What Is Relative Poverty? - Definition, Causes & Examples

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  • 0:02 Relative Poverty Definition
  • 1:16 What Causes Relative Poverty?
  • 3:17 Examples of Relative Poverty
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Over 40 million people in the United States lived in relative poverty as of 2012. Learn about the causes of relative poverty and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Relative Poverty Definition

Relative poverty is the condition in which people lack the minimum amount of income needed in order to maintain the average standard of living in the society in which they live. Relative poverty is considered the easiest way to measure the level of poverty in an individual country. Relative poverty is defined relative to the members of a society and, therefore, differs across countries. People are said to be impoverished if they cannot keep up with the standard of living as determined by society.

Relative poverty also changes over time. As the wealth of a society increases, so does the amount of income and resources that the society deems necessary for proper conditions of living. For example, if you were a family of four (two adults and two children) living in America in 1963 with a yearly income less than $3,100, you would have been living in relative poverty. By 1992, this amount had increased to $14,228 a year.

What Causes Relative Poverty?

There are several causes of relative poverty, including:


From 2010-2014, the unemployment rate in the United States was over eight percent. This means that over 18 million Americans over the age of 16 did not have jobs. This lack of employment increases your chances of living in poverty.


The less education you have, the higher your chances of being unemployed, which in turn increases the likelihood that you will live in poverty.

Poor Health

Poor health is not only a cause of poverty, but it is also a consequence of poverty. People living in poverty suffer greater levels of physical and mental illness than those who do not. Poor health also weakens impoverished communities, which prevent many people from working and earning an income. For example, an infectious disease may spread across an impoverished community, killing many. Since these communities do not have access to adequate health care services, they cannot be treated and the cycle of poverty continues.

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