20161203_123051The United Nations has become one of the leading international organizations creating international norms and discourse. The first goal of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere.

One strategy the United Nations uses to end poverty is by providing resources and status approved non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs can hold General status (large, international NGOs whose work engages with most of the issues covered by ECOSOC and its subsidiaries), Special status (NGOs specializing in only a few areas covered by ECOSOC), or Roster status (NGOs with a narrow or technical focus). NGOs with General or Special consultative status must submit a report every four years to maintain their status. In return, they are granted access to ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies, various human rights mechanisms of the UN, ad-hoc processes, and special General Assembly events. Currently, over 4,500 NGOs have consultative status with ECOSOC.

International organizations focused on alleviating global poverty, such as Oxfam and  ONE develop public discourse about the power dynamics that create and reinforce poverty. Through public education campaigns, community interventions, and political lobbying, these and other international organizations leverage the resources of wealthy nations to reduce global poverty.

Poverty: A Global Social Problem

The key to determining if a social condition is a social problem is to determine if a condition or behavior is perceived as harmful to society or to a significant group of a society. Further, a social problem is an undesirable condition that members of society think should be addressed.

The Harms of Poverty

On an individual level, in “What Poverty Does to the Young Brain,” journalist Madeline Ostrander reports findings from the National Scientific Council indicating that correlates of poverty have a significantly damaging effect on developing brains, the effect of which may follow a child throughout his or her lifetime. According to James B. Holt, of the Division of Adult and Community Health with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, factors related to poverty that have significantly negative affects on health include, “acute and chronic stress, overburdened or disrupted social supports, material deprivations, and exposure to hazards such as toxins or pollutants in the physical environment” (Holt, 2007).

But, if this issue only affects a few people, if the distribution is random, or if individuals choose their own poverty, it still may not be a social problem. As an example, let’s look at how poverty is distributed in the U.S. and whether or not it affects large numbers of people. Trends across geographic areas can help us understand poverty as a social problem, instead of a personal problem.

In the image below, analysis of data from the Community Health Status Indicators (CHSI) database reveal a distribution of poverty in the U.S. which has been described as a continental poverty divide.


For the full report, see: http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2007/oct/07_0091.htm


This image indicates that poverty is more concentrated in Southern states, showing an unequal distribution of poverty. Further, because these figures are based on the percentage of the county experiencing poverty, we can say that large numbers of people are harmed by poverty.

Is poverty perceived as a problem that needs to be solved?

The next part of the definition of social problems includes a sentiment that this is a problem that could and should be solved. If you, personally, experience poverty, it is likely that you agree that this is a problem that could and should be solved. But what if you don’t live in a high poverty area? What if you aren’t poor yourself? Why should we care about poverty? Poverty expert Mark R. Rank and sociologist John Iceland contend we should care because, in the U.S.:

  • The consequences of poverty (health risks, family problems, higher crime, and so on) are costly for the government to address. Further, everyone is affected by these consequences, whether they are poor or not.
  • Americans are at greater risk of poverty than they realize. About 75% of Americans aged 20-75 live in poverty over their lifetime.
  • Poverty impedes our economic progress. We can’t buy goods we can’t afford.

In his TED Talk, Professor Emeritus Richard Wilkinson discusses the effect of not just poverty, but relative poverty. In this talk, he argues that comparing rich nations and poor nations shows little difference in outcomes such as life expectancy, trust, happiness, and so on. Instead, it is within country inequality that shows vastly different outcomes. That is, living in a country where there is a gap between the rich and the poor produces severely negative outcomes. Larger income gaps are related to negative outcomes in:

  • Social relations (child conflict, homicide, imprisonment, social capital, trust)
  • Health (drug abuse, infant mortality, life expectancy, mental illness, obesity)
  • Human capital (child wellbeing, high school drop outs, math and literacy scores, social mobility, teenage births)

As an example, view the chart below showing the correlation between income gaps within a country and the rates of social problems (an aggregate measure of life expectancy, kids’ math and literacy scores, infant mortality rates, homicide rates, proportion of the population in prison, teenage birthrates, levels of trust, obesity, mental illness, drug addiction, and social mobility).


What this graph shows is that countries that have lower income gaps (that is, there is more economic equality within the country), the fewer social problems that country has.


Holt JB. The topography of poverty in the United States: a spatial analysis using county-level data from the Community Health Status Indicators project. Prev Chronic Dis 2007;4(4). http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2007/oct/07_0091.htm. Accessed December 3, 2016.


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