11 top causes of global poverty

March 4, 2020

Around 8% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty — but do you know why? We look at 11 of the top causes of global poverty.

Living on less than $2 a day feels like an impossible scenario, but’s a reality for around 600 million people in our world today. Approximately 8% of the global population lives in extreme poverty, commonly defined as surviving on only $1.90 a day, or less

There is some good news: In 1990, that figure was 1.8 billion people, so serious progress has been made. While many wonder if we can really end extreme poverty, we at Concern believe the end is not only possible — but possible within our lifetimes. There’s no “magic bullet” solution to poverty, but understanding its causes is a good first step. Here are 11 of those causes, fully revised for 2020. 

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1. Inequality and marginalization

“Inequality” is an easy, but sometimes misleading term used to describe the systemic barriers leaving groups of people without a voice or representation within their communities. For a population to escape poverty, all groups must be involved in the decision-making process — especially when it comes to having a say in the things that determine your place in society. Some of these may be obvious, but in other situations, it can be subtle. 

Gender inequality, caste systems, marginalization based on race or tribal affiliations are all economic and social inequalities that mean the same thing: Little to no access to the resources needed to live a full, productive life. When combined with different combinations of vulnerability and hazards which comprise the rest of this list — a marginalized community may become even more vulnerable to the cycle of poverty. 

2. Conflict

Conflict is one of the most common forms of risk driving poverty today. Large-scale, protracted violence that we’ve seen in areas like Syria can grind society to a halt, destroying infrastructure and causing people to flee (often with nothing but the clothes on their backs). In its tenth year of conflict, Syria’s middle class has been all but destroyed, and over 80% of the population now lives below the poverty line. 

But even small bouts of violence can have huge impacts on communities that are already struggling. For example, if farmers are worried about their crops being stolen, they won’t invest in planting. Women also bear the brunt of conflict, which adds a layer of inequality to all conflict: During periods of violence, female-headed households become very common. And because women often have difficulty getting well-paying work and are typically excluded from community decision-making, their families are particularly vulnerable. 

"Iman" is a Syrian refugee who is living in a garage

Iman* lost 19 members of her family — including her husband, all of her children except one daughter, and all of her grandchildren except one grandson — in a bombing attack on their home in Syria. She now lives in a garage in Lebanon, which has been weatherproofed and plumbed by Concern Worldwide. (*Name changed for security)

3. Hunger, malnutrition, and stunting

You might think that poverty causes hunger (and you would be right!), but hunger is also a cause — and maintainer — of poverty. If a person doesn’t get enough food, they’ll lack the strength and energy needed to work (or their immune system will weaken from malnutrition and leave them more susceptible to illness that prevents them from getting to work). 

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life (from womb to world) are key to ensuring their future health and likelihood of staying out of poverty. If a mother is malnourished during pregnancy, that can be passed on to her children, leading to wasting (low weight for height) or stunting (low height for age). Child stunting, both physical and cognitive, can lead to a lifetime of impacts: Adults who were stunted as children earn, on average, 22% less than those who weren’t stunted. In Ethiopia, stunting contributes to GDP losses as high as 16%. 

Adults who were stunted as children earn, on average, 22% less than those who weren’t stunted. In Ethiopia, stunting contributes to GDP losses as high as 16%.

4. Poor healthcare systems — especially for mothers and children

Extreme poverty and poor health often go hand in hand. In countries where health systems are weak, easily preventable and treatable illnesses like malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory infections can be fatal — especially for young children. And when people must travel far distances to clinics or pay for medicine, it drains already vulnerable households of money and assets, and can tip a family from poverty into extreme poverty.

For some women, pregnancy and childbirth can be a death sentence. In many of the countries where Concern works, access to quality maternal healthcare is poor. Pregnant and lactating mothers face a multitude of barriers when seeking care, from not being allowed to go to a clinic without a male chaperone to receiving poor or even abusive care from a doctor. This is especially true for adolescent girls aged 18 and under, leaving mothers-to-be and their children at increased risk for disease and death.

5. Little or no access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene

Currently, more than 2 billion people don’t have access to clean water at home. This means that people (which is to say, women and girls) collectively spend some 200 million hours every day walking long distances to fetch water. That’s precious time that could be used working, or getting an education to help secure a job later in life.

Contaminated water can also lead to a host of waterborne diseases, ranging from the chronic to the life-threatening. Poor water infrastructure — such as sanitation and hygiene facilities — can compound this, or create other barriers to escaping poverty, such as keeping girls out of school during menstruation. 

A girl collects water from a small spring

A girl collects water from a small spring — little more than a puddle — on the side of a rocky hillside, surrounded by larger pools of muddy water where people mine for gold near Gaga, Central African Republic. (Photo: Crystal Wells.)

6. Climate change

Climate change creates hunger, whether through too little water (drought) or too much (flooding), and its effects contribute to the cycle of poverty in several other ways including disproportionately affecting women, creating refugees, and even influencing conflict. One World Bank estimates that climate change has the power to push more than 100 million people into poverty over the next decade. 

Many of the world’s poorest populations rely on farming or hunting and gathering to eat and earn a living  — for example, Malawi is 80% agrarian. They often have only just enough food and assets to last through the next season, and not enough reserves to fall back on in the event of a poor harvest. So when climate change or natural disasters (including the widespread droughts caused by El Niño) leave millions of people without food, it pushes them further into poverty, and can make recovery even more difficult.

7. Lack of education

Not every person without an education is living in extreme poverty. But most of the extremely poor don’t have an education. There are many barriers to education around the world, including a lack of money for uniforms and books, a bias against girls’ education, or many of the other causes of poverty mentioned here. 

But education is often referred to as the great equalizer, because it can open the door to jobs and other resources and skills that a family needs to not just survive, but thrive. UNESCO estimates that 171 million people could be lifted out of extreme poverty if they left school with basic reading skills. Poverty threatens education, but education can also help end poverty

8. Poor public works and infrastructure 

Imagine that you have to go to work, but there are no roads to get you there. Or heavy rains have flooded your route and made it impossible to travel. A lack of infrastructure — from roads, bridges, and wells, to cables for light, cell phones, and internet — can isolate communities living in rural areas. Living off the grid often means living without the ability to go to school, work, or the market to buy and sell goods. Traveling further distances to access basic services not only takes time, it costs money, keeping families in poverty. 

Isolation limits opportunity. Without opportunity, many find it difficult, if not impossible, to escape extreme poverty.

Isolation limits opportunity.

9. Lack of government support

Many people living in the United States are familiar with social welfare programs that people can access if they need healthcare or food assistance. But not every government can provide this type of help to its citizens — and without that safety net, there’s nothing to stop vulnerable families from backsliding further into extreme poverty. Ineffective governments also contribute to several of the other causes of extreme poverty mentioned above, as they are unable to provide necessary infrastructure or healthcare, or ensure the safety and security of their citizens in the event of conflict.

10. Lack of jobs or livelihoods

This might seem like a no-brainer: Without a job or a livelihood, people will face poverty. Dwindling access to productive land (often due to conflict, overpopulation, or climate change) and overexploitation of resources like fish or minerals puts increasing pressure on many traditional livelihoods. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for example, most of the population lives in rural communities where natural resources have been plundered over centuries of colonial rule — while conflict over land has forced people away from their source of income and food. Now, more than half of the country lives in extreme poverty. 

Berne Fransely of Cité Soleil, Port au Prince, at a training and mentoring session for people taking part in Concern’s Urban Integrated Program. This section of the program is designed to assist them with income-generating activities. It is modeled on the Graduation program. (Photo: Kieran McConville/ Concern Worldwide)

11. Lack of reserves

All of the above risk factors — from conflict to climate change or even a family illness — can be weathered if a family or community has reserves in place. Cash savings and loans can offset unemployment due to conflict or illness. Proper food storage systems can help if a drought or natural disaster ruins a harvest. 

People living in extreme poverty usually don’t have these means available. This means that, when a risk turns into a disaster, they turn to negative coping mechanisms, including pulling children out of school to work (or even marry), and selling off assets to buy food. That can help a family make it through one bad season, but not another. For communities constantly facing climate extremes or prolonged conflict, the repeated shocks can send a family reeling into extreme poverty and prevent them from ever recovering.

How can you help? 

We believe that zero extreme poverty is possible, and so we’re working to tackle the root causes of poverty with tailored responses to unique circumstances in 23 countries around the world. By offsetting risks and reducing inequalities, we believe we can sustainably end poverty — for good. Check out more of our solutions to poverty here. 

You can make your own impact by supporting our efforts working with the world’s poorest communities.