Outlooks on poverty: a conceptual approximation

Planteamientos sobre la pobreza: una aproximación conceptual

Abordagens sobre a pobreza: uma abordagem conceitual


Bertha Lucía Martínez Bernal*


Research article

Date of reception: 26 jan 2015

Date of approval: 25 jun 2015


In this article several definitions or concepts are presented for the understanding, measuring and analyzing of poverty. For this, the written productions of different scholars and researchers who have made valuable contributions to the subject are returned to. In addition to these concepts, the different perspectives used to approach the study of poverty are analyzed, although these are not theories or explanations of its causes, but rather views of poverty that reflect these approaches. Likewise, the study develops a review of the methodologies most used in the identification and aggregation processes. Finally, public policies in the social sectors are interpreted.

Keywords: poverty, social equity, social policy, inequality, measurement methods, basic needs.

JEL: D60, I31, I32, I38.


En el presente artículo se presentan varias  definiciones o conceptos  para la comprensión,  medición y el análisis de la pobreza. Para ello se retoma la producción escrita de diferentes estudiosos e investigadores que han hecho aportes valiosos sobre el tema. Al lado de estos conceptos se analizan los diferentes enfoques que se utilizan para aproximarse al estudio de la pobreza, aunque estas no son teorías ni explicaciones de sus causas, sino perspectivas sobre pobreza que denotan dichos enfoques. Así mismo se desarrolla una revisión de las metodologías más utilizadas en los procesos de identificación y agregación. Finalmente se interpretan las políticas públicas en los sectores sociales.  

Palabras clave: pobreza, equidad social, política social, desigualdad, métodos de medición, necesidades básicas.



Neste artigo várias definições ou conceitos para a compreensão, medição e análise da pobreza, pois é a produção literária de diferentes estudiosos e pesquisadores que fizeram contribuições valiosas sobre o tema, ao lado desses conceitos são apresentados currículos onde são analisadas as diferentes abordagens utilizadas para abordar o estudo da pobreza, não sendo estas teorias ou explicações sobre as suas causas, mas as perspectivas sobre a pobreza que denota essas abordagens, igualmente uma revisão das metodologias utilizadas nos processos de identificação e agregação. Finalmente, a ação da política pública é interpretada nos sectores sociais.

Palavras-chave: pobreza, igualdade social, política social, desigualdade, desenvolvimento, necessidades básicas.



This article seeks to provide evidence of the study carried out in the thesis La equidad social y la evolución de la pobreza en Boyacá y su capital para el período 1993-2005 (Social equity and the evolution of poverty in Boyacá and its capital for the period 1993-2005) and with which the economics of poverty was studied, specifically, so as to detect the number of citizens in our department who are affected by this scourge and the policies of the government to reduce poverty in the specific case of Boyacá and its capital.


High rates of poverty and inequality in a region may be associated with low levels of economic activity whereas regions with more economic participation present lower poverty rates. Although the behavior of the Indigence Line (IL) exhibits different dynamics which reflect gradual reductions due to the existence of insecure jobs, which allow the population remain above the indigence line, but not the poverty line; this fact makes the topic a priority for national, departmental, and municipal governments.

In fact, the first Millennium Development Goal urges committed countries to reduce by half the level of poverty by 2015. Many public policies have been oriented to reduce the percentage of people in precarious living conditions, with particular specifications in each country, department, or municipality. In fact, this is a topic of great relevance that continues to give rise to advances in terms of academic as well as practical development. By the end of the last century, there was an emphasis on the literature about poverty and different thinkers contributed with concepts and ways of measuring it. In truth, an individual can face deprivation in many dimensions of life, such as education, the ability to get work, as well as health and living conditions, which should be taken into account when measuring poverty. Even when there are measurements that go beyond income, such as those based on unsatisfied basic needs (UBN), in general, the official estimations and political goals are fixed in terms of reducing the percentage of individuals (or households) with incomes below a certain threshold. Despite this, there is a consensus that poverty is multidimensional and that future measurements should be oriented towards expanding the notion of poverty.


Naturally, the theme of poverty is a broad one, which gives rise to advances in terms of academic and practical development. With the passing of time, the multidimensional aspect has been emphasized in the literature about poverty. It is widely accepted that the traditional estimations of poverty, based solely on income deprivation or unsatisfied basic needs (UBN) are limited, given that poverty goes beyond these definitions. Actually, individuals can face deprivations in different dimensions of their lives, such as in their education, ability to get a job and conditions of health, which are not considered in any of the traditional measurements of poverty.

Because of the above mentioned, the study carried out in this article is framed within the concepts of poverty established by different authors and entities, and the ways of measuring it, along with certain social policies of the government that aim to eliminate or at least reduce levels of poverty. In this sense, this document will focus on the proposals of different authors that reflect the levels of poverty.



Proposals aimed at the reduction of poverty

Carrying out a historical review it can be noted that during the last fifty years, as a better understanding of the complexity of the development process has been reached, scholars of this topic have considered that making large investments in physical capital and infrastructure was the most effective way of propelling this development process.


Thus, as from 1970 it became clearer that it was not sufficient to only create physical capital, and that improvements in health, education, and housing were very important.  These new ideas were embodied in the World Development Report of 1980, in which it was stated that it was important to improve the levels of health and education, not only for their intrinsic significance, but also as an instrument for increasing the income of the poor population.


During the eighties there was a new change of course caused by the debt crisis and the global recession and because of the different experiences in the countries of East Asia on one hand, and of Latin America, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa on the other. The result was that more emphasis was made on improving economic management, and giving freer rein to market forces. In the World Development Report of 1990, in relation to poverty, “a double strategy is proposed: on one side, by promoting growth based on the intensive use of labor through economic opening and investment in infrastructure, and on the other, by improving access to basic social services of health and education for the poorest populations” (World Development Report 2000, p. 77). In this report a strategy to fight against poverty was proposed, based on the adoption of measures in three spheres: opportunity, empowerment and security.


In September of 1990 in Quito, Ecuador, the Regional Conference of Latin American Countries on Poverty took place. The UN Regional Project for Overcoming Poverty (its original name in Spanish is Proyecto Regional ONU de Superación de la Pobreza) estimated that there were 270 million Latin-Americans in a situation of poverty, that is to say, close to 62% of the population. This report indicated that when economic growth is central in facing the social problem, in no way leads to social progress; there can be growth, but inequalities and weak social policies lead to it not being spread throughout the society and the social issue continues to get worse. The report also questions the very schematic methods with which development is measured, the final objective of which is that people live longer and improve their quality of life. For this reason, these measurements, based on per capita income, should be improved upon and include indicators such as life expectancy, level of education, social participation, among others. There will be real development when this set of indicators improves effectively.


In the World Conference on Social Management in Copenhagen (July 1991) there was a total consensus on the topic of basic human rights. It does not intend to provide charity, but instead establish that society is responsible for guaranteeing its members work possibilities and the satisfaction of their essential needs. In fact, at the World Summit for Social Development , the UN (1995, p 45) defined absolute poverty as “a condition characterized by the severe deprivation of basic human necessities, which include food and drinking water, as well as conditions of hygiene, health, housing, education and information.”


In the same way, it was pronounced in the last meeting of the Club of Rome (1991) that we must recognize poverty as a serious problem facing humanity, denounce economic differences, such as extreme poverty versus excessive wealth and the lack of solidarity of wealthy countries with the poor, and they also spoke of the necessity to combat the different examples of selfishness that are manifested in the material as well as the spiritual plane.


In the nineties it was recognized that compensatory social programs constitute an unavoidably palliative instrument in extreme situations, but that they do not represent a significant contribution to the fight against poverty, as this requires programs that provide “tools” to poor sectors for escaping poverty through their own efforts and governmental programs that contribute to the creation of effective opportunities for social integration.

Since these conferences, national governments have implemented programs and policies directed towards the improvement of social development. Thus, these conferences have resulted in the UN taking a new direction in their activities.



Conceptualization of Poverty


In this section different concepts of poverty and extreme poverty are described. There are various definitions of poverty, given the wide range of literature on the subject, which means that there is not a single concept, but rather there are several notions of it: one can begin by defining poverty as a complex and multidimensional situation[1]. Due to this fact, there are multiple definitions and ways of measuring it, and each country has a standard by which to calculate it. A very common definition of poverty is material deprivation, measured through the income or consumption of an individual or a family.

As well as the above concepts, ECLAC indicates that under the term of “poverty”, diverse aspects of social and human life are covered, valued negatively; two characteristics within the concept of poverty are highlighted:

It is a multidimensional concept. This covers a situational syndrome with which circumstances such as the following are associated: malnutrition, low levels of education, unstable employment in production or in sectors linked to the same, and squalid living and sanitary conditions. From a wider perspective it does not solely refer to the failure to satisfy basic material needs, but instead it extends to other needs, also basic, although not of a material nature, such as, self-realization, freedom, human rights, participation in social mechanisms of integration and decision-making, and in cultural manifestations (ECLAC, 2001, p. 12).


 “A person is considered to be poor if he or she does not have access (or does not possess the ability to access) a set of normatively established goods, services and rights” (ECLAC, 1997).

It is a concept relative to a determined historical and social context: it is based on value judgments of the minimally acceptable levels of wellbeing for living a dignified life, of basic needs, the satisfaction of which is essential, and of degrees of deprivation that are considered to be intolerable. The assessment of poverty evolves along with social progress and varies according to material and cultural conditions.

The concept of poverty has moved towards a theoretical framework as a relevant analytical concept. It is more suited to a descriptive category that reveals an observable and measureable phenomenon. Its use is informative in the description of social inequalities and has special relevance when there is a political will to eradicate critical situations of unsatisfied basic human needs.

One of the definitions of poverty of the World Bank is, “the inability to achieve a minimum standard of living” (World Bank, 1990, p. 27). This organization studies the contribution of public goods and services to standards of living as well as a community’s property resources. It establishes a level “based on consumption”, which includes two elements: the first, “the necessary cost of reaching a minimum standard of nutrition and other basic needs”; and the second, “an amount, which various from country to country, which reflects the cost of participation in the daily life of societies” (World Bank. 1990, p. 26).

In this way the World Bank asserts that the necessary expense is “relatively basic”, because it can be calculated “observing the prices of the foods that form the diets of the poor”. However, the second element is “much more individual; in some countries access to plumbing in households is a luxury, while in others it is a necessity’” (World Bank, 1990, p. 27).   With operational purposes, the second element (previously mentioned) was left aside and the first was valued as parity of purchasing power (PPP) (US$370 per annum per person, for all the poorest developing countries). They are classified as “poor”, those individuals whose income per capita is lower than 370 dollars, (the population that lives on less than US$1.08 a day by 1993 international prices) while those with less than 275 dollars per year were “extremely poor.”

This scheme is simple and easy to apply. It does not depend on the continuous and inflexible collection and compilation of data concerning the types and amounts of resources, the changing standards of needs and the variable estimations of standards of living. Moreover, it is not truly “global”, given that it is only adaptable to the poorest countries. If the World Bank has acknowledged the necessity of an international poverty line that is “based on more than consumption”, it has neither developed it nor estimated the cost for the second “participative” element of the definition.

In the same report, there is also a definition of poverty based on the calculation of the gross domestic product per capita (GDP), completed by other criteria such as consumption per capita, child mortality in infants under 5 years of age , life expectancy at birth, and primary school registration.

The World Bank has started a series of evaluations on poverty in some specific countries and conceptualizes poverty in a quantitative way by affirming that a person is poor when they have less than two dollars per day. The data is collected quantitatively and qualitatively through surveys carried out in households, poverty profiles, participative studies, evaluations of beneficiaries, analysis of public expenditure, national economic analysis, and sectorial analysis.

The rates of poverty are important in order to identify the difficulties for each country and account for the different definitions of poverty.

The concepts on poverty previously mentioned have been changing, poverty as a multidimensional phenomenon refers to the phenomenon of poverty from a much more complex approach, given that it includes other factors, in addition to those which are merely monetary (income), such as: the state of housing, health, education, employment, as well as shortcomings related to human development, such as freedom, dignity, self-esteem, that is to say, first, second and, third generation rights, where all the elements are related to one another.


The Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) has developed an index of multidimensional poverty (IMP), as an indicator which reflects the degree of deprivation of people in a set of dimensions. Its measurement allows for the determination of the nature of the deprivation –according to the dimensions selected- and their intensity. The IMP is the combination of the percentage of people considered to be poor and the proportion of dimensions in which the households are, on average, poor (Direction of Social Development – DDS, by its acronym in Spanish, 2011, p11).





Although there is no universal definition for the term, for ECLAC, “extreme poverty” or “indigence” is understood as the situation in which there are no available resources with which to satisfy at least basic food needs. In other words, the extremely poor are those who live in households with an income that is insufficient for acquiring a basic food basket, even if the whole of the income was used to that end. At the same time, “total poverty” is understood as the situation in which the income is below the value of a basic basket of goods and services, alimentary as well as non-alimentary.


Authors such as Boltvinik (1990), refer to this term as the situation of those households that although they spend all their income on food, cannot satisfy their basic needs.


Extreme or absolute poverty is described as the lack of the necessary income to satisfy basic food needs, nevertheless, one of the concepts with greater acceptance is that proposed by Amartya Sen, who expresses that:



The first requisite for conceptualizing poverty is to have a criterion which allows the definition of who should be the focus of our interest. Specifying some “norms of consumption” or a “poverty line” can facilitate the task: the poor are those whose levels of consumption are below these norms or whose income is below that line. But this leads to another question: should the concept of poverty be related to the interests of: 1) only the poor; 2) only those who are not poor, or 3) both groups equally? (Sen, 2009, p. 21).


Likewise, the different approaches for overcoming poverty are analyzed; one of which is based on income: which makes reference to the study of poverty as seen from a lack of income. High rates of unemployment have an influence on the levels of poverty, as this impedes a family from using income to access essential goods and services and thus leading a dignified life. Being unemployed can cause a reduction of assets and the consumption of a household’s means against possible contingencies, such as savings, the home and other assets, and can cause disaffiliation from social security in healthcare.


Other variables which have a direct relationship with poverty levels are the increase in prices (against that of income), which affects the possibility of acquiring a basket of goods and services and the exchange rate which affects the income and the costs of imported and exported goods, as well as the price of tradable goods, among them, food.




Within the dimensions taken into consideration for the study of poverty, two which are fundamental can be highlighted: the studies realized with a one-dimensional variable, referring to the wellbeing attained by individuals, and those with variables of a multidimensional nature, in which an indicator of resources, such as wealth, income or expenditure is used, such as those carried out at present regarding poverty. Therefore, and taking into account the studies made on poverty as a multidimensional phenomenon, it is possible to question some of the limitations of the one-dimensional methods, when said methods are the only practical alternative for carrying out these studies.


Taking into account that in the literature on poverty, the multidimensional phenomenon stands out (Boltvinik, 2010,  p.  48),   actually it has not been given enough relevance so as to strictly and profoundly carry out studies that lead to including each one of the dimensions.


Carrying out a review of the dimensions that have the greatest influence on multidimensional poverty levels, the work situation stands out. This refers to the educational level associated with the analysis of the degree of qualification of the occupation and is related to the type of contract that the individual has, a suitable state of health, and other variables, which can be taken into account.



Amartya Sen (1996) suggested the capabilities approach (CA), which is widely accepted in the area of development. There are questions relative to the practical application of this approach within the limits in which participants, professionals, and others interested in the study move, at the time of designing and implementing programs to reduce poverty.

Sen (1996) refers to “capabilities” as all those things that allow a person to be well nourished, to write, read and communicate, and to take part in community life. Sen indicates that basic needs also form part of these “capabilities,” which refer to something much broader. The number of options that people have and the freedom of choice over these options contribute to human well-being. In this way, from the capability approach, it is affirmed that more freedom and more capability to choose has a direct effect on well-being by constantly increasing it. 

In the first place, it is said that human well-being exists when people succeed in developing their capabilities. For this reason, development can be spoken of when people are capable of doing more things for themselves, not when they are capable of acquiring more goods or services. Human development has been defined as a broad approach the objective of which is to expand the range of freedoms and options that people have. By giving priority to participative evaluation techniques based on the capabilities approach during the design and implementation of poverty reduction programs, the possibility of achieving far reaching effects on the development ideas in which the focus resides in continually improving the capabilities, freedoms, and the concept of individual capability is made available.

Also, Sen established that there are gender questions, which are an integral part of development processes. He disregarded that low levels of economic development affect men and women in the same way, and that development policies are neutral in terms of gender.

“Hunger is not produced by the insufficient production of food. Famines can be the result of insufficient production, but this is the consequence of some poor or unjust mechanisms of distribution” (Sen, 1996, p.28). Thus, Sen indicates that problems of distribution are, to a greater extent, the cause of hunger, contradicting the principles of traditional economic theory.



The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has been developing a series of studies which led to the conceptualization of poverty focused on the real lives of people, and elaborated a procedure for measuring internationally the “poverty of capabilities” (UNDP, 1997). Given that this attempt has not had a satisfactory response, due to the fact that it does not provide a consistent list of basic human capabilities, nor minimum thresholds of realization in each evaluation space. The problem of poverty is defined in parallel to the denial of options and fundamental opportunities for human development, such as:  living a long, healthy, and creative life and being able to enjoy a decent standard of living, freedom, dignity, self-respect, and respect for others (UNDP, 1997). With all of this, the studies developed by the UNDP end up resolving the problem in a more traditional manner, combining methods of income or basic needs, accepting the reality of relativity in the parameters of a deficit in the subject of human development.



The investigative process regarding social topics has been developing during the last years, taking a normative position in relation to global justice that without disregarding the contributions provided by the theory of needs and capabilities of human development, promotes an approach towards poverty based on human rights. Due to the great importance that human capital has, the principal objective of the economy is to assist and help to alleviate poverty, implying a close relationship between the government’s investments in human capital and the alleviation of poverty.

During the last century, education, skills, and other expertise have become crucial factors and determinants of the productivity of a person and of a nation. The twentieth century can be called, as well, the century of the age of human capital, in the sense that the main determining factor of the quality of life of a country was the measure of its success in the development and use of the skills, expertise, health, and customs of its population (Becker, 1983, p. 82)

From this, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) have been carrying out studies that have established that few countries of the region have the information, scientific, human, financial, or institutional resources that are needed for adequately analyzing and promoting health and environmental concerns when making development decisions. These studies have examined the availability of tangible resources as well as requisites such as laws, inter-sectorial mechanisms, the functional delegation of authority to municipal governments, and the possibility of fulfilling norms and regulations. One of the discoveries of critical importance that was made was that of the effective incapability of nearly all the national health authorities to participate in the analysis and control of health and environmental problems on a sectorial or inter-sectorial level.

As well as these organizations, other authors have made other contributions in this line, such as Pogge (2005), who applies the human rights approach in his essay titled: Human Flourishing and Universal Justice, in which he adopts a criterion of nuclear justice, and maintains the convenience of a morally admissible criterion of justice, based on “communal means”, the language of rights being especially appropriate for this, and it is for this that there is total international acceptance. He affirms that an essential principle of equity from the human rights approach favors the attention and consideration of the diverse cultures in the world and the development of a characteristic, although constructive critique of the national and international institutional order, approaching the war on poverty worldwide (Pogge, 2005, p. 72-73).


Equally, Nussbaum relates the function of the “grounds for agreement” as that it acts as the language of human rights in the international public discourse, while it continues to be argued about the type of analysis that is appropriate on a more specific level (Nussbaum, 2002, p. 149).


Authors such as Amartya Sen, within their studies on poverty, make a reflection directed towards the human development approach, in which the accumulation of “human capital” is the center of their analysis and bases it in the accumulation and expansion of “human capability”. The first concept is found in the character of the agents (agency) of human beings, who through their abilities, knowledge and efforts, increase the possibilities of production, and the second is focused on the ability to lead the kind of life that they consider to be valuable and increase their real possibilities of choice.  Both perspectives are related because they deal with the role of human beings and in particular the effective abilities that they achieve and acquire.



In this aspect, Amartya Sen shows that the protective power of democracy to provide security goes beyond the prevention of famines. Perhaps the action of democracy is not always particularly effective from the economic point of view, but it is truly important when crises threaten and the economically dispossessed need direct protection from it.

For this, in having a voice of hope in the future, there is an increasing manifest demand for democracy in the world and, therefore, a greater need for social justice. A sufficiently broad perspective of poverty should be taken so as to be sure that the poor have a reason to have hope.

According to Amartya Sen, poverty is

absolute on the plane of capabilities and relative on the plane of basic products. In response to the question about the redefinition of the poverty line so as to reflect a greater balance between absolute and relative characteristics to give greater weight to the measurement of capabilities, it was clarified that poverty is the failure of an individual to achieve a set of resources relevant to adequate employment (Sen, 2000, p.40)

Artya Sen sees the social problem that comes from poverty as an interesting focus and proposes a dimension of poverty that traditional methods and definitions do not take into consideration. It is particularly interesting that a Nobel prize winning economist puts forward this new dimension, which, is in fact an expansion of the capabilities of  individuals and that allows them to do things and develop as individuals, and does not define them by the amount of money that they or their family possess, which would allow them to buy a certain number of goods or access certain services considered to be basic but it will also allow us to go deeper into aspects such as the quality of education and the level of intellectual development of the individual, and, also, why not go beyond the simple bourgeois concept of “freedom and democracy” so that the poor have the right not only to protest and vote for their authorities in each election, but also to have a critical and reflective capacity that allows them to actively participate in the decisions of the state that affect their quality of life and developmental expectations.

From the above it can be asserted that poverty goes beyond material and immediate needs, as aspects should be taken into account that are as important as the development of capabilities and an individual’s defined personality, which permits them to have a degree of consciousness that directs them towards greater participation and the development of their abilities, that puts them in the place where they achieve their maximum progress, which will be reflected in an increase of individual and family productivity and also of the society as a whole. However, it cannot be disregarded that, in order to achieve this, certain minimum conditions should exist for the progress of individuals, such as: access to quality education and health, and proper childhood nutrition.




Under this approach it is more difficult to understand the concept of poverty, attaching to this the importance of social relationships. A person is poor when they do not succeed in the relationship with their environment to improve their living conditions, access new opportunities nor obtain benefits.


Social capital occupies a central place in a set of assets such as human capital (assets that a person possesses due to the innate characteristics of their human condition: knowledge, health, skills, time and others), social capital (assets that are derived from the relations between people and from their involvement in organizations), productive capital (physical assets: land, properties, goods and financial assets), natural capital (assets in the form of the quality and quantity of natural resources to which access is had), cultural capital (resources and symbols that are the result of the culture in question)


From the view of social capital, putting poverty in the center of the concerns of public policies can strongly influence the possibilities of overcoming it, as it allows for a change in the amplitude and nature of the relationships between the poor sectors and those that are not. That is to say, it may modify the amplitude of the social networks and the degree of associativity existing between groups with a different type of social capital.


The importance of social capital is highlighted in the lifestyle of poor people to the extent that it allows them to access other resources, fosters their involvement in organizations, and helps them escape from their situation of poverty, increasing their citizenship and social inclusion.






The notion of vulnerability has the potential to contribute towards the identification of individuals, households and communities that, due to their lower endowment of assets and diversification of strategies, are exposed to higher levels of risk because of significant alterations in the social, political and economic plane, which affect their living conditions. Presented in this way, the notion of vulnerability exceeds, at the same time that it includes, the dimension of income that has traditionally been measured from the notion of poverty. The concept of risk that is implicit in the idea of poverty can be observed through deviations with respect to the average values of a society, or else by coefficients of variation of some key variables such as income, employment, consumption of goods and services. “The concept of vulnerability is understood as a multidimensional process which converges on the risk or probability of the individual, household or community of being hurt, harmed or damaged by changes or prevalences of external and/or internal situations” (ECLAC, 2001, p.56)


Under this concept of vulnerability poverty is intended to be understood as a result of a process in which a household, an individual or a community are affected by facing a particular situation that damages their wellbeing. In order to understand the reach of this approach, it is demonstrated that a family is more vulnerable if only one of its members works. Upon losing this source of income the standard of living of the whole family is immediately affected. At the same time, a person who works without a contract is prone to falling into a situation of poverty if they suffer an accident, given that they are not protected by social welfare labor laws.


All the above can express an idea of the world of poverty, understanding from a rational point of view what authors talk about when they refer to people who live in a situation of poverty. However, they lose credibility if they are opposed to eliminating such a division in society, if discrimination against “the poor” continues, believing them to be different. For this reason, it is necessary to keep in mind those who live in poverty, believe in their abilities, show interest in their dreams, get to know their experiences through a real understanding of what it means to be poor[2], for which the following aspects have to be taken into account: 1) the composition of the assets available to the household; 2) the strategies in using these assets, 3) those who receive assistance from the state or not.


And finally, some key aspects are considered that are derived from the vulnerability approach. Firstly, the role that public policies have in the strengthening or diversification of the physical, financial, human, and social assets of the excluded poor, which represents the highest social disadvantages. Secondly, the scenario that contributes to generating the public sector for the access to a set of opportunities provided by society, especially through policies of market regulation, distribution of income, and economic incentives. In this sense, the origin of vulnerability is the other face of the assets, that is to say, of the liabilities possessed by diverse groups of the population. Liabilities contribute to augmenting risks, exposing to a greater extent the households that possess them. Thus, public policies that affect assets and liabilities can be identified, those that can contribute to reducing poverty or not and that favor integration or not.




For evaluating poverty, methods are used that measure the quality of life and the level of income required for survival are used, but, even with these methods, it is not possible to set subjectivity aside, which means that all measurement of poverty should be circumscribed to a place and time; this, in accordance with the international standard established for the level of poverty, is to live on less than two dollars a day. Certainly in developed countries an individual with an income above the world average is also considered poor.


Two types of methods have been proposed to identify the poor and quantify them: the direct method and the one based on income[3]. The former is founded on determining the multiple human basic needs and establishing norms of minimum satisfaction for each one of them, according to the effective consumption of the people or households. Those who are in a situation of under-consumption, depending on the type and degree of dissatisfaction of needs that affects them, are classified as poor.


In order to set poverty lines, there are also different approaches. The first is the absolute, which sets the normative limit from a minimum pattern of life, that is evaluated in such a way that it allows for the satisfaction of basic needs: nutrition, housing, health, clothing, etc. In general, the determination of a limit to reduce the degree of arbitrariness, begins by clarifying the normative budget for food that manages to cover the nutritional requirements with a low cost basket (indigence line).

 “In contrast with this absolute approach, the relative derives from the idea that there is a relationship between poverty and the distribution of income. The place the poor have within a certain production and distribution context is highlighted. Its application leads, however, to the proportion of poor people remaining constant throughout time” (ECLAC 1997, p.13) To avoid this inconvenience, the “delimitation of the poverty line in relation to some measurement of income distribution as an average of income” has been attempted (Ministry for Agriculture, 1989, p. 15).


Quantification denotes the concept of poverty. It identifies a group of people who belong to the poor category. The indicator of unsatisfied basic needs (UBN), one of the most commonly used, was introduced by the ECLAC in the 80s. It is the most basic measurements, indicating a lack or insufficiency on the part of the household of one of the following five basic needs: housing with adequate materials, access to public services of water and sewerage, low level of overcrowding (less than three people per room), low degree of dependence (less than three people in the charge of each worker in the household, with education) and children between 7 and 10 years of age who attend school. According to this indicator, if the household has one unsatisfied need it is considered to be in conditions of poverty, and if it has more than one it is considered to be in indigence. This indicator (UBN) belongs to the neoclassic current with a materialistic, utilitarian, proceduralist viewpoint, the basic characteristics of which are related to a lack of a resource or resources out of a reference of resources that an individual, group or community possess.

The National Department of Planning (2002) assumes that the measurement of the incidence of poverty through UBN has some limitations. It considers to be poor those who have one unsatisfied basic need, but high levels of satisfaction in the remaining needs. In addition, three out of the five variables considered depend on physical characteristics that can be affected by the degree of urbanization more than by the particulars of the standard of living, although they are defined in a different way for urban and for rural areas. At the same time, the UBN only permits the calculation of the percentage of people with one or more unsatisfied needs, and does not allow for the consideration of how poor the poor are, nor what the degree of inequality among them is, aspects that are important in the field of social policy.

In Colombia, they are considered to be a group with unsatisfied basic needs (UBN), those households which respond to these five simple indicators:

1. Inadequate housing: this indicator expresses the physical characteristics of housing considered to be inappropriate for human habitation. Housing in municipal capitals is classified separately to the rest, thus:

- Municipal Capitals: Mobile homes, natural shelters or bridges, those without walls or with external walls made of fabric, scrap or with earthen floors are included.

-The rest: for this area the types of housing previously mentioned are also considered inadequate. With relation to the materials of the floor and walls, only those that are semi-permanent or perishable (mud wall, bamboo, sugar cane or wood), which also have earthen floors are considered.

2. Housing with critical overcrowding: this indicator seeks to capture the critical levels of occupation of the resources of the household for the group that inhabits it. Dwellings with more than three people per room are considered to be in this situation.

3. Housing with inadequate services: this indicator expresses in a more direct way the lack of access to minimum vital and sanitary conditions. The conditions of municipal capitals are distinguished from the rest. In municipal capitals, it includes dwellings without a bathroom or that due to the lack of piped water make use of water from rivers, springs, water tank trucks or rainwater. In the rest, given the rural conditions, dwellings that lack a bathroom and piped water and that supply themselves with water from rivers, springs or rainwater are included.

4. Housing with high economic dependence: is an indirect indicator of the levels of income. They are classified here those dwellings in which there are more than three people per employed person and that the head of the household has a maximum of two years of primary education.

5. Dwellings with children of school age who do not attend school. It measures the satisfaction of minimum educational needs for the child population. It takes into account the dwellings with, at least, one child older than six years of age and younger than twelve, who is a relative of the head of the household and who does not attend a formal education institution.


In addition, other factors are taken into consideration for this indicator, such as:



Demographic change

Evolution of human capital


Given that each of the indicators refers to different types of basic needs, from these a compound is constituted, which classifies as poor or with UBN those households that are in, at least, one of the situations of lack expressed by the simple indicators, and in a situation of indigence, those households that have two or more simple indicators of unsatisfied basic needs. To estimate the magnitude of poverty in relation to the population, it is considered that people who live in homes with a UBN or those in indigence are found in the same conditions as their respective household.


For the estimation of poverty, depending on the concept and approach that is given, different methodologies have been suggested. One of the most used by international organizations and statistics offices is the poverty line method, based on which the results of statistical studies on poverty have been supplied, obtained from the Encuesta de Hogares (Households survey). The method is only applied to the households with known income and implies the calculation of a poverty line that represents the minimum amount of income that allows for a household to make use of sufficient resources to attend to basic needs. For this it is necessary to take into account:


·           The cost of a basic food basket (BFB), which is made up of a number of foods, the caloric and protein content of which allows the satisfaction of a minimum level of nutritional requirements per person per month.  Its cost in a certain period of time is equivalent to the minimum income necessary to satisfy the alimentary needs of a person in that same period.


·           With the estimation of the cost of the basic non-alimentary needs, according to ECLAC (2001 p.211), “this estimation defines the normative basket, specifying each satisfier in a similar way to BFB”.


·           With the per capita income of the household


They are classified under the poverty line, those people or households who do not have the minimum income established to satisfy basic needs. In fact, for the analysts of the topic, the setting of a poverty line ends up being an arbitrary decision; for this reason, different authors and organizations use different poverty lines. Organizations such as the World Bank propose international poverty lines in terms of dollars per day per person adjusted by PPP. At the same time, the statistical institutions of each country tend to publish national poverty lines (extreme and moderate). Both approaches have their advantages: while national lines consider that there are differences among countries that lead to identifying the poor in different ways, international poverty lines are widely used because they allow for comparisons between countries and over time, as well as regional and global estimations of poverty.

The poverty line is established from the cost of a basic food basket to which a multiplying factor is applied.


PL = k• BFB                         [1]  

Where: PL is the poverty line, BFB is the basic food basket that is defined as the group of foods expressed in basic quantities to satisfy, at least, the caloric requirements (energy) of an average individual, for a reference population. It is the cost of the basic food basket per person, or indigence line, and k, the multiplying factor. Thus, the value of the poverty line corresponds to twice the value of a basic food basket in an urban area and to 1.75 times in a rural area.


The poverty line is studied by the neoclassic school of thought with a utilitarian view, the basic characteristics of which are the minimum level of reasonable consumption according to the standards of society. This method is the most widely used in measuring poverty and is constituted based on the measurement of the income and expenditure of households. This leads to an investigation as to whether the households have sufficient income for the acquisition of essential goods and services to satisfy basic needs. And to define these needs a basic basket of goods and services that meet the requirements of the satisfaction of basic needs is detailed. From this the cost is obtained by evaluating the items at market prices. This cost defines the line: if the income is below the line, the household is poor.


This way of measuring poverty has spread internationally through what is known as the poverty line method (PL). With this method it is assumed that those households or individuals whose income is above the poverty line have their basic needs met.

It is important to highlight that this method is appropriate for measuring poverty as well as indigence or extreme poverty, the distinction between one and the other being a normative variation of the basket used for that end. In summary, generally, the indigence basket is defined from a selection of foods that would contain the necessary nutrients to ensure the subsistence and avoid the death of the individual by starvation, while the poverty basket includes these food products as well as a series of complementary products that would theoretically cover other non-alimentary needs, such as health, clothing, housing, education, and transport.

Indigence Line

According to the World Bank, the poverty line (PL) and the indigence line (IL) are proposed as measurement instruments. With this method the income or consumption per capita is compared to the poverty line expressed in per capita terms, for this reason the households with an income below the poverty line are considered to be poor.


The indicator allows the calculation of the incidence of poverty, that is to say, the percentage of the population whose income is below the poverty line. It is calculated as the minimum income established per person to satisfy food, nutrition, housing, health, clothing and other basic needs. It corresponds to the monthly cost of a basic food basket per person, the caloric and protein content of which permits satisfaction of the minimum level of daily basic nutritional requirements (220 calories, 62g of protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin C) and that also reflects the prevailing consumption habits. They are considered poor those whose income is below the poverty line and indigents or in extreme poverty those whose income is not even sufficient for acquiring the basket food basket. In this way the method provides an indirect approximation of the magnitude of poverty (Álvarez & Martínez, 2001).


For the ECLAC, “extreme poverty” or “indigence” is understood as the situation in which the resources are not available that would allow for the satisfaction of at least the basic food needs. In other words, they are considered to be “extremely poor” those people who reside in households whose income is not sufficient for acquiring a basic food basket  even if the income was only used to that end. At the same time, it is understood as “total poverty” the situation in which the income is inferior to the value of a basic basket of goods and service, alimentary as well as non-alimentary.

Even though this indicator shares its essence with the one employed officially for monitoring the first goal of the millennium, it does not necessarily coincide in its way of calculating it. The fundamental difference lies in that the sufficiency threshold in the official indicator is defined in terms of a value in dollars, identical for all countries in terms of parity of purchasing power (PPP). In contrast, the basic baskets that give rise to the lines used by the ECLAC are specific for each country and respect the consumption structures that are prevalent in them (United Nations, 2010)

With reference to the indicators as such, the UBN indicator is attributed with the problem that the five needs that it measures have incidence mainly among those classified as poor rather than among the population as a whole, for which the incidence among the people with low income is not distressing. According to the World Bank (2000), 80% of the people classified as poor have an income that is superior to that of those that are poor according to the poverty line (PL), and this brings distributive implications because in this way those individuals with less income will receive less help.




This topic of public policies is defined as the essence of the actions that are executed by governing authorities whose objective is to generate wellbeing for the whole of society. These policies are geared towards offering a solution to a series of social needs, where the concentration of efforts in sectors of vital importance for the state is sought; for example, education, health, housing, and employment, given that they allow for an individual to have some certainty with the objective of leading them to collective wellbeing. For this, social policy includes other aspects such as distribution, protection and social justice. However, and in contrast to the above, public policies are frequently used by the elite and powerful groups, who benefit disproportionately from them, pushing a large part of the population below the poverty line of two dollars a day. The absence of commitment in the management of public policies, the lack of opportunities for the majority, and the great inequalities and poverty all cause social disintegration and violence. It is understood that the capacity of a country to generate greater income contributes to the improvement of the standards of living of a population, but on its own it does not guarantee that there is equitable distribution and favorable results that lead to a regions progress and that favor all of the population. For the above to be achieved, an important role is given to social policies, but for this they should be efficient and sustainable. These policies should cover the support of the satisfaction of basic needs of the population most in need, as well as the creation of better opportunities of employment so as to produce income.


A comprehensive policy of the government should have at least two objectives: the reduction of inequalities and economic growth, focusing on the regions that show persistent poverty. Governments use social policy as tool to organize and perfect market institutions and the social system. Through the good use of social policies the vicious circle of poverty can be eradicated, and a benign circle created in which human development and employment generate greater internal demand and thus, economic growth.


In order to develop public policies, strategies based on transparency, honesty and efficiency are needed, in which the general interest in placed above the personal one. The recognition of this makes work efficient and allows the fulfillment of its goal of reaching the most vulnerable population within falling into the selfishness of satisfying the interests of just a few. In order to avoid this, we should demand that the state fulfills public policies, that they are carried out as they should be and we should also demand the optimal management of resources. Only in this way will we have the rule of law in which equality and freedom for all prevails.

Authors such as Meny and Thoenig (1989), from the analytical perspective, conceptualize public policies as “programs of action of a public authority in a sector of society or geographical space” (Menyy & Thoenig, 1989, p. 19).


Additionally, Anderson offers a generic view: “An orientation deliberately followed by an actor or a group of actors to deal with a problem or a question that concerns them” (Anderson, 1990, p. 30).

The previous definitions indicate that the actor that produces a public policy is (or is entitled to act as) a public actor and thus, despite that another type of social actor can influence the actions of governments, they cannot produce these policies. In addition they indicate that a public policy can be the product of a decision as well as of the failure to make a decision. Finally they express that public policies can range from eradicating poverty to avoiding its increase, through a graduation of objectives and the means to fulfill them.

In the case of Colombia, incumbent governments establish programs of social policy in  a circumstantial way, to give a solution to the problem of poverty, but said policies ignore the main problems – in a macroeconomic and political vision – such as equity in the distribution of income, and access to the resources that drive a society, which leads to maintaining inequities, mainly in matters concerning the possibilities of individuals and families to have access to better resource allocation (public goods), in this case: employment, human capital, housing, health, among others, that help them to compete in the labor markets.


Government social programs are based on biased values that distort the origin of poverty, and the social policy, as it has been conceived, turns into a mitigating factor of the consequences, which on the short term causes the application of macroeconomic adjustment measures.



There are many concepts of poverty that do not only make reference to the lack of economic income, the deprivation of access to certain goods and services, considered to be necessary for the society, but also include different aspects such as, adequate housing, health, access to public services, education, clothing, leisure, etc., also necessary for wellbeing.

The relation between the development theories, the human rights approaches and the concrete problems that the concept of poverty makes reference to, set up an interpretation framework that is increasingly accepted by the international community. Nevertheless, most of the efforts used to obtain measurements of poverty continue to be restricted to the consideration of a group of economic indicators, such as that of insufficient income.


In accordance with the measurement through unsatisfied basic needs, the solution for the reduction of poverty would be to increment social expenditure and increase the coverage of public services and education, but this could be a fallacy, given that once the assistance programs are over, individuals will return to a state of poverty shortly after, as measured by the poverty line. For this reason, the best way to eradicate poverty is through a policy that not only increases the coverage of social services, but that also incentivizes people to improve themselves.

Real importance should be given to the problem of poverty, studying it and understanding it in order to be able to propose alternatives to the solution, with the objective of eradicating it or at least reducing it, involving the society and social institutions.


The public policies that governments apply, which include different programs to give a solution to the problems of poverty, bringing the population to a state of “wellbeing”, are directed towards the reduction of a series of needs that afflict a part of the population.



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*  Candidate for a Master’s Degree in Economics, professional in Associativity and Projects for the Ministry for Agriculture-UNAD lumar770@hotmail.com


[1] When multidimensional aspects are mentioned, several factors are being referred to: education: 1) low educative achievement, 2) illiteracy. Childhood and youth: 3) school attendance, 4) school lag, 5) no access to long-term services, 8) employment rate. Health: 9) no health insurance, 10) no access to health services when necessary: 11) no access to clean water sources, 12) elimination of sewer waste, 13) inadequate floors, 14) inadequate walls, 15) critical overcrowding.

[2] The main approaches, methods and strategies for overcoming poverty are taken into account.( Mideplan, 2002). 

[3]The method based on income consists of calculating the level of income necessary to reach certain minimum pattern of life and, on that basis, they are considered poor those who receive an income that is below that threshold or poverty line.