Relative poverty

Lady from UgandaIt is human nature to compare our living standards with others, in our community, or internationally, and feel that we are poor. Those who are by any definition, prosperous, may envy others their yachts or private jets. Those in more modest circumstances may feel poor because they cannot afford a larger flat screen television or overseas holidays. Those who are struggling, but nevertheless surviving, may envy others the chance to send their children to school, or afford the medical treatment so vital to a family member.

Relative and absolute poverty

It is only when people reach rock bottom, when any further reduction would mean the family could not even survive, that they are living in absolute or extreme poverty. The rest of us may feel poor, but that poverty is described as relative poverty.

Relative poverty

Relative poverty exists in every country of the world. This applies to developed countries like the United Kingdom or the United States, or in developing countries like Uganda or Sri Lanka. The majority of people in the world today are living in relative poverty.

It is almost impossible to statistically define relative poverty – it is by nature relative! It is sometimes  defined as family income being below 50% or 60% of the median income level for that country. The problem is that, if we use such a definition, relative poverty can never be significantly reduced or eliminated. Even if the prosperity of the nation doubles or trebles there will still be a similar proportion of the people below a poverty threshold  that is based on a percentage.

Even within national boundaries relative poverty cannot be quantified. There are simply too many variables, such as climate, house prices, number of children, debt, age, employment, disabilities, taxation differentials, etc. When it comes to measuring relative poverty internationally it becomes even more difficult.


I would define relative poverty in this way:

Relative poverty is a condition where because of low family income, the family feel excluded from the social activities of their community, and have to make choices affecting diet, education, health, recreation etc.


Exclusion, whether actual or perceived, is damaging to a person’s sense of self-worth. It may be not being able to send our children on school trips. It may be not having a car (or bicycle or two cars – as appropriate) when other members of our community have such things. We may feel despised by the ‘better off’ because of the way we live.


We all have to make financial choices that effect our material lives. People living in extreme poverty may have to decide whether to spend money on medicine or food, which child to feed, or whether to plant seed or eat it. People of modest means may have to decide whether to send a child to school, or whether to spend the money on health care. Better off people may have to decide between private health care and overseas holidays. Even the super rich have to make choices.

Personal Note

If I were to retire completely, my family income could well fall below the level where we might be below the poverty threshold. But this would be nonsense. Our children have grown up, we have paid off our mortgage and our expenditure requirements would be lower. There is no way we could be regarded as living in poverty of any kind, especially if we were to compare our standard of living with the majority of mankind.

A new way of thinking

People living in extreme poverty need help to lift them out of a hopeless situation, and this is addressed in other articles. But if we just feel poor then we have another choice to make.

There will always be other people who appear better off than ourselves. But there will always be people who are worse off as well. Are we going to compare our situation to others and feel hard done by, and feel poor? Or, are we going to realise that there are many worse off than ourselves and be blessed?

Jesus said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”
(Luke 6:20 NIV)

Poor or blessed

If, by the world’s standards, we could be defined as poor, we have a choice to make. As a charity fund-raiser, my experience is that it is often people who by most standards would be considered poor, who are the most generous (proportionally) when it comes to helping others financially.

A friend of mine used to talk about a “spirit of poverty”, and that leads to hopelessness and despair. But we have a choice. We can allow ourselves to be defined by other people, or in comparison to other people, or we can look at the things we do have, and know that we are blessed by a God who loves us, and wants the best for us.

Author: George Dowdell

I was the founder of Karuna Action (formerly Kingscare) and was the director for 24 years. I have now handed control over to younger people but continue as an advisor and trustee. My passion is to see extreme poverty eliminated and to see justice for the powerless.

6 thoughts on “Relative poverty”

  1. I find John the Baptist’s response in Luke 3:11 the most telling on this issue: ‘ John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”‘

    If we would only follow this simple advice, how quickly would the gross inequalities in our societies be eliminated? The catch, of course, is that this does not start with the poor wanting to be richer: but with the better off being willing to make themselves poorer…


    1. Quite right Kevin and the kind of thing I would normally say. But this time I wanted to point out that people living in relative poverty have responsibilities too. Rejecting a spirit of poverty and accepting that they are blessed would free so many from feeling poor.


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