Poverty myths and facts: Setting fake news straight

October 7, 2021
Written by Nafissatou Ndiaye
Photo by Pamela Tulizo / Panos / Concern Worldwide

Poverty can mean a lot of different things in a lot of different contexts. But there are still some indisputable facts — and some equally persistent myths.

Poverty is hard to define, which can lead to a lot of misinformation about what it is and how—or even if—we can end it. Here, we correct a few of the most persistent poverty myths, and offer up a few facts.

Myth: Poverty is a choice and/or the result of laziness or a simple lack of work

For the vast majority of the 800 million people living in extreme poverty, there was no choice offered (especially if they live in a region or community prone to one of the top causes of poverty). Many were born into a cycle of poverty passed from one generation to the next.

Securing work isn’t a guaranteed way out of poverty, either: Despite a decline in the working poverty rate in the last 25 years, 8% of the world’s workers and their families still live in extreme poverty. This number is higher in areas like sub-Saharan Africa, where 38% of the workforce live on less than $1.90 a day (even in some cases with multiple jobs). Employment should be a key solution to ending poverty, but that only can be done through adequate pay, job security, and safe working environments.

Learn more about our work to end extreme poverty — whatever it takes

Fact: Many of the causes of poverty are beyond individual control

If poverty is a choice, it’s the choice of policy-makers and world leaders who opt not to take greater action towards eradicating extreme poverty. If we want to see real progress made towards eliminating extreme poverty,  governments of wealthy nations must work together to fulfill 100% of the humanitarian funding needed every year. Policies and practices that negatively impact low- and middle-income countries should also be either amended or discontinued.

At the local level, governments must address the causes and maintainers of poverty. At Concern, we consider poverty to be the combination of inequality and risk, meaning that governments, policy-makers, and local leaders must work to reduce inequities and offset risk — especially those most vulnerable to the effects of economic, environmental, and health emergencies. Many people can break the cycle of poverty with the right support (we know this from the millions of people we work with each year to do just that), and leadership can help by supporting sustainable programs for families and communities living in poverty, along with education initiatives to ensure that the next generation has the skills, knowledge, and assets to succeed.

Myth: Money is enough to end extreme poverty.

Money is very important to end extreme poverty (as seen above in our note on humanitarian funding), but simply throwing money at a problem isn’t going to solve it. . We also need to ensure that there are programs, policies, laws, and systems in place so that people can continue to earn money without relying on an outside organization like Concern for help, or without falling back below the poverty line in the event of a personal, local, or international crisis.

When we work to end extreme poverty, we’re really working to address the issues that drive poverty. Beyond money, we need to fundamentally change the systems of inequality that prevent people of different genders, classes, ethnicities, religions, and other identities that can be marginalized from having the same rights as those in power. (Gender equality is a big step, but not the only one!) We also must address other key causes and maintainers of poverty, including climate change, hunger, healthcare, conflict, and lack of quality education.

Conservation farmer Stawa James and her husband, Robert, in Kwitunji, Malawi. Stawa has used the proceeds from a larger harvest to buy goats, educate and feed her children and build her home. She has also completed Concern’s Graduation Programme and has started a small doughnut business. Photo: Eamon Timmins / Concern Worldwide

Fact: Poverty isn’t easy to define

Poverty is multidimensional and not just about money. The World Bank has set the international poverty line at $1.90, meaning that anyone living on less than that amount per day is living “in poverty.” Income is an important dimension, but measuring poverty by money alone isn’t enough to capture its true nature, depth, and duration. (This is why the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Poverty includes targets around policy change and resilience-building.)

Even when we look at poverty in all its dimensions, there’s still no one-size-fits-all label. People may move in and out of poverty frequently, they may stay in poverty for long periods, or they may only ever occasionally experience poverty. Broadly speaking, we can categorize poverty into four types, each with its own rhythm and fluctuations: occasionally poor, cyclical poor, usually poor, and always poor. Learn more about each type in our cycle of poverty explainer.

Myth: We can end poverty without needing to worry about…

There’s no way around ending poverty without addressing issues like gender inequality, climate change, and hunger. If left in place, an issue like climate change will lead to effects (such as drought and flooding) that cause a domino effect of hunger, displacement, and conflict. Similarly, if we don’t work towards eradicating social norms and practices that leave women and other identities marginalized and out of the conversation, that inequity gap will continue to widen. That gap keeps girls out of school, women unable to financially benefit from agriculture as their male counterparts do, and a disparity in income that leads to insufficient access to healthcare, shelter, and daily necessities.

These issues are interdependent. If we leave one of them unchecked, we’ll soon be back at square one.

Fact: Poverty can happen to anyone

While inequality and geography both play a big role in driving the cycle of poverty, it can still happen to anyone. We’ve seen this over the last year with the economic toll of COVID-19 and lockdowns that have led to loss of income and livelihoods. Syria is another good example of what can happen in a situation that spirals out of control: Prior to 2011, as few as 10% of Syrians lived below the poverty line and the country had a thriving middle class. A decade of conflict and instability has left over 80% of Syrians now living below the poverty line.

Myth: We have so much going on in the United States (including our own poverty rates) that we should focus on that first

Poverty is a very real issue in the United States. Extreme poverty, however, is not. In fact, the vast majority of people living in extreme poverty don’t even live in our hemisphere. That makes it harder for us as Americans to see its impact firsthand, but it doesn’t mean we can ignore it. We can work to both address poverty at home and extreme poverty in the world—and as a high-income nation overall, we must work to do both of these things at once and take decisive action against extreme poverty. Its causes and impacts are not contained by national borders.

Yasseka Veronique is helping build flood prevention ditches near Kolongo village in Central African Republic as part of Concern’s cash for work activities, funded by USAID. A mother of eight children, she says she uses the money she earns to fund small business activities. She has no other source of income.

Fact: Many high-income countries bear some responsibility for the current poverty rates in low-income countries

It’s an uncomfortable truth that the majority of countries dealing with the highest levels of extreme poverty are countries that were left unstable following western colonial rule and/or countries excluded from global development strategies in the last century. The last 60 years of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s history have been plagued by internal conflict and insecurity following its independence from Belgium (an era marked by forced labor, exploitation of natural resources, disease, and mass killings that some estimate claimed the lives of 10 million Congolese). Key to understanding Haiti’s history following its own hard-won independence from France is that the country has been in a protracted financial crisis since the Haitian Revolution ended in 1804. It only finished paying reparations to France for that independence in 1947.

Myth: Only billionaires can help end poverty

There is a misconception that only rich people can meaningfully help end poverty. It’s understandable: The numbers are very big, and for many of us it can seem like what we’re able to do is just a small drop in the bucket. (Especially when billionaires are flying into space instead of putting their money to use on planet Earth.)

While big donations are important for humanitarian aid and development programs, no government, organization, or person can solve extreme poverty on their own. We each have a role to play as we have the power to either contribute to extreme poverty or help to resolve it. As a first step, we can start by learning about the causes of poverty and some of the ways it can be solved. By doing so, we will eventually see how our choices and the use of our resources change to have a positive impact on the world.

Fact: It may seem impossible, but we can end poverty

…but not at the current rate. Even though the pandemic set progress back, extreme poverty was steadily declining for almost 25 years. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 689 million in 2017. Ending poverty is within our reach: There are enough resources in the world that everyone could and should be living well above the poverty line. We are losing steam, however, which means that we must renew our commitment to this common goal as individuals, organizations, and governments.

Ending extreme poverty, whatever it takes

For more than 50 years, Concern has been dedicated to reaching the furthest behind on the road to Zero Poverty, listening first to the specific needs of people, families, and communities, and then responding with solutions that will leave us out of a job. Learn more below about our work building livelihoods and financial empowerment.


Poverty Myths & Facts