In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urban Poverty

  • Introduction
  • Definition of Urban Poverty

Urban Studies Urban Poverty
Ana Belén Cano-Hila
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0037


Eradicating poverty in all its forms remains one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. For this reason, it was the primary sustainable development goal set for the United Nations Development Programme. While the number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by more than half between 1990 and 2015, too many are still struggling to meet the most basic human needs, and in particular 10 percent of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty; one person in every ten is extremely poor. As of 2015, about 736 million people still lived on less than US $1.90 a day; many lack food, clean drinking water, and proper sanitation. Rapid growth in countries such as China and India have lifted millions out of poverty, but progress has been uneven. Women are more likely to be poor than men as they have less paid work and education and own less property. Consequently, child poverty also is significant high; half of all people living in poverty are under eighteen. In fact, child poverty is one of the most important concerns and priorities for national and international organizations. Progress has also been limited in other regions, such as South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, which account for 80 percent of those living in extreme poverty. New threats brought on by climate change, conflict, and food insecurity mean that even more work is needed to lift people out of poverty. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a bold commitment to finish what we have started and end poverty in all its forms and dimensions by 2030. This involves targeting the most vulnerable, increasing basic resources and services, and supporting communities affected by conflict and climate-related disasters. In fact, urban poverty in megalopolises in the Global South is a relevant issue in international research on poverty. However, this entry is focused on urban poverty, understood as a set of economic and social difficulties that are found in advanced industrial cities. Sociology has always shown an interest in poverty, for example in the early Chicago school’s studies on urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and neighborhoods. While classic figures of sociology such as Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, Georg Simmel, and Auguste Comte did not write a great deal about poverty, a strong concern with it exists in the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In recent decades, there has been growing interest in unifying the sociologies of poverty and paying more attention to poverty in the developing world, where the overwhelming majority of poor people live. Hence, this bibliography attempts to address the twofold goals of reviewing the main literature in the field as it exists today and seeking to identify frontier directions for emerging research.

Definition of Urban Poverty

Urban poverty refers to the set of economic and social difficulties that are found in industrialized cities and that are the result of a combination of processes such as: the establishment of comfortable living standards, the increase of individualism, processes of social fragmentation, and the dualization of the labor market, which translates into social dualization. Urban poverty is seen as a type of poverty with the primary characteristic that it occurs in industrialized societies, according to Rowntree 1901, but also in the Global South, in accordance with Mitlin and Satterthwaite 2012. Social researchers and scientists have traditionally addressed the definition of poverty using two concepts: absolute poverty and relative poverty. The concept of absolute poverty is based on the notion of subsistence, i.e., the basic conditions that need to be met for a person to live a healthy life from the physical point of view. The concept of relative poverty is based on the idea that the criteria of human subsistence are the same for everyone, in any context and under any circumstances. Therefore, it is understood that people below this established universal threshold are in a situation of poverty, regardless of their country’s level of human, technological, and economic development or its culture. Townsend 1979 understands that poverty is less about shortage of income and more about the inability of people on low incomes to participate actively in society. His thesis was criticized on the grounds that his measures of participation related to matters of choice rather than to need in which consumerism abounds and identity is often defined in terms of specific form of consumption. Among these critics, it is important to highlight Sen 1993 and Sen 2002. Sen defines poverty as a deprivation of basic capabilities, particularly well-being/welfare and freedom. For him, poverty is a redistributive justice problem, which includes absolute and relative conditions of poverty. From the capabilities approach, Sen focuses the poverty analyses on purposes—understood as a necessary freedom for people to be who they want to be—not just only focused on income or the satisfaction of basic needs. More recent works on urban poverty like Mingione 1996, Saraceno 2002, Murie 2004, and Cano 2019 suggest that in order to understand this situation today it is important to widen the focus of analysis, not merely paying attention to chronic poverty areas, but analyzing the living conditions of groups in disadvantaged contexts and placing special emphasis on the dynamics of impoverishment (unemployment, eviction, dependency on social aid, lack of social networks, stigma effect, and so on). Therefore, poverty not only means having insufficient resources for physical survival, but is also the set of circumstances that prevent full integration into a community, bearing in mind its living standards, as Marshall 1950 observes. New analyses of urban poverty need to understand it as a long-term, heterogeneous, and multidimensional phenomenon, and to focus attention on the processes that generate urban poverty.

  • Cano, Ana Belén. “Urban Poverty.” In The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Studies. Edited by A. M. Orum, 1–7. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118568446.eurs0388

    The author analyzes the conceptual and methodological framework of the concept of urban poverty, understanding it as a set of economic and social difficulties that are found in industrialized cities and that are the result of a combination of processes such as: the establishment of comfortable living standards, the rise of individualism, processes of social fragmentation, and the dualization of the labor market, which translates into social dualization.

  • Marshall, T. H. Citizenship and Social Class and Other Essays. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1950.

    The author develops the concept of social citizenship, understood as the set of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights and duties of a member of a community. He argues that the notion of citizenship cannot be independent of the social and economic dimensions, since they decisively affect the capacities for political deliberation and social cohesion.

  • Mingione, Enzo. Urban Poverty and the Underclass. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470712900

    This book brings together the main debates on poverty and the responses, analyzing the transformations in the various welfare systems and sociopolitical systems. It points out how the weakening of welfare programs reinforces the role of the community and the family as providers of welfare and social stability, which limits the mechanisms of social mobility.

  • Mitlin, Diana, and David Satterthwaite. Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature. London: Routledge, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203104316

    This book presents a much-needed systematic overview about the state of urban poverty in the Global South, from a historical and contemporary perspective.

  • Murie, Alan. “The Dynamics of Social Exclusion and Neighborhood Decline: Welfare Regimes, Decommodification, Housing, and Urban Inequality.” In Cities of Europe: Changing Contexts, Local Arrangements, and the Challenge to Urban Cohesion. Edited by Yuri Kazepov, 151–169. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470694046.ch7

    This book develops a comparison between European cities, focusing on the interrelationship between social exclusion, segregation, and governance.

  • Rowntree, B. Seebohm. Poverty: A Study of Town Life London: Macmillan, 1901.

    This work is one of the main classics and reference works in the study of urban poverty. One of his main contributions was to understand poverty as a consequence of certain social processes, and not as a cause of them. Coherently with this, he contributed proposals toward new policies and social aid programs.

  • Saraceno, Chiara. Social Assistance Dynamics in Europe: International and Local Poverty Regimes. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2002.

    This book analyzes different models of social assistance in various European countries. It focuses its analysis on the interaction between personal biographies and political contexts.

  • Sen, Amartya K. “Capacidad y bienestar.” In Calidad de Vida Edited by Martha C. Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, 54–83. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1993.

    This book is made up of a set of multidisciplinary essays on different visions of the concept of quality of life. It provides an interesting rethinking of the concept, with the intention of designing new methods of analysis, developing alternative approaches and establishing some useful proposals regarding this topic of growing interest in the academic community.

  • Sen, Amartya K. Rationality and Freedom Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.

    Amartya Sen brings clarity and insight to three difficult issues: rationality, freedom, and justice. This capability approach is utilized to illuminate the demands of rationality in individual choice (decisions under uncertainty) as well as social choice (cost benefit analysis and environmental assessment).

  • Townsend, Peter. Poverty in the United Kingdom. A Survey of Household Resources and Standards of Living. London: Penguin, 1979.

    This author studied how relative deprivation includes both material and social aspects. One of his main contributions is to relate income levels, poverty and participation.

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