Defining Poverty

Posted on April 19, 2008 in Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates, Social Security Debates – Ideas – Defining Poverty: What does it mean to be poor in Ontario today? As the province grapples with that question, the Star asked dozens of local experts. Here are their answers
April 19, 2008

In Third World countries the word evokes images of emaciated bodies clothed in rags, living in squalor next to open sewers.

In wealthy nations like Canada, poverty is more nuanced. We have food banks and homeless shelters. But we also have children who are unable to go on school trips because their families are struggling to pay rent. We have people who don’t visit friends because they can’t afford TTC fares. And others who don’t have the right clothes to wear to a job interview.

So what does it mean to be poor in Ontario today?

Canada doesn’t have an official poverty line. But the McGuinty government’s promise to come up with a way to measure poverty and a strategy to reduce it has bureaucrats, politicians and poverty activists scrambling to come up with the right definition.

Children and Youth Minister Deb Matthews, who chairs the provincial cabinet committee that’s supposed to come up with the plan, told a forum of activists this week that she is working hard to develop a measure, or set of measures, which reflect the lack of opportunity that accompanies poverty in a rich
society like ours.

“How are we going to measure our progress? How do we know if we are moving in the right direction? How do we know if what we’re doing isn’t moving in the right direction?” she asked. “We’re looking at different measures that really reflect the complexity of poverty.”

In Europe, countries compare their citizens’ standards of living based on a calculation called the low-income measure, or LIM. This relative measure takes a country’s median income (half of the population is above and half is below) and defines those living on 60 per cent of this amount as “at risk of poverty.”

Some, like Ireland, have a second, more absolute measure based on a set of living conditions. For example, in Ireland someone who can’t afford a second pair of shoes, a warm coat or a meal with chicken, beef or fish several times a week is considered to be living in “consistent poverty.”

Statistics Canada has been publishing data on low incomes here since 1967. But the federal agency is adamant that its so-called low income cut-off, or LICO is not a poverty line.

But many social agencies and government departments use the LICO as a default poverty line to calculate needs and provide service. In 2006, the after-tax LICO for a single person living in Toronto was $17,570. For a family of four it was $33,221.

But when the Star asked about 60 Ontarians, including academics, business people, social justice advocates, educators, sports figures, politicians, youth, artists and people living in need to define poverty, not one mentioned an income level.

Instead they spoke about social isolation, loss of hope, not having choices, being so focused on basic needs that even simple wants become just dreams.

Or as Liberal MP Ken Dryden says: “Poverty is a young child growing up just a little more sick, a little more often, away from school just a few more days than other kids – just a little behind . . . Poverty is that ‘just a little’ that isn’t ‘just a little’ at all.”


Stop asking economists to define poverty! I woke up this morning in a strange bed surrounded by faces I didn’t recognize – poverty. Mommy, why am I different from my friends at school? – poverty.

I had a good job, but nobody wants me now – poverty. Damn tooth won’t stop aching – poverty. Days only get longer, not better – poverty.


Poverty is 300 million people existing on less than $2 a day, or 25,000 children starving to death every day. This scourge could be ended by a mere 1per cent of the money spent on weapons. But poverty is closer to home. It is the homeless person huddled in an unkempt sleeping bag on a Toronto street. It is the 9,000 people in this city who would go hungry were it not for the food banks. To me, poverty is making the choice between having food on the table or a roof over your head.

BROADBENT, ALAN CHAIR of The Maytree Foundation:

The experience of poverty is relative deprivation, being less well off than others. The reduction of poverty is a principal job of government, but also: employers must pay living wages; labour unions must be open and inclusive; educators must prepare everyone to participate in the economy; institutions must include everyone needing their services; and citizens must fight for the rights of everyone who has been exiled from the economy.


Poverty means losing hope and not having choices. Our data show poverty’s significant negative impact on student achievement. Failure in school narrows choices and eradicates hope. Some students tell us, “It is easier to get a gun than to get a job.” Education is about hope and increasing choices. Educators work relentlessly to ensure that all students graduate with a sense of hope, and skills to contribute positively to society.


The inability to provide, on a consistent basis, a reasonable level of the necessities of life for oneself and one’s dependents; primarily: food, shelter, clothing, education, and medical care; secondarily transportation, recreation and other goods or programs that permit a reasonable quality of life.


I thought that our lives were determined by the choices we made. But after my recent trip with World Vision to Dominican Republic, I learned that’s not always the case. I met kids who make choices on whether to buy books or food. I just graduated from the high school of my choice, but some kids there don’t have a school to go to. The experience gave me true enlightenment, insight and a very serious reality check. I hope everyone will share my life changing experience by joining me in the World Vision 30 Hour Famine. Let’s get hungry for a change!


“I’ve never been in poverty but I was unemployed for a long time. To me poverty means unhappiness, embarrassment and making do with what you have. That, to me, is unemployed and I suppose it’s the same thing as poverty.”


Poverty is a sad cycle of despair, alienation and lost dreams. It is the feeling of sheer desperation when there is not enough to pay the rent. It is the loneliness that a child feels when he moves with his mother from shelter to shelter and the helplessness that mother feels when she can’t afford her child’s prescription drugs. In a city of riches, poverty is the injustice we all feel when parents have to skip meals in order to feed their kids.

D DARE, MALKIN PRESIDENT, Society For Quality Education:

In developing countries, poverty is hunger and lack of shelter. In Canada, poverty is finding it hard to eat nutritiously and being forced to live in shabby, cramped accommodations. Canadian poverty is having no options when you’re sick, even when your treatment is not working. Canadian poverty is having to send your children to their assigned school, even when they are not learning. Poverty is powerlessness and fear for the future.


When I think of poverty I think of a child having to go to school with broken shoes and a hungry stomach. I think of a mother who has to go to a food bank to feed her children one basic meal a day. I think of a family of five that has to share two rooms to live and cannot eat a proper meal unless they go to the streets. People need food, shelter and an opportunity to grow physically and economically. Homelessness is poverty. Hunger is poverty. Hopelessness is poverty.


I don’t believe poverty can be defined by a numerical threshold. Poverty is a feeling of desperation associated with not having the financial means to simultaneously satisfy some of the most basic human needs such as the need for shelter and the need for sustenance. It is the feeling associated with not having options, and living a life of trade-offs.


Poverty is a human tragedy that robs people of opportunity and hope. It’s not simply a statistic, it is a child who goes to school hungry and not ready to learn; a student who drops out of university because they can’t afford tuition; a parent who can’t afford to plan for the future; seniors who can’t retire in simple dignity.


First define what not being “poor” means – Having affordable housing and affordable quality food. Add a safe neighbourhood with good schools. Provide dependable, cost-effective transportation systems that meet the needs of all categories of commuters. Take away one of these attributes and you begin to create the environment of “poor.” If all of these good situations are gone you have defined “poor.”


Progress can’t be made on something you don’t measure. A consensus measure of poverty must be developed. It should start with a calculation of the cost of an agreed upon basket of “necessities.” Consider regional differences, as living expenses are higher in large urban settings. Then compare these costs to a household’s income. The measure should also reflect relative incomes, as perceptions of well-being are influenced by one’s standing relative to others.

DRYDEN, KEN LIBERAL MEMBER OF P ARLIAMENT (York Centre), former social services minister:

Poverty is a pregnant mother just a little less healthy, her newborn baby just a little underweight, a little less developed. A young child growing up just a little more sick a little more often, away from school just a few more days than other kids – just a little behind. Poverty is every day running a 100-metre race as if all the other kids are at the starting line – and they’re 10 metres behind. Not because they’re poor it seems to them, but because everybody else’s just faster than they are, better than they are. Poverty is that “just a little” that isn’t “just a little” at all.


At Fred Victor Centre, we don’t define poverty based on the poverty line or Low Income Cut-offs, but rather as the inability of people to gather the resources necessary to attain a reasonable quality of life, which includes adequate and nutritious food, adequate and appropriate clothing, safe shelter, and social, physical, and emotional supports. Currently, people living at or just above the poverty line cannot afford a reasonable quality of life.


Poverty to me is someone without a roof over their head, doesn’t have anything to eat, basically just down and out. (It’s someone) that has to live in shelters or beg on the street. Some of the homeless people I see here I would describe as in a poverty situation. That’s pretty well it.They don’t have a job, and they don’t have any family that they can lean on, or the family disowned them for one reason or another. Poverty is just – they’re down and out. They have nowhere to turn, and they just survive to make ends meet, day in and day out.

GRINSPUN, DORIS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario:

Poverty is the single most preventable cause of illness and early death. Poverty is not having a voice; lining up at the food bank; needing to decide between paying rent, groceries or winter boots for your child . . . Being unemployed because your front teeth are missing, living ashamed for always not having. Poverty is a societal failure, not the failure of the poor. Eliminating poverty is a must if we are to strengthen social cohesion – it just takes bold leadership and a solid plan.


Poverty has many faces. It’s the family forced to live in substandard housing. It’s the single parent unable to afford winter coats and boots for her kids. It’s the young child who goes to school hungry. It’s the hard-working Ontarians forced to work for an inadequate minimum wage. It’s the seniors struggling to live with dignity. The poor, hungry and invisible – this is the definition of poverty.

HAWTHORN, MARGARET RETIRED LIBRARIAN, Older Women’s Network (Ont.) board member:

Poverty, for the many thousands of older women who must live on government pensions ($13,000 tops) means constant anxiety about meeting the rent, short shrift on nutritious meals and living in isolation when they can’t afford bus fare. They do without the small pleasures that make life worth living – buying a magazine, going to a movie, meeting a friend for a modest restaurant meal, brightening a day with a hobby; these are all beyond their means.

This is the impoverished life we supply many of Ontario’s older women. And Ontarians in mid-life can look ahead with dread to spending one third of their life in similar poverty.

HARRISON, SCOTT TRUSTEE, Toronto District School Board:

Poverty is defined as the consequence of two equally impacting elements. A successful adult possesses good health (physical, mental and emotional), good social skills, a formal education and the skills to become successful in the job market. Poverty perpetuates itself throughout the generations resulting from a lack of economic resources, educational opportunities, proper shelter, skilled parenting, accessible health care and fostering communities.

HILTZ, MOST REV. FRED PRIMATE, Anglican Church of Canada:

Poverty is a denial of basic human rights and hopes. It is a denial of human dignity. Poverty is children and adults caught in horrible circumstances that curtail access to food, housing, health care and education.

The elimination of poverty is the first of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. It must be the first priority for all world religions. We must address poverty’s root causes with mercy, but without fear.


Poverty: The first thing that comes to mind is lack of education, lack of food, deprivation and very, very difficult ways and means to exist in society as a whole.


More than just an economic status or condition, poverty limits aspirations. When working two, and sometimes three jobs is not enough for a family to provide food, clothing, shelter, and necessities, let alone find or afford childcare, people begin to lose hope. This is the crisis facing a growing number of working families in Toronto. Despite working long hours and multiple jobs, life costs more than they can make. What does such poverty look like in the real world? It s the two-parent family of four who come up $400 short every month after meeting minimum basic family needs. It’s the desperate young teen choosing gang life over school after watching his mother working overtime and losing the battle to provide for her children. And it’s the child falling behind the development of her fellow kindergarten classmates because her family shares an apartment with two other families and they have to sleep in shifts. Children are the first to show signs of a family’s stress; they bear the brunt of a growing crisis of hope. Poverty is more than going without when you’re short; it’s the inability to participate in the economic and social life of a community.


Poverty is a hope-killing condition that robs people’s freedom to reach their potential as full members of our community. I’ve met countless women, men and children with quiet desperation in their eyes who are stuck in poverty’s trap and forced to devote overwhelming proportions of their resources – money and spirit – to basic survival. They are forced to choose between eating and paying the rent. Poverty resists simple solutions because it is rarely a freestanding social ill. Rather, poverty is the tip of a systematic, deepening unfairness that exists amidst great wealth.

M MATTHEWS, DEB CHAIR, Cabinet Committee on Poverty Reduction:

To me, poverty isn’t just about income, although that’s certainly a factor. Poverty is about lack of opportunity – about not being able to get the education you need to reach your potential, about not being able to participate in society because you can’t afford transportation, about not having dental care or healthy food. Our strategy will expand opportunities, so that all Ontarians, particularly our children, can reach their full potential.


Poverty is a health threat as the single largest determinant of health is living in poverty. Poverty is a violation of one’s human rights to decent shelter, food, clothing and equal access to opportunities in a democracy. Poverty represents a failure of human society, a breakdown of civilization. Poverty is not inevitable. Ending it is possible. We should define poverty as “extinct,” but first we have to take the steps to make it so.


Poverty is often defined as the state of being poor, not having enough money to take care of basic necessities like food and shelter – but it is much more. Poverty not only deprives an individual of the most basic needs but robs them of their spirit, condemning them to a life of diminished opportunities, and is a disease that infects society. We have a moral obligation as citizens of the world to eradicate poverty.


My grandmother grew up poor. She was a single mother with a limited education. She had five kids to feed. For her, poverty was a lack of opportunity. For her children, the way out of poverty was the ladder of opportunity that education represents. I believe we have a responsibility to do what we can to ensure no Ontarian gets left behind. When one of us lacks opportunity, we cannot truly move our province forward. For Ontario to take on the world and win, we must all be at our best.


Poverty is a major threat to health in Toronto. Compared to people with higher incomes, people living in poverty have: Less access to nutritious food and physical activity; more exposure to pollution; more infections; more heart disease, diabetes, mental illness and cancer; smaller babies; and shorter lives. These health impacts of poverty are preventable. Eliminating poverty is the best medicine money can buy.


There is ultimate poverty and there is relative poverty. What we experience in Canada is definitely relative poverty because no matter what, people are going to have food or have shelter. These are just basic services that Canada provides. If you watch CNN and see what is going on in the world you see there are people who have no food and they are going to die.


No single definition or simple measure of poverty captures the deprivation and desperation experienced by too many Ontarians. Poverty means not having enough income, and not having access to the social, economic, educational and cultural opportunities that transform people’s lives. By excluding so many, poverty limits our collective potential as a province. What Ontario needs now is a poverty reduction strategy that focuses on both income and inclusion.


When I think of poverty I think of the basic needs not being met. Basically not enough shelter over your head, not enough food, health issues. Just your basic needs not being met.


Poverty is about making decisions that people with money never have to make. Do I eat or pay my rent, do I try and sneak my sick child to daycare or lose my job? Sometimes it’s borrowing money you never know how you will pay back because you’re about to lose everything you’re barely hanging onto. Poverty can be much worse than that on many levels. As someone who has experienced poverty and grew up with a single mom on welfare before becoming one myself nine years ago, the desire to move out of poverty is constantly stifled and belittled by oblivious observers. Poverty in Toronto is exasperated by social poverty and isolation. The lack of strong community that we often see in even more impoverished countries lets many in Canada walk this journey alone with little or no hope of change.

POLANYI, MICHAEL CO-ORDINATOR, Canadian Social Development Program, KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives:

Poverty means going without what most take for granted –food on one’s plate, a secure home, decent clothes, a night out. Being poor means constantly worrying about money. But perhaps most tragic is the fact that many low-income people believe that poverty is their fault, perhaps because so few of our leaders acknowledge the real causes of poverty – low-paying jobs, insufficient income supports, and inadequate access to housing, education and childcare.


Poverty is the inability – due to lack of financial resources – to participate in the kinds of activities expected of an average Canadian in an advanced industrial society. The currently available measures of low income, the Statistics Canada pre-tax LICOS and Low Income Measure (less than half of the median income), and the Market Basket Measure developed by Human Resources and Development Canada all provide similar estimates of the incidence of poverty. Also, people’s response to the question, “Are you unable to carry out everyday activities that you think you should be able to do due to lack of money?” a variant of what is used in the U.K., also gives comparable estimates of the incidence of poverty. This work has all been done – it should not take one year to figure this out.


Since the time of St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century, Franciscans have sought to be poor themselves and to stand in solidarity with the poor. Voluntary poverty is a decision to imitate Christ, who emptied himself of Glory in order to embrace our human condition. Franciscan poverty then, is living a life free from attachments and dependent on God., our presence at the UN, defines involuntary poverty as a total lack of options in the civil, political, social, economic, cultural and relational aspects of life. Poverty is a fundamental human rights violation. Poverty is not just “out there.” St. Theresa of Calcutta challenged our affluent society’s crocodile tears about poverty when she said: “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”


Poverty is an unwelcome guest, permeating every nook and cranny, making itself comfortable in a staggering number of homes in Toronto. Its arrival can be sudden but mostly it creeps in slowly, in a calculating manner. Soon it becomes quite clear who is in charge as poverty begins to settle in. There is little hope for a secure future. All resources are consumed, easing the burden caused by this interloper.


Poverty is a baby in a diaper that sags so low it hits the floor. It’s a cupboard with 20 dented no-label cans and 15 bags of pasta. Poverty is a mom walking in mid-December with a spring jacket that won’t close and her baby has no snowsuit but four layers of blankets. Poverty is a mom putting a program’s free food into her pocket to feed the kids later.

SARLO, CHRIS ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS, Nipissing University and fellow with the Fraser Institute:

Poverty means not having all of the necessities of life covered (at standards that are considered acceptable and decent in one’s own society). This accords with how most people, including the Star, use the term when describing the poor (especially the many references to hungry kids). This definition allows us to make credible comparisons between countries. Poverty is about insufficiency, not inequality.


In Ontario, poverty means a person has no access to basic and essential needs such as food, drinking water, clothing, shelter and basic education. Not having access to a doctor and medicine, powerlessness, lack of freedom, and representation are signs of poverty too. If a person is living one day at a time, he or she could say that they are in poverty. Also, it could be measured if a person’s consumption or income level falls below a minimum level necessary to meet their basic needs.

SHAKIR, UZMA ATKINSON FELLOWSHIP and former executive director of South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario:

Poverty is most commonly understood to be either absolute: lack of ability to sustain basic needs – food, shelter, clothing; or relative: in relation to the standard of living at any given time in a society. For example, in Britain those earning 60 per cent or below the median household income in any given year are considered poor. In Canada, we must further recognize that “poverty” as an outcome is not just a matter of inadequate income but also race and status (in terms of status of residence – First Nations, immigrant, refugee etc.) as determining factors.


You can spot a poor person by looking at their health record: The burden of poverty is measured in increased illness and early death caused by a toxic mix of insecure housing, inadequate income, poor food, social and economic exclusion, and other inequities. Under international law, everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, but governments have failed in their responsibility to tackle the root causes of poverty.


Poverty is the struggle of a growing segment of our society, the working poor. It is the failure of our society and our governments to support all citizens, particularly the most vulnerable. Every citizen and family deserves access to affordable housing, affordable childcare, and the dignity of work. It is shameful that many of our citizens should have to rely on food banks, shelters and charities to meet basic needs.


Poverty reflects and defines our community obligations. The narrow view limits poverty to those lacking the resources for sustenance. My poverty is exclusion. Poor children, fed yet hungry, live apart having limited opportunity to participate, learn, thrive and contribute.

Adam Smith: “Poverty is a lack of those necessities that the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.” Well said.


Poverty is a condition characterized by low income measured by standards that include benchmarks for a nutritious diet, safe housing, and normal clothing while adopting community standards for other goods and services associated with a life of frugal comfort. Poverty is marked by low financial net worth and the inability to make the normal life choices that allow people to move from the margins to the mainstream of community life.


Poverty is not having the ability and/or resources to provide for yourself and your dependents. It is the constant state of hopelessness and pain brought about by experiencing an ongoing struggle to survive with little or nothing. It is a cycle of needs that are never met.


Poverty goes beyond seeing people not having their basic needs met for food, clean water, clothing or shelter, a concept very hard to comprehend in a country as rich as Canada. What I find more painful is the humiliation heaped on the poor by individuals who haven’t a clue about their circumstances, or worse, by those placed in positions of power to help.


Poverty should be defined not by an income level but by: (1) failure to meet a minimum standard on clean water, hygiene health care and education; (2) ability of an individual or family to provide on an ongoing basis for their housing, food and clothing needs to a minimum standard, (properly maintained housing, three nutritious meals daily, clothing for our climate) and other family amenities such as basic recreation for children.


Poverty is not having an affordable place to live or enough to eat. This is why income support and housing are absolutely essential. Without the basics poverty becomes more complex. People crushed by poverty seek relief; parents skip meals to feed kids, seniors skip the doctor or don’t buy medicine to pay the rent. In the end, to protect the body the soul is bankrupted and another person is lost.

W WINTERS, CHUCK DEFENSIVE BACK, TORONTO ARGONAUTS, grew up poor in Detroit and younger brother Malik was killed in a drive-by shooting:

A lot of us come from meagre beginnings and it is a fight that may never end. However, I believe the fight against poverty starts within by helping the next person out and giving to those who are not as privileged. I try to provide some type of hope and bring a smile to the faces of those in need to show to them the world is not as bad as they perceive it to be. It’s my hope that at some point we all find a way to understand that life is more about giving than receiving. For those of us who always have three square meals and a roof over our heads, we must show that the true essence of life is to show love and help others.

Y YALNIZYAN, ARMINE EC0NOMIST, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:

Poverty means not having. Not having the basics: good housing, education, childcare, transit, health services, dental care, and extra-curricular activities. Not having the things that prepare us for life, keep us well and connected with others. Not having a reasonable shot of doing well. Poverty is about incomes. But it’s mostly about affordability. When the basics are unaffordable, poverty means isolation and desperation.


The Hebrew Bible states, “justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20). For us as Jews, the imperative to respond to the devastating impact of hunger around the world is not only intensified by the physical deprivation that so many are experiencing, but also a profound moral and spiritual crisis that cannot continue. That one child or adult should lack sustenance would be dayenu (enough) to raise our voices. That millions go hungry and die of starvation is a situation that demands our pursuit of a just and large-scale united response across religious, social and political lines. We join our hearts and hands with all of you to pursue the Divine call to do what is just – to work to end hunger everywhere.

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