How many people living in poverty are there?

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Some figures from the United Nations Development Programme:

  • More than a billion people live with less than a dollar per day.
  • 2.8 billion people, that is to say almost half of the global population, live with less than 2 dollars per day.
  • 448 million children are underweight.
  • 876 million adults are illiterate, two thirds of which are women.
  • Every day, 30,000 children under 5 die from avoidable diseases.
  • More than a billion people don’t have access to healthy water.
  • 20% of the global population have 90% of the wealth.

ATD Fourth World produces qualitative studies on extreme poverty through its Research Institute, but it is not a statistics-producing organisation. Since the 60’s, ATD Fourth World has asked the authorities at the national and international levels to give themselves the means to meticulously measure how many people are victims of extreme poverty and the effects of policies designed to overcome destitution.

Gradually, studies have been carried out. Mostly these are statistics on the income of people and households, but also on access to work, housing, healthcare, an education system and adult training. These statistics can be found on the websites of global organisations such as the World Bank, UNDP, Eurostat (the European statistical organisation), and on national statistical sites.

However, most of the time, there is no simultaneous review of data to allow measurement of how many people or households have difficulties (no money, no housing, no work, no access to healthcare, no quality education, etc.) and for how long. And yet the poorest people and families are known to be in gradually worsening situations.

ATD Fourth World asks statistic-producing organisations to work with representatives of people living in extreme poverty to define together all participative indicators of the fight against poverty and exclusion.

What are the definitions of poverty?

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See ATD Fourth World and Oxford University’s research on the Hidden Dimensions of Poverty.

There are many definitions of poverty , which depend on the point of view of those who produce them. Over the centuries, these things have been viewed from various perspectives: religious: the poor, as an incarnation of God; moral: the poor as responsible and guilty for their situation; politics: the poor as victims of an exploitive system; etc.

ATD Fourth World aims to understand and make the points of view of people and populations in extreme poverty about the realities they live with known. Not only the description of these situations, but how these people feel and what explanations they give to themselves.

From this research linked to the poor, came the definition that Joseph Wresinski proposed to France’s Economic and social Council, which was then used by Mr Leandro Despouy in his UN report on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights:

“The lack of basic security connotes the absence of one or more factors enabling individuals and families to assume basic responsibilities and to enjoy fundamental rights. The situation may become widespread and result in more serious and permanent consequences. The lack of basic security leads to chronic poverty when it simultaneously affects several aspects of people’s lives, when it is prolonged and when it severely compromises people’s chances of regaining their rights and of reassuming their responsibilities in the foreseeable future.” (10 and 11 February 1987)

Are the poor more likely to commit crime? Are they more violent than others?

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Statistics from the Bureau of Justice in the United States state that people living in poverty are more than twice as likely as others to be the victims of violent crimes. The persistent stereotype of “the violent poor” blinds many people to reality. The very vocabulary often used to discuss poverty warps our thinking. Terms such as “thugs,” “gangs,” or “addicts” perniciously color our thoughts by portraying human beings as one-dimensional walking dangers. Even the most well-intentioned world leaders, like Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu, have referred to poverty as a “powder keg” in an attempt to spur society to overcome poverty — a worthy goal. But unfortunately that same image feeds the stereotype of the poor as violent, dangerous, and undeserving of help. Columbia University sociologist Herbert Gans writes:
“Where homeless people and panhandlers proliferate, the better-off perceive begging and acting-out (misuses of their public space) as threats — even if the danger is often imagined, since the homeless are largely passive, and beggars rarely attack their benefactors.”
People born into extreme poverty know very well how others feel about them. Many mothers fear for their sons as soon as they grow tall, knowing that even while they are still children, they may been seen by others as a threat simply because of the way they look. Outside of gated communities where walls and guards protect wealth, children born into poverty grow up knowing that they and their parents are the unwanted ones who the walls are intended to keep out.
Despite the weight of these stereotypes, people in poverty search for peace. To learn more, click here.

Why does ATD Fourth World say that poverty, in and of itself, is violence?

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The hidden underbelly of violence that dominates the existence of families living in deep poverty had a physical impact. Whether a country is war-torn or at peace, violent deaths are more frequent in low-income neighborhoods. As the Black Lives Matter movement is highlighting, this violence may sometimes come from the authorities themselves, who are more likely to arrest and shoot people who face racial discrimination or who live in poverty. Violence is also suffered by women when unwanted sex is the only way to feed their children. But when people in poverty say that poverty is violence, they are also speaking of the force they feel subjected to when they are caught in situations of humiliation and injustice. It begins when children are born at high risk of ill health and with no access to health care. It continues when their education is compromised by low expectations and discrimination. Young people and adults work in dangerous conditions, facing abuse and harassment. People in poverty experience life as a constant assault that threatens to defeat them at every turn, leaving them traumatized and humiliated for not being able to protect their family members.

Is poverty increasing or diminishing?

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It is very difficult to answer this question, because the answer depends on the definition of poverty that is adopted and the quantitative indicators that are used. Some measures can have the result of supporting people and populations living in precariousness and leaving aside those in extreme poverty, making their life even more difficult.

An example for clarification: A country’s “GDP per capita” indicator is used to compare poverty in one country to that in another and also measures poverty from one year to the next in the same country. It is used extensively. It is calculated by dividing a country’s GDP indicator by number of inhabitants. If the wealth of the country’s 10% richest inhabitants increases, the GDP rises, and therefore the indicator will go up, whilst nothing is to say that the situation of the country’s poorest people is improving.

In 2000, the UN launched the Millennium Goals, of which the most well-known is that to reduce by half the number of people living with less than 1 $ per day (in 2009 1.25$). This goal is unfair, because it does not say what aims there are for the other half who remains below this threshold and whose situation may get worse at the same time. For example, it is the poorest people and populations who pay the highest price in food, financial and economic crises.

This is why ATD Fourth World asks that this is not only based on numbers, but also that the views of people living in poverty are taken into account to answer this question seriously. They also ask that if some people’s situation improves in a particular domain, we endeavour to understand why the situation hasn’t improved for others. Because it is likely that policies can be improved so that no-one is left aside.

What is needed to eliminate extreme poverty?

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With experience in over 30 countries ATD Fourth World movement has launched several discussions and plans of action:

Extreme poverty is not to be accepted as fate, it is the work of mankind which can be ended. This conviction spurs action in the field with people in extreme poverty and the different social and economic players. It also spurs responsibility on all levels in the society: local, regional, national and international to create ambitious policies for fighting against extreme poverty.

Extreme poverty affects all aspects of life : education, professional training, work, resources, housing, access to health care, participation in social, political, cultural and spiritual outlets in life. Fighting against extreme poverty includes taking into account simultaneously all of these aspects which are so strongly intertwined.

To effectively fight against extreme poverty, it is best to create conditions conducive to the active contribution of people and social groups that live in extreme poverty and fight as hard as they can. Winning their contribution creates an environment of trust and exchange of ideas.

To reach the people and groups affected most by extreme poverty, it is necessary that available persons go to the places where they are forced to live or seek refuge and establish with them lasting and trustworthy alliances. These alliances will help to create and gear up for the necessary changes.

The evaluation of any program and policy for fighting against extreme poverty must be made by calculating the benefits that will be derived for the people and groups that suffer the most and undergo the most severe exclusion. This type of evaluation must be done with them.

Eliminating extreme poverty would therefore be an implementation of ambitious policies on the local, national and international scene, equipped with verifiable financial and human means, which can only lead to a profound change in mentality by everyone.

What can I do ?

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There are thousands of ways to contribute to the fight against extreme poverty.

With ATD Fourth World:

You can participate in the celebration of World Day to Overcome Extreme Poverty in your area or in organize an event if there isn’t one planned in your area.

You can join a similar organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty in your country.

You can demand that the fight against extreme poverty be made a priority by contacting your local representative, union leaders, local associations, religious groups or discussion groups of which you are a member.

What causes extreme poverty?

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Extreme poverty is the work of mankind and only mankind can destroy it.
Joseph Wresinski

This quote greatly explains that extreme poverty is not to be accepted as inevitable or fate. It also gives responsibility not just to a certain class of people, but to all classes and the responsibility and the work to end it to all classes of people.

Everyone can contribute to initiatives that increase or reduce the exclusion of the less fortunate at school or at work, in your social life, peer groups and action by political groups, unions, cultural or religious organizations that contribute or do not contribute to human rights efforts.

In every country, where the freedom of expression exists, ATD Fourth World, does not hesitate to denounce private and public systems, behavior by individuals or groups that contribute to exclusion and extreme poverty and proposes change through humanitarian organizations. The objective is to create an environment for unity in order to re-establish human rights anywhere they are being violated due to extreme poverty.

Isn’t it more important to fight poverty in Southern countries rather than in Northern countries?

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The difference in the average level of income between populations living in Southern countries and Northern countries is startling. But in both the South and in the North, the experience of extreme poverty is characterized by being worthless, being rejected and being made to feel guilty because of one’s situation. It is therefore as important to act in the North as it is in the South.

ATD Fourth World started in France in 1957 and for more than 20 years the movement prioritized development in Northern countries. Between 1960 and 1990 the very existence of poverty in some of these countries was denied as economic riches were created and so-called full employment reigned. However, ATD Fourth World was already meeting people and groups of people that had been rejected because of a history of poverty. This rejection had very grave consequences such as having their children taken away from them. It was important to stand with these people in the fight against poverty as it had torn their lives apart and yet they were generally judged to be responsible for their situation and the efforts that they made were not recognized.

From the 80s onwards ATD Fourth World has had a presence in Southern countries. People in the South requested the establishment of the movement in their countries after they learnt of its existence in Northern countries. We discovered that, as in Northern countries, people and families were often badly treated and sometimes even rejected by their local communities. It was these people that had the hardest lives.

ATD Fourth World movement concludes that rejected people in both the North and in the south are held responsible for their situation. They are not trusted, the effort that they make is not appreciated, and their opinion about how to fight against their situation is not valued. Changing this will come through action that is taken to improve material living conditions and also through the exchange of knowledge in order to tear down ignorance and shame. These actions must be anchored in the realities on the ground and must also be supported by local, regional, national and international government. In the South as in the North, ATD Fourth World has met people that fight for the reduction and eventual destruction of poverty and the movement endeavors to insure that no one is isolated in their solidarity with the poorest.

How is ATD Fourth World financed?

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ATD Fourth World is financed by:

  • Tens of thousands of people throughout the world who contribute financially either occasionally or on a regular basis
  • Grants obtained for projects and programs that fight against poverty that come from local, regional and national government, as well as international bodies such as the European Community, the Council of Europe, and certain NGO agencies and private foundations
  • Donations from industry in countries where this is authorized.

Why does ATD Fourth World talk about Joseph Wresinski?

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Joseph Wresinski is the founder of ATD Fourth World. The strength of his ideas and his capacity to meet with people from all works of life, from the poorest to the leading members of our societies, and ask them to engage personally and radically in the struggle against poverty made him captivating to all that met him.

His philosophy and his life were marked by his personal childhood and family experience of poverty and exclusion. He became a catholic priest. His life experiences gave him a very original vision of life and of society. He continued to develop this vision by confronting the realities of the world and by talking to people that he met.

Joseph Wresinski Archives and Research Centre gathers together all the texts, photos, videos, and recordings that allows us to discover who Father Joseph Wresinski was, and what he thought and achieved.

What’s the difference between ATD Fourth World and other anti-poverty NGOs

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There are many non-profit charities and non-governmental organizations that seek, as does ATD Fourth World, to end poverty and to act in respect of people experiencing the greatest difficulty. However, three parts of ATD’s history and approach are unusual:

  • ATD Fourth World was started by people in extreme poverty. Many other non-profits are started by people from different social backgrounds who organize to respond to the tragedy of poverty. ATD was founded by Joseph Wresinski, a man who was himself born in an internment camp where one of his sisters died of malnutrition. In his childhood, he saw how well-meaning benefactors who sometimes helped his mother also systematically humiliated her. His vision of overcoming poverty was based first on transforming human relationships. Together with the residents of an emergency housing camp in 1957, he pioneered this approach. From the beginning and to this day the people with personal experience of poverty have been ATD’s founding members, shaping its planning, evaluation, and overall common ambitions. People who have not experienced poverty are, of course, also welcome to join ATD. They are asked to listen to people living in poverty, and to learn how to act in partnership on an equal footing.
  • ATD Fourth World’s goal is not simply to reach the bottom 1%, but to design all its programs together with them. The same inequality that creates a wealthy 1% also creates a very different 1% at rock bottom of the socio-economic ladder. In any low-income community, there are always some people whose situation is even more difficult than their neighbors’. When community organizers or development projects come along, the people who are the worst-off may have lives too heavily burdened or chaotic for them to attend meetings. If they do manage to attend, they may be unsure that what is on their minds will be understood by others, or even that they will be respected. However, without their collaboration, no matter how much a community progresses, people isolated on the margins of disenfranchised communities are often left behind, or even worse off than before. One of ATD’s members, Nelly Schenker, puts it this way:

    “If we stop in our tracks and turn to go see someone who is behind us on the road, it’s not because we are going backwards. It’s because that person has an experience and a knowledge that none of us has. We are still going forward, toward a society where we can learn from everyone’s unique experience.”

    Members of ATD who live in poverty encourage one another to constantly reach out to others who may be even worse off than they are. People whose lives are the hardest are at the center of ATD, thinking together about the goals to set. ATD’s ongoing evaluation begins with the question of who might have been left out of any given project.

  • Every local project of ATD Fourth World plays a key role internationally — which builds collective intelligence and helps to break down prejudice. Most international non-governmental organizations function either as federations connecting national branches or centralized groups with a top-down structure. ATD is are convinced that our members in the United States need to learn from our members in Burkina Faso, just as our members in the Philippines can draw inspiration from Haiti. ATD regularly brings together people from different countries who each feel like outcasts in the worst situations of poverty, but who each have something important to teach others. This kind of international consultation among experts is usually reserved for doctors or scientists. However, it is a priority for ATD to invest enormous energy in such gatherings as the best way to sharpen our collective expertise about how to overcome poverty and exclusion. This is also one way that we begin to overcome prejudice. There is prejudice everywhere — but it takes many different forms. And when a person has grown up always being treated like dirt, it is very hard to imagine that things could be different. Meeting people from other parts of the world shows each of us how very different the prejudices are in each place. And this can help to open doors in the mind of a person who did not dare imagine that they deserve to be treated with dignity and have an intelligent contribution to make.


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