The Real Causes and Effects of Poverty

When we look at the effects of poverty on a society, it becomes easy to blame certain causes. If someone is hungry, then it makes it harder for them to work. If there is a lack of access to clean water, then there is a chance of lost work or school days. A lack of sanitation, which more than 2.5 billion people have, is also a common poverty-related issue.

Yet the real causes and effects of poverty are much deeper than a lack of food, water, or sanitation. They are based on our own social structures, nutritional distribution systems, and spending priorities. Here are the key points that must be discussed before we can begin to eliminate poverty for good.

1. There is an overall lack of education available in the world today.

When education levels increase, poverty levels naturally decrease in response. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t highly educated people who live in poverty. It does mean that people with an education are more likely to find a way to stop living in poverty at some point.

In the developed world, this may not seem like much of an issue – but it can be in poor urban centers. Imagine having just 1 book available for every 300 kids. What kind of learning opportunity is that? Poor urban neighborhoods are less likely to have access to current learning resources, even in the developed world, and that puts the households living there at a natural disadvantage.

Families that are living in poverty are also more likely to have a higher tally of missed school days for a variety of reasons. It may be due to illness, but it can also be due to the need to have a child work so the family can benefit from that income. There is also a higher prevalence of missed school days to care for a sick family member in poor households.

Educational access is also restricted for many girls in the world today. ABC News reports that 35 million girls around the world today cannot get a basic education, while 65 million girls are not presently in school. 17 million primary school-age girls may never even attend school at any point in their lifetime. Out of 123 million people between the ages of 15-24 who cannot read or write, 61% of them are women.

All it takes for women to change things for the better is 8 years of education. At that point, girls are 4 times less likely to marry young or have a child as a teenager. Maybe that’s the reason why there are thousands of documented attacks on schools and educational centers around the world each year. When children learn, they grow. If they do not learn, then they can be manipulated.

And that manipulation leads to poverty.

2. Our food distribution systems are inadequate.

According to Oxfam, the world currently produces nearly 20% more kilocalories than is needed for every living human right now. Think about that for a second: the planet is producing more food than every person needs to live a life without hunger.

Yet there are 2 billion people right now who will go to bed hungry tonight, unsure of when or where their next meal will be. This is called being food insecure.

Food insecurity isn’t just a developing world issue. 20% of US children experience food insecurity as well.

So if the world is producing so much food, why are so many people still hungry?

It’s because about one-third of the food that is produced in the world today either gets lost or it gets wasted in food production and consumption systems. According to UNEP and the World Resources Institute, the cost of this waste is equal to about $1 trillion annually.

Or to put it another way: consumers in industrialized nations waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.

In the United States, organic waste is the second most common component that is found in landfills, which actually contributes to global warming emissions due to the amount of methane the waste produces. On the average year, up to 40% of the US food supply goes to waste. For the average US family of four, that equates to 960 pounds of food that gets wasted every year. That’s enough food to feed a person in need for up to 6 months.

By fixing waste in the distribution chain, many more people can receive the food they need. In return, we can also work on limiting hunger for families living in poverty.

3. Basic sanitation facilities can change everything.

In the world today, 10% of people lack access to safe water. 33% of people lack access to a toilet. There is a total of 2.5 billion people who lack access to improved sanitation facilities. Eastern Asia leads the world in a lack of basic sanitation with 65% of households lacking access. 70% of those who lack access to sanitation facilities live in rural areas.

This lack of basic sanitation access means that an average of 2,200 children dies every day because of diarrheal diseases that are directly attributed to unsafe water and a lack of overall hygiene.

Something as simple as a family latrine can be enough to help save lives. The cost of building such a latrine can be as low as $70. Actual costs depend on the volume of the pit and the materials used for its construction, but even the most extensive design has a maximum cost of $600, according to the World Health Organization.

Some single pit pour-flush systems can be installed for as little as $30.

Yet even with this small cost, many developing nations are unable to subsidize the cost of building these systems for families. And since a majority of those who live in poverty are classified as living in extreme poverty, or earning less than $2 per day, a majority of their income goes to buying the food that they need.

Even if a family earning $2 per day saved all of their income that was not dedicated to food so that they could build a basic latrine, it would take over 100 days of saving to make this happen. That would mean no leftover cash for clothing, shoes, or basic medical care.

This is how poverty traps people. It then keeps people there because the developed world is unwilling or unable to step-in and solve the problem. In the United States, less than 1% of the total annual budget from gathered tax revenues goes to combat the effects of extreme poverty.

A simple investment into basic sanitation could improve the lives of billions. For less than $100 billion, everyone could have their own private basic latrine. For comparison, that one-time cost is about 20% of what the US spends every year for military and defensive purposes.

4. The need to survive instead of finding a way to thrive.

The average person is going to find ways to survive. They may not always be legal ways, but to an individual in poverty, that doesn’t matter. The reward of meeting a basic need far outweighs the risks of being caught.

And many times, especially in the developed world, the conditions in prison are better than the lifestyle an individual in poverty is currently experiencing.

Crime is a real effect of poverty, caused by the need for basic services. Different types of poverty will also bring about different types of crime. If a household has a low income, then they are more likely to commit a property-related crime without violence. If income inequality or social exclusion are real or perceived causes of poverty, then that individual is more likely to commit a violent crime to have their needs met.

The end result for those who commit a crime or those who are victimized by crime is stress. To cope with that stress, many in poverty turn to alcohol or addictive drugs. This makes it possible to survive the effects of poverty on a day-to-day basis, but no one thrives in this scenario.

Consistent alcohol and drug abuse create a coping mechanism that spirals a person downward toward more severe poverty. This reduces income, creates even worse living conditions, and causes more alcohol or drug abuse to cope with this issue.

“Get a job.” That’s the advice many have for those in this type of situation. Yet the problem often lies in the fact than an individual in poverty tried to obtain meaningful employment and could not for a prolonged period of time.

5. Violence isn’t always something that is crime-related.

Adults may cope with poverty by turning to items that can help them forget their circumstances for a moment. Children are forced into a different coping mechanism. When children face discrimination or social exclusion, their reaction tends to move toward hostility. They push back against the system that is attempting to hold them down.

This produces behaviors that are reflective of less overall self-control. At some point, any stress trigger can produce a violent reaction from a child who has been held back. In the US alone, there are an estimated 28 million children right now who are living in poverty. From a global perspective, the figure is over 1 billion.

That is a lot of kids that will one day grow up to feel like the world has held them back. Their response will be to change the system so that their kids won’t have to endure the same issues they have endured.

Yet policymakers tend to focus on the surface causes of poverty as a way to address the problem. Parents will be encouraged to take parenting classes. Social service programs will be initiated to give families options for therapy and access to non-drug coping mechanisms. School lunch programs provide 1-2 meals to children per day at a low- or no-cost to families with low incomes.

And these are good things, but families also need access to proper sanitation. They need food that comes from uncontaminated sources. They need clean water and healthcare access. When these basics can be met, families are able to pull themselves out of poverty with greater regularity because they no longer need to deal with the stresses of trying to survive.

They can begin to look for ways to thrive.

We Are the Real Causes and Effects of Poverty

Poverty certainly exists around the world and will likely always exist to some extent. What we must recognize is that with today’s technology, any poverty that exists has been artificially created by our own social structures, biases, and greed. There’s enough food and water for everyone, but only some actually receive what they need.

The goal shouldn’t be to let people in poverty “earn” their way out of it. There must be a change in perspective where the real causes and effects of poverty are addressed. We have the resources to make healthcare access and basic sanitation a reality right now. We can feed those who are hungry right now.

Which means we can be the generation that stops poverty right now. Are you in?

Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.