Addressing the Hidden Dimensions of Poverty


Remarks by Angel Gurría

OECD Secretary-General 

10 May 2019 -Paris, France

(As prepared for delivery)



Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this Centre for Opportunities and Equality (COPE) conference on “The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty”. I am also particularly pleased to welcome the research team from ATD Quart Monde and Oxford University, as well as many qualified experts in poverty measurement and policy who will be presenting the key findings of a 3-year research project on the ‘Hidden Dimensions of Poverty’.


The true meaning of Poverty

Understanding and addressing poverty and inequalities is a key priority for the OECD. We know that inequalities and deprivation loom large and are far from being eradicated, even in the richest countries of the world.

Today the average income of the richest 10% of the OECD population is ten times that of the poorest 10%, up from seven times 25 years ago. In the OECD income-poverty measured in relative terms, i.e. taking as benchmark the half of median income in each country, increased from 10 to 12% over the last three decades. But when looking at the post-crisis period, poverty increases were much larger when evaluated in terms of “anchored poverty”, i.e. when setting the benchmark to pre-crisis median income level. In Greece, for instance, anchored poverty more than doubled between 2007 and 2011. And in 2016 it was still 31.3%, while relative poverty was “only” 14.4%.

To help us assess and indeed tackle inequalities in all its dimensions, in 2012 we launched the “OECD Inclusive Growth” Initiative. Today’s event is an important step in this effort.

We have with us people that best understand true meaning of poverty: not only those who study it, but also those who actually experience it on a daily basis. As an inter-governmental organisation, we regularly host Ministers, high-level officials, experts, and all too often, we focus our poverty work and vocabulary to them, forgetting to learn from, listen to and amplify the voices of those suffering from poverty.

This conference, therefore, provides us with a unique opportunity to listen to real-life experience. Those living in poverty can bring to the forefront of the debate aspects that experts often miss. They can shed light on what we call the Hidden Dimensions of Poverty: the stigma, prejudice and discrimination those living in poverty regularly encounter. How poor people are treated, how isolated they are and how disempowered they are made to feel.

These hidden dimensions are the hardest to capture with statistics, but the hidden dimensions of poverty also speak to some, more basic, economic facts. For instance, poor people experience higher living costs when lower quality, but cheaper, retail goods are replaced in supermarkets by higher quality, but more expensive, goods. They also experience longer commutes to work when urban development pushes them to live further and further away from their place of work, sometimes to areas with higher exposure to crime and environmental degradation. And, the poor often do not have access to the same services most of us take for granted, such as low-cost bank accounts, traditional forms of credit, mobile subscriptions, or legal assistance. They then incur high fees and risks when having to turn to check cashers, loan sharks, and predatory landlords; and pay comparatively more for products and services that they cannot buy in bulk.

For these and many others reasons, we should pay close attention to what our guests will tell us here today, in order to make our policies more responsive to their needs.


A new approach to poverty measurement 

Today’s event is also important on a second account. New research is considerably advancing poverty measurement for countries at all stages of development. For too long, discussions about poverty have been characterised by a gulf in how poverty is measured and analysed in poor and rich countries. The 2030 Agenda calls on all countries in the world – rich and poor – to eradicate extreme poverty. And yet the conventional metrics that are used to measure extreme poverty, based on the $1.9 dollar-per-day threshold, tell us that extreme poverty has long been eradicated in most OECD countries. This conclusion is at odds with what people with direct experience of poverty report about their lives, and it reflects the inadequacy of these metrics.

Now, for the first time, the ATD-Oxford University research places a bridge across this gulf in measurement approaches between rich and poor countries. In doing so, they include countries at different stages of development, allowing us to see poverty through a single perspective. For example, one aspect that was identified by people in all countries as core to the experience of being poor was “suffering in body, mind and heart” due to the fear, hopelessness, stress and uncertainty of their situation.


Going beyond income: a single multi-dimensional poverty measure

Looking ahead, we also need to focus on the fact that poverty is multi-dimensional and goes beyond income. Since 2011, we have defined “the good life” through a framework that spans from material conditions to quality of life, from wealth to skills, from health to political voice, from social connections to subjective well-being.

We know for example that while around 12% of the OECD population is economically poor, 36% have assets placing them only three months’ away from poverty. In addition, vulnerability touches many other aspects of life: 15% of all adults have skills below the minimum needed for everyday life; 10% rate their health as bad or very bad; 8% report having no relatives and friends they can count on; 47% think they have no say on what their government does; 26% don’t feel safe when walking alone at night in their neighbourhood; and 37% of urban residents are exposed to air pollution exceeding WHO targets.

The real difficulty in building a single multi-dimensional poverty measure lies in measuring all these aspects simultaneously. This type of measure would go a long way towards changing our policy discussion about poverty. It would imply that poverty is not just the responsibility of social policy ministers setting cash benefits for households in need, but also for finance ministers, labour ministers, health ministers, education ministers, housing ministers, etc.

This is why our discussions here today are so important. We have purposefully brought together all stakeholders to discuss the nature of poverty, to discover its hidden dimensions, and the challenges they raise in the areas of measurement, policy and action.

At the OECD, we will work hard to develop additional measures that capture the most intangible and pernicious dimensions of poverty such as disempowerment and stigma; and to promote the standardisation of social and household surveys, the tools needed to build comprehensive measures of poverty.


Ladies and Gentleman,

In the words of economics Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, “poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realise one’s full potential as a human being.”

Allowing people around the world to reach their full potential is our responsibility. Let’s continue to make the eradication of poverty in all countries a key priority in our policies. You can count on the OECD’s support in delivering the 2030 Agenda and ending poverty as we know it. Thank you.




See also:

OECD work on Inclusive Growth


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