A Social Justice Perspective on Poverty

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Released 24 July 2012

It is commonly cited that well over one billion people must survive on less than US$1.25 a day1. Intermittent natural disasters and armed conflicts rightfully break our hearts and inspire collective acts and outcries of compassion. Yet children die, literally in their tens of thousands, every single day – simply because they are born into situations where their parents have no opportunities to adequately provide for their health and well-being2. The extreme deprivation of such a large proportion of the world’s population, in a world with more than enough resources to cover everyone’s basic needs, is a grave injustice. As followers of Jesus, we are compelled to address the issue. Living out our Biblical mandate means, among other things, that we must tackle the issue of extreme global poverty.

The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal 13 aspires to a significant contribution towards “eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.” However, some questions arise from this starting point: what exactly is poverty, or extreme poverty, and what does it actually mean to go about “alleviating,” reducing or eradicating it?

This think-piece discusses some of these issues through a lens of social justice, and in the context of The Salvation Army’s mission. The first section outlines some different understandings of poverty, before the focus turns explicitly to a Christian social justice perspective on poverty and the consequences of this in terms of what poverty alleviation actually entails.

Understanding Poverty – Measuring Poverty

Poverty, in its most general sense, is often defined as some form of deprivation. The World Bank, for instance, has defined poverty as “pronounced deprivation of well-being.”4 The logically ensuing questions are: what is well-being, and what levels of deprivation are sufficiently “pronounced” to rightly be labeled poverty, or extreme poverty? These questions reveal two different needs: the need to clarify poverty on a conceptual level, and the need to operationalize this concept.

This project can, as mentioned, be seen in the context of the MDGs, and in particular MDG 1, “eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.” In this instance, extreme poverty is operationalized as “living on less than $1.25 a day.”5 In general, poverty measures often use income as an important (or as the sole) indicator, reflecting the notion that, conceptually, economic deprivation is a main defining characteristic of being poor. It is common practice to have a “poverty-line” separating the poor from the non-poor, or the poor from the extremely poor. In the case of MDG 1, this poverty-line is set at an absolute level of $ 1.25 for extreme poverty, employing a measure developed by the World Bank which has become widely used and cited.6

MDG 1 links the concept of extreme poverty with that of hunger. In line with this, Amartya Sen outlines what in essence is an intuitive understanding of poverty: “If there is starvation and hunger then, no matter what the relative picture looks like there clearly is poverty.”7 This understanding, then, indicates that it is not necessarily the economic deprivation in itself that defines poverty, but rather the existence of hunger caused by this lack of money – i.e., deprivation of food. In light of this, measures for poverty are frequently calculated with reference to the cost of covering the daily minimum calorific needs of a human being.8

Despite being both simple and easily measurable, a focus on income, or income and hunger, comes up short when one is attempting to define “poverty” as a more general construct. This is particularly so when moving away from the issue of extreme poverty, where a severe deprivation of basic necessities will generally be plainly obvious. It is easy to argue that those living on $2 a day, or $5 a day, cannot reasonably be labeled as “non-poor,” even if there may not be daily starvation or hunger. Where does one set a “poverty line” in such cases?

Income is commonly used as an indicator of poverty also in situations where there is not necessarily severe deprivation. The common practice is to determine a poverty line as a certain standard relative to the average or median income in a country. The underlying concept, this time, is that poverty can mean a relative deprivation of material goods or benefits, compared to the surrounding society – an understanding that has become dominant in much of the developed world, where extreme poverty and hunger is practically non-existent.9 With such an understanding, inequality becomes an element of the concept of poverty – as long as sufficient inequality exists, there will always people who are poor relative to their peers, regardless of how wealthy society as a whole becomes.

Differing operational definitions focusing on income and the establishment of “poverty lines” entail that whereas extreme poverty is defined globally as surviving on less than $1.25 a day, a person living in the USA, for example, is regarded as poor when surviving on $30 a day,10 while a person living in Norway can be regarded as poor when earning $70 a day.11 Poverty quite clearly means different things in these different situations, and the life of a poor person in the USA or Norway will look significantly different from that of a poor person in Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia. In light of such disparities, it seems necessary to establish a more nuanced understanding of what poverty entails on a conceptual level.

Multidimensional understandings of poverty

It is commonly held that poverty is more than simply a question of monetary deprivation, whether this deprivation is absolute or relatively defined. Rather, it is a multi-dimensional concept, with poverty entailing deprivation of factors such as food and water, education, health, security, or basic freedoms and opportunities. A broadly applied approach to defining poverty in such a multi-dimensional understanding of the term can be found in the “capabilities-approach,” attributed to Amartya Sen. This approach defines poverty as the lack of key capabilities to ensure adequate functioning in a given society – be they the capability to access food, health care, to obtain employment, or other capabilities. Poverty, in other words, can be understood as “capability deprivation.”12 A person’s capability to acquire the food necessary for survival, to achieve upward mobility, or to ensure education for one’s children, determine whether or not they can be considered poor. Income will clearly be a factor influencing a person’s capabilities, but so will a number of other factors, hereunder external factors such as the political and societal environment that a person is living in.

The capabilities approach broadens the understanding of poverty as a concept. It is not a lack of money in itself that constitutes poverty, but the lack of money can be one factor contributing to curtailing a person’s capability to achieve an adequate standard of living. In addition to recognizing the diverse faces of poverty, the capabilities approach highlights some of the systemic factors underlying poverty. A capabilities view is, furthermore, context-specific. As such, both extreme poverty and relative poverty can be understood through this definition.

One challenge with this approach is that many capabilities, or factors influencing a person’s capabilities, are hard to measure. Where a focus on monetary deprivation lends simplicity to measuring poverty, then, a capabilities approach gives a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the concept itself, but is harder to operationalize. Measuring poverty must not only look at income, but also look at other indicators – such as access to education and healthcare, or indicators for political and social freedom and corruption, all of which can influence the opportunities that low-income people have to cater to their basic needs. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) seeks to capture a multi-dimensional view of poverty in a measurable and comparable form through indexes such as the Human Development Index (HDI)13 or the Multidimensional Poverty Index” (MPI) developed in collaboration with Oxford University’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative.14 These indexes measure development on a group-level using indicators pertaining to factors such as health and education, in addition to living standards (hereunder income). However, many of the dimensions in this understanding of poverty can only be illuminated by complex and contested measures, and are difficult to measure on the individual level.

Despite being harder to operationalize, a multi-dimensional understanding of poverty is quite widely accepted, and, as the above discussion would argue, relevant. The United Nations Development Programme, for example, lists the following description of the concept of poverty:15 “Standard definitions of poverty usually focus on the lack of income or economic deprivation. But poverty also encompasses the lack of access to an education, basic healthcare or clean drinking water, or to influence political processes and other factors that matter to people.” A similar view is proposed in introductory remarks by James Catford in The Poverty and Justice Bible16: “The genuinely poor are those robbed of the ability to make choices for themselves – the choice for safe and clean water, the choice of an education, the choice of protection from abuse, the choice of medical care, and more.”

A number of other approaches exist to defining the concept of poverty, varying in focus and in how they approach measurement of poverty.17 A highly significant question, particularly from an advocacy perspective, is how poor people themselves understand the concept of poverty. An extensive World Bank study outlines some recurring themes in the feedback from around 40,000 people, defined as “poor,” from over 50 countries who were asked to identify what poverty meant to them.18 The following conclusions are drawn from the data, as formulated in the final report:

  • Hunger is always a central issue
  • A psychological dimension is also important – e.g. the feeling of powerlessness, shame, etc.
  • The lack of access to basic infrastructure, such as water facilities, is important
  • Education is not perceived as being as important as the economic environment
  • Poor health and illness are dreaded
  • Income is not as important as managing assets

This study reinforces the notion of poverty being a multidimensional concept – but also reflects the intuitive understanding of poverty referred to initially: where there is hunger, there is poverty. Furthermore, although it is clearly not the only aspect, the economic dimension, unsurprisingly, remains important to the poor themselves.

The above examples highlight some of the different understandings of the concept of poverty. With some of the different perceptions in mind, the following section will discuss the issue of poverty alleviation from the perspective of social justice.

Social Justice and Poverty Alleviation

As Nelson Mandela has remarked: “Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times – times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation – that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.”19 These words certainly carry some weight coming from a man who himself spent decades in prison due to apartheid. In a world with unprecedented wealth and abundant resources, poverty is social injustice – or, as Mandela says, even a “social evil.”

Social justice as a mainstream concept is often linked to human rights. From a somewhat different perspective, however, social justice is a consistent theme in both Testaments of the Bible, a central theme in Christian faith, and a defining force in the historical and contemporary Salvation Army. Although the similarities to a rights-based approach are many, a Christian understanding of social justice stems from a different foundation – the God-given dignity and worth of every human being. For The Salvation Army, the foundation for a passion for social justice is based on a Biblical mandate.

The International Social Justice Commission’s Jesus and Justice extracts, from a series of studies of passages of Scripture, a number of principles central to Jesus’ life. The following excerpt remarks upon the general nature of Jesus’ mission on earth:20

The essence of Jesus’ mission is captured in a single vision – one vision with two dimensions. Jesus’ hope for a restored humanity has a double focus: people who are spiritually poor and people who are socially poor.

SPIRITUALLY POOR: Jesus begins with a personal claim: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” I have been touched by God and I am in touch with God. And the good news I bring to those of you who are spiritually poor is: You can be in touch with God, too.

SOCIALLY POOR: Jesus understands the systemic nature of social poverty. He sees people in poverty as those who are held captive. They are oppressed. They are victims of their circumstances. People living in social poverty need eyes to see beyond the barriers that imprison them. They need to be freed to explore a new future.

To relate this to the discussion above, the description of the “socially poor” can easily be understood in terms of a capabilities view of poverty. People are poor because they lack the capabilities to create for themselves an acceptable standard of living. Invariably, this is to some degree due to different forms of oppression or societal barriers. From a social justice perspective, a capabilities approach to poverty is significant in that it recognizes that it is not a mere lack of things that constitutes poverty, but rather that poverty can be the result of a complex web of oppression and systemic limitations on people’s capabilities. As such, poverty alleviation, in order to be successful and sustainable, must deal with a multitude of issues on both the individual and systemic levels.

A Christian understanding, however, would add a “spiritual” dimension to a multi-dimensional understanding of poverty. As the above quote suggests, it is also possible to be spiritually poor – either in addition to, or separately from being socially poor. Based on such a view, some of the emotional and psychological aspects of poverty highlighted in the World Bank study presented above could potentially be perceived as reflecting a form of spiritual poverty. The assertion is that, as people do not only consist of a physical body,21 poverty is not solely about a lack of physical goods. A Christian perspective such as that proposed above would recognize that one dimension of poverty may be being “out of touch with God.”

If poverty is understood as a multi-dimensional concept, a credible assumption would be that alleviating poverty will require tackling a number of issues simultaneously.22 As the quote above indicates, Jesus’ example suggests a dual focus, on both the spiritual and the social dimensions of poverty. Inherent in such a multi-dimensional understanding is the danger that there develops a tension between focusing on the respective dimensions. The key from the passage above is that Jesus’ example urges Christians to be simultaneously concerned with both dimensions. His is one “single vision” – not two separate visions. A multi-dimensional approach to poverty alleviation recognizing both the physical and spiritual dimensions has deep roots in Army heritage – foundational, for instance, in William Booth’s In Darkest England and the Way Out.23 The way out of poverty for the “submerged tenth” that Booth describes was to involve sustainable provision for basic physical needs, such as food, shelter, and work, and the Army’s initiatives to this effect involved interventions on both the individual level and the systemic level. Central to the Darkest England scheme, however, was also the offer of spiritual salvation and access to a spiritual fellowship.

Specific aspects of Jesus’ example are expanded upon in Jesus and Justice. Jesus:

  • Included the excluded
  • Challenged cultural practices
  • Confronted the powerful
  • Advocated for the oppressed

These categories can serve as points of reference for how we can address poverty in light of the multi-dimensional view of it. Key goals to strive for would be inclusion, empowerment, and freeing people from repressive cultural or societal circumstances. Each of these points can encompass both physical/ social dimensions and a spiritual dimension. With reference to a capabilities understanding, for example, poverty can involve being denied the capability to speak up for oneself – evident in the sense of powerlessness highlighted by the poor themselves in the World Bank study cited above. One aspect of addressing poverty, thus, involves giving people a voice – advocating with the poor and empowering them to speak up on their own behalf. This is something that can involve both physical interventions – creating spaces and mechanisms by which the voices of the poor can be heard – and spiritual support, aimed at instilling oppressed people with self-assurance, assuring them of their God-given worth and dignity, and encouraging them to advocate on their own behalf. Similar examples could be given regarding the other bullet-points.

It should be noted that the recognition of a spiritual dimension to poverty, though being particularly central to a faith-based perspective, is not overlooked in secular circles. The Norwegian Minister for Development in late 2010 initiated a study regarding the role of religion in development work.24 Norway is an increasingly secularized society, and there are restrictions barring Faith-Based Organizations from using government money to fund religious activities as part of development initiatives. The Minister's focus in his statement presenting the study was, however, that it is important not to underestimate the importance of religion in the lives of people and communities around the world. Rather, he proposed, it is important to recognize that faith can play a significant role – both positive and negative – in development.

In keeping with this view, the following quote highlights a Christian perspective on precisely how faith can be an important positive force in a poverty alleviation setting:

The gospel speaks of social responsibility and social justice. No one has a better message to bring than the Christian. No message can deal more deeply with the fundamental causes of poverty which are rooted in human ignorance, greed, lust for power, selfishness – in evil itself. The gospel message is the one thing that elevates the mission organization from the ranks of development agencies and, in my view, positions us uniquely to deal with the problems of poverty. But our mission cannot be to the soul and the spirit alone. We must respect the realities of people’s lives.25

The final sentences underline the importance of the dual focus introduced earlier, and reflect an insight that has been foundational to The Salvation Army since its inception: catering to the soul and the spirit can be of little use if the physical and social realities holding people down are not dealt with. That being said, our spiritual mission equips us to make a deeper and more sustainable impact on people’s lives than mere provision would achieve.


In summary, the discussions above underscore the fact that even in the best of cases, provision of money or physical goods is not, on its own, poverty alleviation. Provision is not justice. In the worst case, provision can on the contrary perpetuate relationships of dependency and disempowerment. This insight is vital, and has in recent years been foundational for the development of The Salvation Army’s poverty alleviation work, reflected in holistic community development projects, microfinance, advocacy training, and initiatives such as the Sally Ann fair trade project.26

Literalist interpreters of the Bible may discard goals of eradicating poverty with reference to Jesus’ assertion in that the poor “you will always have with you.” If poverty is defined as a relative concept, this will likely be so. But the extremely poor need not be with us always. As Jesus spent his life providing for the needs of those who were poor and disenfranchised, so too should we.

1. One of the most frequently cited statistics is the World Bank’s estimate that 1.4 billion people were living on less than US$ 1.25 a day in 2005, see the World Bank’s website for more information: http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/0,,contentMDK:22569747~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:336992,00.html

2. See f.ex. the website of Bread for the World: http://www.bread.org/hunger/global/

3. See http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/

4. World Bank Institute (2005): Introduction to Poverty Analysis. Manual. p.9. Available at: http://siteresources.worldbank.org/PGLP/Resources/PovertyManual.pdf

5. The United Nations (2010): The Millennium Development Goals. Report 2010. Report. New York. Available at: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG%20Report%202010%20En%20r15%20-low%20res%2020100615%20-.pdf#page=8

6. For more on the development of the World Bank $1.25 a day measure, see United Nations (2009): Rethinking Poverty. Report on the World Social Situation 2010. Department of Economic and Social Affairs: New York, p.47-48.

7. Sen, Amartya (1983), as quoted in Chapter 1 of Banik, Dan (ed.) (2006): Poverty, Politics and Development. Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget. p.12.

8. United Nations (2009:49-52) describes some of the methods used to calculate such methods, and discusses some of the problems and challenges associated with these calculations.

9. Ibid.:45-47.

10. An approximate figure, based on the poverty threshold value for a 1 person household in 2009 as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. See http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/threshld/index.html

11. An approximate figure, based on a poverty threshold established with reference to EU standards, setting the poverty line at 60 % of the median income. See http://www.ssb.no/emner/05/01/inntind/

12. As formulated in Banik, Dan (ed.) (2006): Poverty, Politics and Development. Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget. P.17.

13. See United Nations Development Programme: “International Human Development Indicators.” Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/. The HDI was developed partially on the basis of Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach (United Nations 2009:47).

14. For more information, see “Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative,” available at http://www.ophi.org.uk/policy/multidimensional-poverty-index/

15. United Nations Development Programme: “Development Dictionary”. Available at: http://www.undp.org/poverty/devglossary_main.shtml

16. The British and Foreign Bible Society (2008): The Poverty and Justice Bible. Contemporary English Version. Bible Society: Swindon. p.2.

17. Some common categories and descriptions can be found in Chapter 1 of Banik, Dan (ed.) (2006): Poverty, Politics and Development. Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget.

18 Narayan, Deepa; Raj Patel, Kai Schafft, Anne Rademacher, & Sarah Koch-Schulte (2000): Voices of the Poor. Can Anyone Hear Us? Oxford University Press, The World Bank. Available at: http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2000/05/06/000094946_00042605311270/Rendered/PDF/multi0page.pdf

19 “In full: Mandela’s Poverty Speech,” BBC News. 3 February 2005. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/4232603.stm

20. International Social Justice Commission: p.6.

21. A widespread Christian perspective holds that people consist of a trichotomy of “body, soul, and spirit.” A discussion of this concept could be relevant in this context, but will be avoided due to space constraints

22. It should be noted that it doesn’t strictly follow that a multi-dimensional problem requires a multi-dimensional response. For instance, a very basic Marxian analysis might suggest that fixing the modes of production would in turn resolve most other issues of deprivation – a similar analysis being the case for a simple capitalist analysis.

23. Booth, William (1890): In Darkest England and the Way Out. London: International Headquarters of The Salvation Army.

24. Solheim, Erik (2010): “Ta Gud Alvorlig,” in Aftenposten. 12/08/10. Available at http://www.regjeringen.no/nb/dep/ud/aktuelt/taler_artikler/utviklingsministeren/2010/kronikk_religion.html?id=612337

25. Brekke, Bo (2001): “We Are the Poor,” in The Officer. April 2001. Available at: http://www.salvationist.org/poverty.nsf/vw_sublinks/915B28C7E3C54FDB80256AC40036912F?openDocument

26. See http://www.sallyann.com/home/

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