The Heart of Poverty | Matching passion with precision for struggling New Zealanders

By Kieran Madden July 01, 2014

The Problem of Poverty

We still have a persistent poverty problem in New Zealand today, and not for a lack of debate, dollars, or desire to turn it around. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about poverty? Standing defiantly in the way of a clearer understanding of the nature, extent and causes of poverty—and life-changing solutions designed to combat it—is an underwhelming public discussion. Debates are riddled with caricatures and distortions that often confuse more than they illuminate—we tend to talk past each other rather than helping each other.


The Heart of Poverty

Matching passion with precision for struggling New Zealanders


Poverty has many faces; it is complex and multi-dimensional. Given this context, it is unlikely that a “silver bullet” solution exists. Before coming up with the equally complex and multi-dimensional responses needed to tackle poverty, we first need to understand, define and measure it better. Together, we need to have deeper, more meaningful discussions about what poverty is and what we should do about it.

We see this paper as our starting point for stimulating and informing the current debate about poverty in New Zealand today. It is a personal invitation for you to join us in the conversation, and your input will flow into our longer journey towards understanding the causes and consequences of poverty, and eventually advocating for policies that will hopefully give struggling New Zealanders the help they need and deserve.

Understanding Poverty

Poverty is multi-dimensional; it has both physical and emotional aspects, and at its core is about unacceptable hardship. Poverty is unacceptable. We have a moral imperative to do something about it.

Whether we recognise it or not, what we value drives what we do; we are all swimming in ideological waters whether we’re aware of it or not. Despite calls to cast aside partisan politics or pragmatically focus on “what works,” political and moral discussion is as necessary as it is unavoidable. Instead of arguing whether values or ideas matter, we should be arguing which values matter.

Values inform competing ideas about well-being—what a good life looks like in New Zealand—and what we need to participate in this good life. While there is serious disagreement about the nature of poverty, there is more of a consensus about what we need to participate in society, potentially bridging this divide.

With differing perspectives on justice and the roles of the state and the market, ideologies like liberalism and social democracy have been influential in founding and building upon New Zealand’s welfare state. Ideas about well-being and needs are filtered through ideologies with particular conceptions of justice, and finally channelled through the welfare state, out-flowing in policies to help New Zealanders living in unthinkable hardship.

Defining Poverty

Defining poverty is about distinguishing between those who are poor and those who aren’t.

A serious point of contention arises between those who consider poverty to be absolute and those who consider it relative—between the “less-well-off” in richer nations and the “life-and-death” struggles found in developing countries.

However, poverty is both absolute and relative. It is absolute in that there are certain reasonably universal needs that all humans have, and to be without them is to live in a state of unacceptable hardship; it is relative in that different societies in different times impose different needs upon people that must be met in ways specific to their society and time.

Following this relationship between needs and resources, we define poverty as: an unacceptable situation where a person’s way of life falls below a decent minimum standard of a particular society at a particular time, and a lack of resources to rise above that situation.

Measuring Poverty

It’s vital to measure poverty so that we can track how poverty is impacting people’s lives and how we are responding to it. Measurements are signposts that point towards, and attempt to quantify, the condition described in the definition. Like definitions, there is no one universally accepted way to measure poverty.

There are two main theoretical approaches to measuring poverty: income thresholds and living standards. Income thresholds focus on inputs: income as a resource available to avoid hardship. Living standards on the other hand focus on outcomes: actual experiences like lacking a raincoat or two solid meals a day. These approaches identify similar proportions of the poor in New Zealand, however those who have a low income are not necessarily those who are materially deprived.

Eight ways of measuring poverty are assessed and discussed in our paper. All tell related yet distinct stories. Measurements can and should be used together and where possible tracked across time to paint a more comprehensive picture of poverty than a single measure ever could. Qualitative research can complement these measurements to help capture what it means to be poor.


We hope that this paper creates a platform to discuss the problem of poverty with greater clarity so we can help people who are struggling with greater effectiveness. Questions are included at the end of each section. We greatly value and look forward to your feedback.

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