There are a lot of inaccurate, false stories and information out there about poverty and people who experience it. You’ve probably heard some of them — like that poverty is an individual’s fault, or that ending extreme poverty isn’t possible.
In reality, poverty is a societal issue that affects people all over the world and it’s a multifaceted and complex issue, with individual experiences of poverty varying from person to person.
At its heart, poverty is about a lot more than a lack of money. Poverty is also exclusion from society, it’s discrimination and lack of access, it’s not being able to access the resources your family needs to stay healthy.
As the World Bank puts it: “Poverty has many faces, changing from place to place across time, and has been described in many ways. Most often, poverty is a situation people want to escape. So poverty is a call to action — for the poor and wealthy alike — a call to change the world so that many more may have enough to eat, adequate shelter, access to education and health, protection from violence, and a voice in what happens in their communities.”
Misinformation, which drives misconception, is powerful — powerful enough to derail the real narrative around poverty, the people who experience it, and the fight to end it.
The systemic effects of misinformation go far beyond misinformed individuals. Misinformation can quickly breed false beliefs and opinions about poverty, influencing the actions of decision-makers and leaders who have the ability and resources to alleviate extreme poverty and bring it to an end.
Here are some common myths and misconceptions about poverty, those who experience it, and information about its reality.
1. Poor Countries Are Doomed to Remain Poor.
The idea that low-income countries are trapped in a cycle of poverty that can’t be escaped is one held the world over, but particularly in western-based countries. While the assumption that poorer countries will never progress exists, basic data can debunk it. Countries including Mexico, Turkey, and Chile which, according to the Borgen Project, were once considered “irrevocably poor” are now home to thriving economies.
There has actually been very significant progress in the fight against global poverty in the last couple of decades alone, which frankly isn’t talked about enough.
The UN reports that in 2015, 10% of the world’s population, or about 734 million people, lived in extreme poverty (meaning on less than $1.90 a day) — down from 36% in 1990. It’s worth noting, however, those are pre-pandemic figures, with the World Bank reporting that about 97 million more people have been pushed into poverty as a result of COVID-19.
2. Aid to Tackle Poverty Is a Waste.
Businessman and philanthropist, Bill Gates, says one of the most common myths about international aid is that it’s a waste of money — and that’s partly due to media coverage giving a “distorted” picture, “with big generalizations based on small examples.”
It’s a damaging narrative that can lead the public to think that aid doesn’t work, and that gives leaders an excuse to cut humanitarian and development funding. In fact, the UK government has already done just that — cutting its aid budget in 2020. Aid to Syria, for example, was cut by 69%, with just one impact of that cut being that more than 40,000 Syrian children are now out of school as a direct result.
You can learn more here about why international aid is actually more vital now than ever — and why wealthy countries must increase, not cut, their contributions.
3. Lifting People Out of Poverty Will Lead to Overpopulation.
Anxiety about the world's growing population, particularly in the face of climate change and an impending global hunger crisis, is understandable — but it also risks overriding concern for the human beings that make up the global population.
One thing to be very clear on is that advocating for and protecting those living in poverty does not, in fact, lead to overpopulation. It’s actually quite the opposite.
The Borgen Project highlights that poverty and a lack of education access actually causes overpopulation. There are many reasons why tackling poverty and its systemic causes also helps reduce a population size, including that when there’s a higher death rate for children, there’s a higher birth rate too. If people know their children can access health care and are more likely to grow up healthy, they have fewer children. Meanwhile, when women and girls are able to access education and sexual and reproductive health care like contraception, again, they have fewer children.
4. A Person’s Poverty Is Their Fault.
It’s a widely held, yet completely inaccurate, belief: If someone’s living in poverty, it’s because they’re not trying hard enough or working hard enough to lift themselves out of it. It’s an idea that shifts the responsibility for ending poverty off a society and onto the individual. In other words, it becomes a “you” or “them” problem, not an “us” problem.
One of the subtle harmful effects of this myth is that it provides a convenient excuse for doing nothing to address poverty. If poverty is the result of individual shortcomings, and if the blame for poverty falls squarely on the shoulders of the poor, then helping them would be ineffective and futile.
What then is the reality? Well, poverty is a complex and multifaceted reality. It is rooted in structural barriers, systemic discriminations and inequalities, injustice, inequity, and social exclusion. Poverty is generational, and many people who live in poverty were born into it — and born into the lack of access to health care, education, nutrition, employment, and more, that are resources essential to escaping it.
5. All Poor Families Are the Same and Are Poor in the Same Way.
While extreme poverty is defined as living on less than $1.90 a day, there is no single set of deprivations that can be used to describe everyone's experience of poverty. There is no single index that can adequately capture the various ways a family or individual experiences poverty and non-poverty.
6. People in Poverty Can’t Devise Solutions for Themselves.
When people have the power to name their own poverty, to identify their own problems, they also have the power to help society at large address those problems.
Too often, efforts to tackle poverty — whether at a community, national, or global level — don’t center around the voices and experiences of those who live in poverty and experience it for themselves firsthand.
People living in poverty are the people best able to say what barriers they face and what resources they need to overcome it — what’s needed is for people directly experiencing poverty to have a seat at the table and be listened to by policy- and decision-makers.
7. Only People Experiencing Homelessness Are Actually Poor.
It's a common misconception that you can only be poor if you're homeless. Poverty is more than being homeless, unemployed, having low living standards, or having a low income. Poverty is a complicated issue. It has numerous causes and manifestations and the way people experience poverty varies.
For many experiencing poverty, this can mean a standard of living that includes deprivation, malnutrition, poor sanitation, a lack of access to safe drinking water, education, health care, and other social services, and a lack of a social safety net.
8. Providing Jobs Is the ‘Magic Remedy’ to Solving Poverty.
The truth is that having a job does not always lift you out of poverty. Many people work, sometimes multiple jobs, and still struggle to make ends meet. This is often known as “in-work poverty” or “working poverty.”
The global demand for jobs — which is increasing through urbanization, as more people move into cities — and high unemployment is pushing increasing numbers of people into informal, low-paying, and less productive jobs, according to the World Bank. It’s an issue in both developing and developed countries — in the UK, for example, the majority of people living in poverty in 2020 were in working households.
In the US, meanwhile, the Center for Poverty and Inequality Research says that low wages remains the most significant barrier to the “working poor” escaping poverty.
9. Poverty Only Exists in Low-Income Countries.
Poverty actually exists in every single country, in varying degrees. There are different definitions and ways of measuring poverty, including absolute poverty and relative poverty, for example, which can make comparisons across countries difficult. But in the US for example, around 34 million people are living in poverty; in the UK, just over 1 in 5 people live in poverty, about 14.5 million people.
In 2018, the UN’s then-Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty Prof. Philip Alston, authored a damning report criticizing increasing poverty levels in the US, arguing that “the benefits of economic growth are going overwhelmingly to the wealthy.”
In the same year, he made a trip to the UK to investigate poverty, the first time the UN had done so — and only the second mission to a country in Western Europe by a poverty rapporteur this century, after a visit to Ireland in 2011.
10. Some People Are Immune to Poverty.
Yes, geography and global financial inequality are both important factors in driving poverty, but the fact remains that poverty can affect anyone — no one is immune to it.
As highlighted by NGO Concern, the economic impacts of COVID-19 are a very good example, with lockdowns leading to people the world over losing their incomes and livelihoods. Climate change too is costing livelihoods and the economic impact will only grow without widespread and immediate action.
Conflict is also a significant driver of poverty — one example is Syria, where the percentage of people living in poverty rose from 10% to 80% as a result of a decade of war. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, the UN estimated in March that 9 in 10 Ukrainians could face poverty within a year.
11. Every Child Has an Equal Chance of Success in Life.
The idea that every child starts life with an equal chance of success is also a false one. In reality, children born into or experiencing poverty start their lives at a high risk of developing physical, social, emotional, health, and/or behavioral issues as a result of a lack of nutrition, physical stimulation, or emotional development.
As they grow older and try to break the cycle of poverty, there are new challenges — such as accessing education, and then employment.
While poverty isn’t incurable, it does get passed from generation to generation. It’s also one of the reasons why investing in women and girls is so crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty — because, as nonprofit Women Deliver highlights: “Evidence from around the world confirms that investing in girls and women creates a ripple effect that yields multiple benefits, not only for individual women, but for families, communities, and countries.”
12. Poverty Is Too Complicated to Eradicate and Would Cost Too Much.
True, poverty is complicated, but with a comprehensive strategy that involves collaboration, determined willpower from leaders, and global financial coordination, ending extreme poverty is possible and the resources needed already exist.
According to Nelson Mandela: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
That’s why our “End Extreme Poverty NOW — Our Future Can’t Wait” campaign, launched earlier this year, is rallying millions of Global Citizens around the world to demand the world’s government and corporate leaders take immediate action in three critical areas: empowering adolescent girls across the world; breaking the systemic barriers that keep people trapped in poverty; and taking meaningful climate action.
While proper financing is crucial — not just when crises strike as a stop-gap solution, but as long-term, sustainable development finance — the importance of strong willpower and determination on the part of policy- and decision-makers can’t be overstated. Governments, business leaders, and the world’s wealthiest people all have a big role to play in enacting laws and policies, and providing financing and resources, to protect the fundamental human rights of everyone and ultimately, end extreme poverty.
You can join Global Citizens around the world now in taking action to eradicate extreme poverty — just sign up as a Global Citizen, and download the Global Citizen app, or head to our Take Action page to start taking action now.