Causes & Effects of Poverty
On Society, Children & Violence

Published March 2011 - Updated May 2013

What are the effects of poverty on people, health & society?
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Causes and effects of poverty

Several issues like hunger, illness and thirst are both causes and effects - for instance: not having water means you're poor, but being poor also means you can't afford water or food. In a sense, they’re a characteristic of poverty in that they define poverty. Therefore, you should always look at both ends of the problem - and you can refer to the article on the causes of poverty to complete the picture.

The poverty cycle

The effects of poverty are most often interrelated so that one problem hardly ever occurs alone. For instance, bad sanitation makes it easier to spread around old and new diseases, and hunger and lack of water make people more vulnerable to them.

Impoverished communities often suffer from discrimination and end up caught in cycles of poverty. Let's find out just what this means concretely.

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Poverty and crime

The link between poverty and crime. Slums in Brazil fuel gangs and violence
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Crime varies over time and space; it’s high in specific areas and low in others, usually with huge differences in wealth. This has always led experts to study why and what happens in those places where there is a concentration of crime.

It’s unquestionable that crime ranks high among the effects of poverty, and those impoverished neighborhoods or entire cities show the same problems with uneducated adults and kids that nurture more unemployment and crime, and then leading to chronic, long-lasting poverty.

Different types of poverty for different crimes

But to solve these issues, it’s fundamental to have a more detailed and in-depth vision of the poverty cycle here, and what the precise effects of poverty on crime are in different communities and environments.

For example it’s been proved that unemployment is a bigger factor for specific types of crime than income inequality is. Low incomes on the other side tend to spur property-related crimes (burglary and all that) but reduce violence. Overall studies have shown very different effects of poverty, for different types of poverty: from income inequalities, to social exclusion and unemployment.

Read more about poverty and crime.

Effects of poverty on society

Impact of poverty on society: tensions, unrest and social divide
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Consequences of poverty on people

The vicious cycles of poverty mentioned before mean that lifelong handicaps and troubles that are passed on from one generation to another. To name just a few of these hereditary plagues: no school or education, child labor to help the parents, lack of basic hygiene, transmission of diseases. Unemployment and very low incomes create an environment where kids can't simply go to school. As for those who can actually go to school, they simply don't see how hard work can improve their life as they see their parents fail at the task every day.

Other plagues associated with poverty:

  • Alcohol & substance abuse, from kids in African slums to adults in the US, this is a very common self-destructing habit often taken as a way to cope with huge amounts of stress and... well, despair;
  • Crippling accidents due to unsafe working environments (machinery in factories or agriculture) as well as other work hazards such as lead poisoning, pesticide poisoning, bites from wild animals due to lack of proper protection;
  • Poor housing & living conditions, a classic cause of diseases;
  • Water and food-related diseases, simply because the poor can't always afford "safe" foods.

Effects of poverty on society as a whole

In the end, poverty is a major cause of social tensions and threatens to divide a nation because of the issue of inequalities, in particular income inequality. This happens when wealth in a country is poorly distributed among its citizens. In other words, when a tiny minority has all the money.

The feature of a rich or developed country for example is the presence of a middle class, but recently we've seen even Western countries gradually losing their middle class, hence the increasing number of riots and clashes. In a society, poverty is a very dangerous factor that can destabilize and entire country. The Arab Spring is another good example, in all of the countries concerned, the revolts started because of the lack of jobs and high poverty levels. This has led to most governments being overthrown).

Child poverty

Effects of poverty on children
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Powerless victims

Ever since the 1960s, the share of children affected by poverty has only got bigger and bigger. Children are those who have the least choice and ability to change what happens to them. There isn’t much they can do to help their families, nor should they have to. Until they can stand firmly on their two legs, usually by the age of 6, then they can be enrolled willy-nilly in child labor.

Nearly all possible effects of poverty have an impact on children’ lives. Poor infrastructures, unemployment, lack of basic services and income reflect on their lack of education, malnutrition, violence at home and outside, child labor, diseases of all kinds, transmitted by the family or through the environment.

Impact of poverty on children in different countries

Children antisocial behavior

One of the effects of poverty on children’s development is to lead them to build an antisocial behavior that acts as a psychological protection against their hostile environment. Discrimination and social exclusion often push them to more aggressiveness and less self-control and nuance in reaction to stressful events. Having often been taken advantage of in their early childhood, they rarely come to a constructive way to deal with conflicts.

As they grow up, these behaviors are more and more entrenched in their personalities and often considered unrecoverable. This highlights the importance of taking action as early as possible to improve children’s living conditions. Policymakers should understand that not just income but a child’s social environment at large (parenting, school violence, housing, but also sanitation, uncontaminated food and water) play a big role in creating new effects of poverty.

Women and poverty

If in absolute terms (i.e. concerning most basic needs) less women live in poverty than fifty years ago, in fact there has been an increasing share of women in poverty in the global worldwide. This trend is also known as the feminization of poverty. This is yet another of the clear-cut effects of poverty. The trend toward more single-parent families has only made things worse and women have become more and more vulnerable to their environment. They find themselves forced to feed the poverty cycle by living in poverty with their children.

Feminization of poverty

Almost everywhere in the world, women are segregated, have very limited access to education (for political, religious or social reasons) and are sometimes forbidden to work or restricted to tedious ones. There are obvious (political & social) interests in keeping women in this state, and it’s always recommended when fighting against poverty to start with empowering women in every possible way to solve a great deal of problems. Being the cornerstone of the family, women can have a great impact not only on the household income, but also on the education of children (including sanitation), and avoiding early child deaths due to bad habits, sanitation or improper food or water.

Read more about family poverty.

Poverty and the environment

Effects of poverty on the environment: who's producing and consuming what?
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Backward industry and lifestyle issues

There is no proof that poverty, especially in cities, has an impact on the environment. On the other hand, backward (or not so developed) technologies and an industry’s energy efficiency (how much energy it needs to produce an amount of goods) will greatly affect the environment.

On the whole, the middle- and upper-classes lifestyles are also greatly responsible for the depletion of natural resources and the production of (toxic) waste. Or at least lifestyles based on over-consumption are the true responsible, which is often disregarded in public debates (as humans it is kind of hard to resist to so much temptation).

No consequences of poverty on the environment?

If there is any common association of poverty with bad environment, it's probably because of those pictures of children running around in waste dumps. In fact there is no link between any effects of poverty and the environment, quite the opposite. Those toxic places prove very harmful to the poor, who actually tend to reuse, recycle or resell whatever they can find in there, thus getting us rid of that dangerous garbage.

Good governance and good management of resources remains the best way to tackle both problems of environment and poverty. It’s in fact quite ironic that thanks to poverty and the very low levels of consumption it implies, the extent of the damage done to the environment and the depletion of natural resources have been relatively limited. It’s only with the rise of China, India and other BRICs that rich countries have started worrying about limited resources for everyone and problems of over-consumption and energy efficiency.

Impact of poverty on health

Effects of poverty on social exclusion, mental and physical health
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Much shorter lives

A universal and simple measure of poverty consists in looking at different populations’ health and life expectancy. It’s no surprise that anywhere on earth, poorer communities fare worse than richer ones. But people's health is affected not only by material poverty but also by social exclusion, yet another of the neglected effects of poverty. No matter if poverty affects someone's mental or physical health, the end result is the same: on average the poor live shorter lives than the rich.

This is all the more true of ethnic minorities in whichever country, where they’re often the first groups to suffer from discrimination and unfair treatments. This implies that the impact of poverty is not exclusively physical but also very much psychological: it affects in many ways mental health and human behavior. Every form of poorness, every form of social exclusion – be it material or racial – has its impact on people’s health.

After all, philosophers and sociologists often agree that man is but a social animal. So, living without a society or a group you belong to can have a huge impact on your mental health (though we wouldn't know for hermits). This has massive consequences for policymakers concerned not just about poverty but also about reinforcing social cohesion.

Overcoming differences

A nation-building effort should shift from nationalism to uniting a people around a society that represents and acts according to a common set of values. In particular, it should be a society that nurtures an environment that will enable all of its citizens to best use or develop news skills, to best express their potential and participate in the development of society. An enabling and empowering society (that’s what experts and politicians often mean by those words).

Effects of poverty on terrorism

Effects of poverty on terrorism and drug war: Afghans producing opium for talibans, one of the rare decent paying job in the country
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A problem of unemployment... or a more complex issue?

It’s become a commonplace in newspapers to blame poverty of fueling terrorism by creating a state of misery and frustration that pushes people to join terrorist organizations. While this doesn’t seem a totally groundless accusation – it makes sense and feeds the riches’ tormented conscience – more and more research shows that the effect of poverty on terrorism is not that straightforward.

It’s important to note that most of the time terrorists do come from poorer countries with high unemployment, and that terrorist organizations often provide much higher salaries than any other job, if any other job is available at all. In fact, a lot of different factors interact with the decision to become a terrorist. Personal and cultural ideals, values, and principles are just as important as material and social gain (reputation & fame for fighting the imperialists) of entering terrorism.

A cocktail of education and poverty

What's more, it seems that very low levels of education and wealth do not drive people to join a terrorist movement. It may sound counter-intuitive, but if you think about it for a minute, the very poor and uneducated usually:

  • Do not know about the outside world, or have extremely limited knowledge of it. So how could they be angry at how the rich live ("decadence", "liberal behavior",...)? A good deal of arrested or identified terrorists were students in European universities;
  • Are illiterate. Given the extent of manipulation and ideological indoctrination, people usually need some educational basis to understand it. In the case of Islamism, one would need to know literary Arabic in order to understand the Qur'an and the very special "version" of it that they use.

Literary Arabic is a very elaborated language, of great beauty and poetry. Not something that everyone can grasp, even for a simplified or weirdly interpreted version of the Qur'an. The problem with most ancient languages is their hazy-misty style that, if you ignore the context and original way of thinking, makes anyone free of interpreting them the way they want.

A poverty of stability

So terrorism isn’t a direct or solid effect of poverty, and it usually implies a minimum of education. What then is the source of frustration and anger? Studies have showed that countries with weak governments, institutions and personal civil rights are a great environment to nurture the production of terrorists.

In countries undergoing a profound transition (e.g. from authoritarian to democratic regime), this sort of political instability often comes along with a blurring of rules and laws. These periods of change come with a transformation of the social order, values, ways of doing things that can become very distressing and unsettling for the people.

It’s in such moments that the craziest rumors, cults and other conspiracy theories best spread around. Rumors appear to reassure people in thinking that there is still an order of things (e.g. government conspiracy), and that all things are in fact under somebody’s control… rather than just totally out of control. You could call this a poverty of stability.

It's sort of an unforeseen effect of poverty on people’s minds or mental resistance to change. Stabilizing and empowering political institutions is therefore a crucial aspect of fighting against the consequences of poverty.

For more information on the different impacts on society, read this article about the effects of poverty in Africa submitted by one of our readers.


  • Selection, Availability, and Opportunity: The Conditional Effect of Poverty on Terrorist Group Participation, Jennifer Kavanagh, Journal of Conflict Resolution Feb. 2011
  • The Mechanisms Mediating The Effects of Poverty on Children's Intellectual Development, Guang Guo and Kathleen Mullan Harris, Demography Nov 2000
  • A Conceptual Framework for Understanding the Relationship Between Poverty and Antisocial Behavior: Focusing on Psychosocial Mediating Mechanisms, Ick-Joong Chung, The Journal of Primary Prevention 2004
  • The Effects of Poverty on Children, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Greg J. Duncan, The Future of Children 1997
  • Feminization and Juvenilization of Poverty: Trends, Relative Risks, Causes, and Consequences, Suzanne M. Bianchi, Annual Review of Sociology 1999
  • Fiscal Consequences of Concentrated Poverty in a Metropolitan Region, Pascale M. Joassart-Marcelli, Juliet A. Musso, Jennifer R. Wolch, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 2005
  • Is Poverty a Driver for Risky Sexual Behaviour? Evidence from National Surveys of Adolescents in Four African Countries, Nyovani Madise, Eliya Zulu, James Ciera, African Journal of Reproductive Health 2007
  • A Critical Review of Rural Poverty Literature: Is There Truly a Rural Effect?, Bruce Weber, Leif Jensen, Kathleen Miller, Jane Mosley and Monica Fisher, International Regional Science Review 2005
  • Popular Explanations of Poverty in Europe, Dorota Lepianka, John Gelissen and Wim van Oorschot, Acta Sociologica 2010
  • Poverty and Inequality Among Children, Daniel T. Lichter, Annual Review of Sociology 1997
  • Poverty, social exclusion, and minorities, Michael Marmot, Richard G. Wilkinson, Social Determinants of Health 2005
  • Rethinking the Measurement of Poverty, David Brady, Rich Democracies, Poor People, How Politics Explain Poverty 2009
  • The Links between Poverty and the Environment in Urban Areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, David Satterthwaite, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2003
  • What Causes Poverty?: A Postmodern ViewLakshman Yapa, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 1996
  • Corruption, Growth, and Income Distribution: Are there Regional Differences?Kwabena Gyimah-Brempong · Samaria Munoz de Camacho, Economics of Governance 2006
  • Democracy, Autocracy and Bureaucracy, Avinash K. Dixit, Journal of Globalization and Development 2010
  • Determinants of Relative Poverty in Advanced Capitalist Democracies, Stephanie Moller, Evelyne Huber, John D. Stephens, David Bradley, François Nielsen, American Sociological Review 2003

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