One of the problems with discussing poverty is clarifying what it means and how it can be defined. At the EU level, the notions of absolute and relative poverty are both used to describe poverty. Since 2010, the composite notion of Risk of Poverty or Social Exclusion, which brings together relative monetary poverty, material deprivation and exclusion from the labour market, is also used.

Absolute and relative poverty

What is absolute poverty?

Absolute or extreme poverty is when people lack the basic necessities for survival. For instance they may be starving, lack clean water, proper housing, sufficient clothing or medicines and be struggling to stay alive.

The United Nations tends to focus its efforts on eliminating absolute or extreme poverty. The first goal of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Eradicating extreme poverty is translated into the targets “By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day” (1st target) and “By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions (2nd target)”. Still, more than 836 million people are living in extreme poverty at the global level. (UN, 2017)

Although absolute poverty is more common in developing countries, it has increased considerably in Europe over the last few years, particularly with the crisis and the consequent austerity measures.

[1] The international poverty line was set at $1 a day at the time the MDGs were established, but since 2008, the World Bank has defined people living in extreme poverty as those living on less than $1.25 a day, reflecting higher price levels in many developing countries than previously estimated. The definition was changed again in 2015, with the new global poverty line being set at $1.90 per day, using 2011 prices. See more here and here.


What is relative poverty?

Relative poverty is where some people’s way of life and income is so much worse than the general standard of living in the country or region in which they live that they struggle to live a normal life and to participate in ordinary economic, social and cultural activities. What this means will vary from country to country, depending on the standard of living enjoyed by the majority.

The European Union’s Social Inclusion Process uses a relative definition of poverty.

“People are said to be living in poverty if their income and resources are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living considered acceptable in the society in which they live.

Because of their poverty they may experience multiple disadvantages through unemployment, low income, poor housing, inadequate health care and barriers to lifelong learning, culture, sport and recreation. They are often excluded and marginalised from participating in activities (economic, social and cultural) that are the norm for other people and their access to fundamental rights may be restricted”.

European Commission, Joint Report on Social Inclusion 2004

The notion of ‘at risk of poverty or social exclusion’

Until 2010, relative poverty was the main focus when monitoring poverty at the EU level. In 2010, the EU adopted the Europe 2020 Strategy, aimed at guiding the EU towards a smart sustainable and inclusive economy.

Among the five headline targets of this strategy, a poverty target was adopted for the first time, to reduce by 20 million the number of people ‘At Risk of Poverty or Social Exclusion’ (AROPE).

The AROPE indicator is defined as the share of population in at least one of the following three conditions:

  • At risk of poverty (AROP), meaning below the relative monetary poverty threshold (60% of median equalized household income)
  • In a situation of severe material deprivation (SMD)
  • Living in a household with very low work intensity

The AROPE indicator reflects the multiple facets of poverty and exclusion across an enlarged EU. Read more about this in the next chapter.

The reality of poverty

These “official” definitions, however, often do little to capture the reality of the day-to-day struggle of living in poverty. To understand this better, is it vital to ask people who are themselves experiencing poverty what this means and to involve them directly in identifying and delivering the solutions.

EAPN is committed to ensuring that the voices of those experiencing poverty are heard when describing and defining poverty and to promoting their active participation in the development, implementation and monitoring of policies and programmes to eradicate it.

What do people in poverty think?

Lack of basic necessities

“I can afford only cheap food; fruit and vegetables to feed children is too expensive; fish is not affordable; “healthy food” is too expensive for me.”

“I do not live, I survive.”

“My children can see that they don’t have what the others have.”



“I have lost friends as I cannot participate in their activities; even to participate in self-help groups needs money and time; I’m short of money and time to participate in discussions.”

“I cannot afford a daily paper; books, especially scientific literature is too expensive.”


Bureaucracy and lack of information

“The system is too complicated, I don’t know where to get what.”

“I have slept in cardboard boxes. I had the choice to die on the street or to take back my life in my own hands. I went to social services to get help to find a house. I was confronted with an enormous bureaucracy. I had to tell my story several times, each time again and it took years before I got a house.”

“Every time I tell my life to civil servants I receive a lot of compassion, but rules prevent effective aid.”


Lack of respect and lack of hope

“The way people look at you is humiliating. You are not considered a human being.”

“There is humiliation in being written out of the ordinary decisions that affect you everyday”

“Sometimes you get the feeling that animals are better protected because if you beat a dog you will be sentenced and maybe put into prison whereas if you beat someone I am not sure that you will always be punished for that….

My feeling is that dogs are more respected and better treated than Gypsies.”

“I don’t see any progress since years. I have no future.”

“I feel a little bit like Don Quixote. I am fighting against windmills here and there and there is no real hope anymore”.

“Give us back our future!”


Lack of decent work

“I work illegally. This is not because I think it is good – I am fully aware of the consequences-, but this is the only way for me to get a job.”

“People live off nothing. Our salaries are too low.”

“Employers do not respect us and our rights.”

Fear for one’s children

“It is impossible for me to invite the friends of my children at home, because my home is so small. So my children in turn are not invited any more. Thus they become also excluded. We are obliged to lead a hidden life.”

“I can deny myself much, but my children have a right to a dignified life.”

“The problem is not that we run out of money occasionally. The real problem is that we live our entire lives this way and our children grow up in this too.”

Voices of people participating in the 6th, 10th and 11th European Meetings of People Experiencing Poverty (organized under the auspices of the Austrian Presidency of the EU in 2006, of the Hungarian Presidency of the EU in 2011 and under the Danish Presidency in 2012.

The day-to-day struggle

This means that the reality of poverty in the EU is much more a day to day struggle to live and survive which can adversely affect your health and psychological well-being and put stress on your personal relationships.

Living in poverty can mean:

  • becoming isolated from family and friends;
  • lacking hope and feeling powerless and excluded with little control over the decisions that affect your day to day life;
  • lacking information about the supports and services available to you;
  • having problems in getting your basic needs met and accessing decent housing, health services and schools and life long learning opportunities;
  • living in an unsafe neighbourhood with high levels of crime and violence and poor environmental conditions or in a remote and isolated rural area;
  • going without very basic necessities because you may not be able to afford essential utilities like water, heat and electricity or to buy healthy food or new clothing or to use public transport;
  • being unable to afford to buy medicines or visit the dentist;
  • living from day to day with no savings or reserves for times of crisis such as losing a job or falling ill and thus falling into debt;
  • being exploited and forced into illegal situations;
  • experiencing racism and discrimination;
  • being unable to participate in normal social and recreational life such as going to the pub or cinema or sports events or visiting friends or buying birthday presents for family members.

Overall, the reality of poverty in the EU is that it affects many aspects of people’s lives and limits people’s access to their fundamental rights. People affected often experience a range of different disadvantages which combine to reinforce each other and trap them in poverty. Poverty limits the opportunity for people to reach their full potential. For instance, children growing up in poverty are more likely to suffer poor health, do less well at school and become the next generation of adults at risk of unemployment and long-term poverty.

The problem with comparing relative poverty levels

Comparing relative poverty levels between different countries does not sufficiently take into account the differences in standards of living. In reality it is more a measure of inequality.

For example a person who is relatively poor in a rich country usually suffers less material deprivation than someone who is living in a country with low overall living standards. In these countries poverty can be more extreme, you are more likely to lack basic necessities and survival can be more of a struggle, but because the general living standards are lower in these countries, there may be less relative poverty i.e. less difference between the “poor” and the living standards of everybody else.

This can lead to misunderstandings about the extent of poverty and run the risk of underplaying the severity of the poverty suffered by some groups, particularly in some new Member States. Of course, the worst situation is to be found in those EU countries with both a low overall standard of living and a high level of relative poverty.

In order to take account of the different economic situation in different Member States, when the EU list of commonly agreed indicators for social inclusion were endorsed by the 2001 Laeken European Council, it was emphasised that the value of the at-risk-of-poverty threshold should always accompany the indicator of those at risk of poverty i.e. what it means in monetary terms – purchasing power in terms of Euros.

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What EAPN fights for!

Defining poverty and social exclusion is a complex task. A multiplicity of approaches exist that try to define poverty.

These definitions are useful but should always be used with care since each definition reflects a specific point of view and often goes together with specific policy options.

In the end, if an approach of poverty is to be underpinned by the respect for the dignity and the rights of people, the following prerequisites should be matched.

These points have been constantly promoted by EAPN:

  • People experiencing poverty as well as the organisations working with them should always be part of the debate on the definition and indicators of poverty; only their participation is likely to ensure that indicators reflect the complex reality on the ground and can be the reference for efficient solutions;
  • Poverty is multidimensional and should not be restricted to one or another dimension; both relative and absolute poverty should be considered;
  • Tools for the analysis and the monitoring of poverty and social exclusion should be constantly improved both at the national and EU levels to allow new developments to be taken into account as well as the social impact of new policies to be assessed; governments should also rely on the immediate knowledge of NGOs working with people experiencing poverty on the ground;
  • At the EU level, the full set of social indicators agreed under the social OMC should be at the centre of EU policy making and should also be used to prevent negative social impact of other policies (i.e. ex-ante coordination); the relevance, timeliness and comparability of these indicators should be constantly improved; qualitative information coming from NGOs working with People Experiencing Poverty on the Ground should also be used at the EU level;
  • Awareness of the reality of poverty and of the trends observed through indicators should be raised amongst wider audiences; action should be taken in this direction at the national and EU levels; outcomes of the monitoring of quantitative and qualitative indicators should be the subject of democratic debate in National Parliament and in the European Parliament;
  • Monitoring poverty should go together with monitoring inequalities; policies for combating poverty should address the widening inequalities in our societies. Better indicators should be developed to capture inequalities in wealth, as well as inequality in access to services and other resources, and rights. Eradicating poverty implies rethinking about the society we want and to move towards a more equal society;
  • Awareness should also be raised on the reasons why poverty should be combated. Poverty is first an attack on fundamental rights and the EU set itself the duty of combating poverty and established concrete targets which should be implemented. Poverty is also endangering the future prosperity of our society as well as economic recovery. Fighting poverty is a wise investment, not a luxury expense;
  • A Poverty Target is useful as a political instrument to drive policies against poverty, if it is underpinned by serious policy ambition, treated equally with other targets, applied consistently by EU Member States and given a high level of priority among other objectives.
  • The targets also need to be linked to concrete instruments for delivery i.e. a an EU and national multidimensional anti-poverty strategy, supported by adequate EU and national funding; A strategy should be used as a tool to mainstream the fight against poverty and social exclusion in all policiesand ensure that different policies pursue this objective consistently;
  • Social protection benefits, but also accessible quality services and personalized pathways to employment should be implemented by Member States to fight poverty and social exclusion according to an integrated ‘Active Inclusion’ approach* for people who are able to work or find quality jobs, but access to rights, resources and services must be guaranteed to all groups, at all ages if poverty is to be tackled effectively and the transmission of poverty avoided.
  • In their concerted efforts to exit from the crisis, Member States should avoid generating even more poverty among the people of the European Union, by ensuring a coherent, balanced approach to economic and social policy that contributes to building a strong European Social Model.