulting in increasing inequity, social injustice and violence worldwide.
The modern concept of poverty goes beyond the old "absolute" notion of an income below that sufficient to keep workers physically efficient and includes factors which determine quality of life. Relative poverty recognizes that poverty varies from age to age because it depends on what people consider as acceptable ways of living at that time. People can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely approved, in the societies to which they belong.
One-quarter of the world's population remains in severe poverty. In 1993, more than 1,300 million people were living on less than US$1 per day. Of these, the largest number, nearly 1,000 million people, are in the Asia and Pacific region; the highest proportion and the fastest growth are in sub-Saharan Africa, where half the population is expected to be poor by 2000; a growing number, 110 million in 1993, are in Latin America; the number below the poverty level in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union had risen to 120 million people by 1993/94; and, in industrialized countries, 80 million people are still below the poverty line (UNDP 1997).
[Industrialized countries] Despite nearly four decades of unparalleled economic growth in the industrialized world; despite anti-poverty programmes and admittedly improved social welfare schemes, the developed countries are not really any nearer to conquering poverty. Because the distribution of wealth under capitalism is uneven, accruing to an artificially created class (the bourgeoisie), an increasing number of unemployed and low wage-earners live under conditions of poverty. An individual is typically considered poor if personal income falls below the government's official poverty line.
Certainly the poor in the West do not suffer the strict physical deprivation of their Third World counterparts. The safety net of social welfare has effectively reduced the worst effects of starvation and want. But poverty is much more than just a shortage of cash. It is fundamentally an absence of power and influence. That means dependency, helplessness and a lack of political clout. The fact is that the majority of the rich world's poor work for a living. They are poor because their wages are insufficient to maintain a decent living. Most of those who are born into poverty remain there, trapped by the prevailing social attitudes towards poverty: that all those at the bottom are there because they are unintelligent and, in general, inferior.
In 2000, 35.6 million US citizens lived in poverty. The number was virtually the same as in 1964 (36 million), despite 35 years of economic growth and a war on poverty. But the chart has not been stable. 1963 saw the greatest number of people in poverty in recent years -- 38.6 million -- then equivalent to one American in five or 20% (the population being smaller). During the 1970s this fell to 11 million or 12% of the population and started to rise again in the 1980s. (During the same period, experts estimated that more than 20% of the Soviet population live in poverty.) Poverty rose dramatically again in 1990 and 1991, increasing by about 2 million per annum to 35.7 million; the poverty line for a single person then being $6,932, and that for a family of four $13,924. Whilst the proportion in poverty remained virtually constant at 14.2% in the first years of the 1990s, the number in poverty reached 36.9 million in 1993. A 1987 US report found 13.6% of the population living in poverty throughout the year and a quarter experiencing poverty at some time during the year. For white people the poverty rate was 11%, for Hispanics 27.3% and for blacks 31.1%.
In 1990 it was estimated that that 6% of the Belgian population lived in extreme poverty, with a further 20% in and out of precarious circumstances. It was also generally estimated that 44 million people within the 12 countries of the European Community were below the poverty line with one million of these described as homeless. In EEC/EU countries, to count as poor an individual's income must be less than half the average disposable income in the country in which they live. In 1994 it was estimated that 7 million Germans lived in poverty, namely 4.65 in west and 2.6 million in the east, where poverty was equated with incomes less than half the average for households (and encompassing housing, employment and training). In 1994 the poor in Europe are made up of rather different groups than in 1980. The unemployed are a growing proportion to the total number, while the elderly are a diminishing, but still very large, proportion. Single parent families have a very high chance of suffering from poverty.
[Developing countries] The number of poor people in developing countries rose from 1,103 million in 1974 to 1,166 million in 1982. As a proportion of the population, however, those who could not afford to meet their basic needs fell, over this period, from 56% to 51%. In Asia there was an actual slight fall in the numbers estimated to be in poverty, from 759 million to 754 million, with a steep fall in the proportion of those in poverty (from 69% to 57%) thanks to rapid economic growth in the area which was less affected by recession than any other. There was a slight fall in the percentage in poverty in Latin America, among oil exporters of the Middle East and Africa, and in the drier African countries, but in all these regions the total number of poor increased. In tropical Africa, however, not only did the number in poverty increase dramatically, from 132 million to 187 million, but the proportion in poverty also rose, from 82% in 1974 to 91% in 1982.
As a direct result of the Asian economic crisis of 1997/98, the total number of Indonesians living in poverty reached 130 million in 1999, a sharp increase from 80 million in mid-1998. Two years ago, the number of the poor in the crisis-ridden Indonesia was only 20 million.