The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty
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Letter to Friends around the World # 104

« End poverty in all its forms everywhere” is the overarching goal of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development1. In order to achieve it, it is necessary to consider other dimensions, beyond monetary ones, when thinking about poverty.

The international participatory research “The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty” has been released by ATD Fourth World and the University of Oxford, in six countries. For three months, hundreds of people living in poverty, professionals and academics have worked together to identify nine key common dimensions of poverty in northern and southern countries. In addition to the dimensions, they identified “modifying factors” that can intensify or alleviate poverty.

1The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice.

Nine dimensions: three that we know and six of which are new.

Alongside the three more familiar dimensions, which are a lack of decent work, insufficient income, and material and social deprivation, six were previously hidden or rarely considered: 

- Three relational dimensions which raise awareness about the way in which those who are not confronted with poverty affect the lives of those who are: social maltreatment, institutional maltreatment, and unrecognised contributions.

- Three dimensions which clearly reveal aspects that are too often ignored regarding the experience of poverty. These are: Suffering “in body, mind and heart”, struggle and resistance, and disempowerment.

Suffering in body, mind and heart, disempowerment, and struggle and resistance constitute the core experience.

People living in poverty know great suffering in their body, heart, and mind: difficulties and hardship shorten lives and lead to depression, distress and sometimes suicide. These difficulties undermine the ability to survive day to day. Parents suffer for their children, children suffer for their parents, and they both reinforce the other’s suffering.

When the state takes custody of a child because of poverty, the action is recognised but not the suffering, nor what people do to overcome it”. United Kingdom

You can’t get to sleep, you’re thinking ‘what can I do?’ What am I going to feed my children? You feel really bad; it hurts here insideBolivia

In daily life, poverty is felt like an absence of control in the face of difficult choices, when the choices are not made by the person but by others. A process of “disempowerment”, dependence, and a loss of autonomy is at the heart of the experience of poverty.

Poor people are powerless in society. They cannot raise their voice because they know nobody listens to them. Rich people control everythingBangladesh

It is vital that the fight and resistance of those who live in poverty are recognised. These people are not passive, they actively fight to overcome difficulties in life and they in fact need a lot of creativity to get the most out of the very rare resources they have at their disposal. They work together to face challenges and constraints.

(...) when I think about my children, I gain energy and strength to find food for them. I hope that when they grow up, they will get out of this povertyTanzania

Relational dynamics: Institutional maltreatment, Social maltreatment, and Unrecognised contributions

Poverty is rooted in everyday relations between people, social groups and all the different kinds of institutions that shape it. People who are blamed, whom we make feel ashamed because of their poverty suffer social abuse. Those whom institutions treat as numbers are victims of institutional abuse.

An elderly woman in poverty testified how she is excluded from almost all social events such as weddings in her neighborhood. Her neighbors know that she is unable to contribute financially, so they do not invite her.Tanzania

People no longer dare to go to the town hall because they are not well-received, they no longer want to go there to process administrative formalities. France

People who are in poverty contribute to our society. But their contributions are often not recognised.
“We’re very skilled in finding ways to earn money; we know how to knit; we know how to do so many things, like recycling. But nobody values these skills. Nobody says, ‘They make an effort.’ Our skills are made invisibleBolivia

Poverty is influenced by what we call “modifying factors”

Identity: People in poverty suffer discrimination based on stereotypes, prejudices, and ignorance. Like other groups, they are treated negatively according to their gender, ethnicity, physical appearance, sexual orientation and migrant or immigrant status.

Timing and duration: When experienced over a long period of time, and depending what point in life someone is at, poverty entails an accumulation of pressures and demands with more severe impacts on all dimensions.

Location: Disadvantaged areas, both rural and urban, shape the lives of people experiencing poverty.

Environment: Environmental policies are often shaped without reference to their impact on people in poverty.

Cultural beliefs: They affect how poverty is defined and understood and can shape the way that people are treated because of their poverty.

Poverty in childhood

Groups in Bangladesh and Tanzania carried out explorative research in order to find out whether poverty is experienced and defined differently by children. The majority of the dimensions of poverty during childhood that were identified are the same as those defined for adults. Children in poverty also suffer for their parents and so they carry a double burden. They see their parents, whom they love, struggling to face the situation and fight to support their family, all while feeling helpless. With a lot of courage, many children find their own ways of supporting their parents, which gives the whole family more strength.

A child explains “my father works very hard. There is no one who can help my father. I want to help my father, but he doesn’t agree to this because the work is tough and could harm me”. 

Hearing about this research, one writer on the Forum relates the words of a child, “When I express myself, I feel alive, I feel like a great man...”.