Feature Article - Poverty, Thy Name Is Hydra

Jean Lock Kunz and Jeff Frank, Policy Research Initiative

Jean Lock Kunz is an Associate Project Director and Jeff Frank is a Project Director, both with Policy Research Initiative.

Both developed and developing countries around the world have made great progress in reducing poverty and its corollary of human suffering. Over the past decade, new thinking has emerged in terms of research and policy relating to poverty. Among OECD countries, the focus of research on poverty has shifted from describing the poor to understanding the process and consequences of poverty (Øyen, 2003). There has been a great deal of literature devoted to the measurement of poverty, income inequality, income security, and more recently, the dynamics of poverty.

Traditionally, poverty has often been synonymous with a lack of financial resources at one point in time. New research findings have provided insights into the pathways in and out of poverty. Researchers and policy practitioners have come to view poverty not simply as a lack of financial resources, but as the cause and consequence of social exclusion. That is, a lack of money prevents individuals from fully participating in the social and economic activities of the society in which they live. Broader interpretations of poverty incorporate notions of dignity and capabilities to achieve potential.

This new understanding has led to a broader definition of poverty to include aspects other than income. The United Nations, for example, describes poverty as a human condition characterized by the sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security, and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights.1 Following this definition, the United Nations’ Human and Income Poverty Index (UNHPI) includes a wider range of indicators. In addition to low income measured as the proportion of the population below 50% of median income, the UNHPI includes measures, such as life expectancy, the literacy rate, and long-term unemployment.2 Using this approach, poverty can be seen as a hydra, the many-headed serpent that was the object of the second labour of Hercules.

When measured against the UNHPI, Canada does not fare particularly well, especially compared to other developed nations. In 2004, for example, Canada ranked 12 out of 17 on the UN Human Poverty Index for 17 developed nations, ahead of other predominately English-speaking countries, such as the United States, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Australia, but well behind non- English-speaking countries, especially Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. Picot and Myles report a similar pattern on income inequality in this issue of Horizons. Further, as shown by Picot and Myles, income inequality has risen in Canada even in times of economic prosperity.

Poverty Is a Transient State for Most People

With the availability of longitudinal data, researchers are able to identify social factors contributing to the dynamics of income mobility. It has been shown that low income is often not a permanent state (Finnie, 2000). Rather, being poor is a fluid and often temporary process. While individuals may experience low income at some point, many get out of it within a couple of years. Some may re-enter poverty, while others escape from the situation completely. Entry and exit from low income are often associated with events and transitions over one’s life course, such as a change in family or employment status, as well as a change in place of residence.

That being said, there remains a small percentage of individuals and families who are particularly vulnerable to being persistently poor. As demonstrated by Hatfield in this issue, five groups in particular are more vulnerable to long-term poverty than the general population: lone-parent families, unattached older individuals, persons with work-limiting disabilities, Aboriginal peoples living off reserves, and recent immigrants. These groups share a number of things in common. Each group carries an identity marker defined by an event occurring over the course of life, ranging from a change of family status or a lack thereof, a change in health status, or a change in place of residence. Individuals experiencing multiple changes are particularly at risk, such as being older, single, and disabled, or being an Aboriginal lone parent, living off the reserve. Conversely, departure from some of these characteristics reduces the risks of long-term poverty.

Poverty Is Multi-Faceted

Low income is one aspect of social exclusion. As Sen argues: “Income may be the most prominent means for a good life without deprivation, but it is not the only influence on the lives we can lead” (2000: 3). Indeed, it is the nexus of poverty and exclusion, to quote Eliadis in this issue, that is of policy interest. As mentioned, the many aspects of poverty bring to mind the hydra, the many-headed serpent that terrorized the countryside of Lerna until being defeated by Hercules.

Low-income individuals and families are often excluded from many aspects of life including access to an adequate level of goods and services, meaningful employment opportunities, affordable housing and well-provisioned neighbourhoods, and civic, social, and political participation.

Low-income individuals and families are often deprived of opportunities to develop their capabilities. Lack of financial resources means making choices regarding necessities of life. This may deprive individuals of opportunities to develop their capabilities. Children from lower-income families are less likely to have a computer at home or to participate in extra-curricular activities (Ross and Roberts, 1999). Women with lower incomes are less likely to be able to afford paid child care. Housing and food are the major expenses, especially for low-income families.

Low-income individuals are marginalized in the world of work. Labour market attachment is usually weak among the poor. The persistently poor are likely to be unemployed or working part time (again, see Hatfield’s article in this issue). This could be due to a lack of education and employment opportunities. Moreover, for those who are employed, many are trapped in jobs that offer little security and low pay. Individuals in precarious jobs are less likely to receive on-the-job training. Nor can they afford skills-upgrading courses that could help them escape their predicament.

Low-income households are in need of adequate and affordable housing. Adequate housing, to some extent, is defined by a well-provisioned neighbourhood. Poor-quality housing is generally found in low-income neighbourhoods. Individuals usually pay a premium for living in a good neighbourhood, because of the quality of community services, schools, better infrastructure, and a vibrant economy. The poor are less likely to be able to afford quality housing and, consequently, are excluded from access to quality services. Engeland and Lewis show in this issue that households with low attachment to the labour market and low income are more likely to have core housing needs.

Low-income people often lack the social capital, or networks, that are key to getting ahead in life. Networks are critical in enabling individuals to get by and get ahead over the course of life. There are two kinds: bonding networks that help individuals get by, such as close family and friends of the same social and economic background, and more diverse bridging networks that can help individuals get ahead. It has been argued that the poor and socially excluded are strong in bonding networks, but weak in bridging networks (Perri 6, 1997). While strong ties represented by bonding networks are essential, it is the weak ties mostly found in bridging networks that are critical, for example, in finding jobs and advancing in one’s career.

Poverty in a Life-Course Perspective

Poverty and exclusion do not occur overnight. These states evolve from circumstances affecting the entire life of an individual (Giddens, 2000). Hence, we need to apply a life course lens to the analysis of poverty and social exclusion. Broadly speaking, the life course consists of four trajectories: family, learning, employment, and community. Events and transitions along each trajectory change an individual’s role responsibilities. There will invariably be setbacks and opportunities. Individuals usually have a set of resources at their disposal including personal characteristics, social relations, human and financial resources, and government support. When facing setbacks, such as family breakdown, health problems, or employment disruptions, these individual resources act as buffers (Room, 2000). If these buffers are not strong enough to overcome life’s calamities, then, individuals risk being at the margin of society. Through the lens of the life course, we can examine the critical points where exclusion likely occurs.

Equality of Opportunity vs Equality of Outcome

What is the role of governments in effectively addressing poverty and exclusion? To use a much-quoted Eastern proverb: Give a man some fish, you feed him for a day; teach him to fish, you feed him for life. Governments have to balance between teaching individuals to fish and providing them with fish when they are unable to provide for themselves.

On the one hand, governments can enable individuals to participate fully in the social and economic activities in the society in which they live by empowering them with the capability necessary to take hold of the social and economic situations. This includes providing opportunities that allow individuals to build up various forms of assets, such as the capability of saving for the future, the capacity to learn, and the ability to own a home.

On the other hand, equality of opportunity does not guarantee equality of outcomes. Individuals may be unemployed due to an economic downturn. Some may not be able to work full time due to health or family reasons. Others may work hard, but still cannot make ends meet. This population can be termed the working poor, and is discussed in articles by Jackson and by Fortin and Fleury in this issue.

Reducing Poverty Requires the Efforts of All

Hercules did not conquer the hydra by himself. One person alone could not defeat the monster: as soon as one head was struck, two others would burst out. Hercules had the assistance of his nephew Iolaus. After his uncle chopped off one of the heads of the hydra, Iolaus ensured that it would not grow back while Hercules tackled the remaining heads. In a similar spirit of assistance, all sectors of society, governments, community, and the family, in addition to the individual, play a role in reducing poverty and exclusion (Maxwell, 2003).

Governments provide income support and programs to ease life course transitions. Early childhood education and development measures ensure that children have a good start in life. Student loans, scholarships, and longdistance education could improve the affordability and accessibility of post-secondary education. Employment insurance, welfare-to-work and job training programs can help the unemployed to get back on their feet more quickly. Legislation is in place to ensure fair labour market standards and equal access to jobs.

Non-government sectors, such as community organizations, also contribute to the well-being of individuals. Social economy enterprises offer ways to combat poverty and distressed neighbourhoods. The voluntary sector is critical in supporting efforts to reduce poverty and exclusion. This issue of Horizons includes two examples of how non-governmental organizations can support and mobilize communities to bring greater inclusion. (See pieces in this issue from the Laidlaw Foundation and the Canadian Council on Social Development.)

Employers, through hiring and corporate practices, are key to the labour market integration of workers. Education and skills clearly improve one’s likelihood of finding and maintaining meaningful employment and job security. Getting a foothold in the world of work is not without perils for young people entering the labour market for the first time, as well as for those starting anew in a foreign country. Employers determine the value of the education and experience of job applicants and workers.

The PRI Project: New Approaches for Addressing Poverty and Exclusion

In the spring of 2003, the PRI launched an interdepartmental project called New Approaches for Addressing Poverty and Exclusion (see Horizons, volume 6, number 2). Significant progress has been made since then in understanding the dynamics of poverty and its link to other forms of social exclusion.

Early on, the project developed a conceptual framework outlining the intersections between income, poverty, and exclusion. Next, we worked with our departmental partners to identify the aspects of life from which lowincome people are often excluded. By autumn, a compendium had been compiled of the most recent research undertaken by participating federal departments and researchers outside of government. Drawing from the research compendium, the project team developed a diagnostic that examined issues of poverty and exclusion using multiple lenses, and reviewed current and emerging approaches worldwide. These activities were discussed at the November 2003 PRI-SSHRC roundtable, Implications for Policy-Making of Current Research on Poverty and Exclusion. At the roundtable, departmental officials and experts recommended that we apply a life-course lens to poverty and exclusion, and that more attention be turned to the working poor who are at risk of exclusion.

In December 2003, the PRI organized a conference on asset-based approaches to addressing poverty. Over 150 experts, researchers, and practitioners in various sectors from Canada and abroad took part in the event. Through the resulting exchange, participants were able to understand and discuss the merits, as well as the limits, of this emerging approach.

A life-course perspective will inevitably prove useful in how we make various kinds of social investments to address issues of poverty and social exclusion. To this end, the PRI has proposed a life-course framework for social policy analysis that will help to target our efforts more effectively. First presented this past August at the 2004 Queen’s International Institute on Social Policy, the framework considers the kinds of resources to which people can turn for various forms of support (i.e., financial, physical, human, and social capital, as well as information), the possible sources of these supports (i.e., markets, governments, arm’s-length institutions, communities, families, and social networks), and the potential substitutability of these resources and their sources.

In addition to examining the trajectories of stages and key events over people’s life course, the framework also emphasizes the importance of significant and sometimes multiple transitions that represent the critical points where individuals may need to rely on various forms of support. This life-course framework serves as a practical backdrop for much of the work the PRI is conducting in the course of its social policy projects.

As active players, individuals navigate through the course of life using the social and economic resources at their disposal. The life course is fluid and multi-dimensional, encompassing gender, ethnicity, marital status, health, immigration status, and economic resources. These markers have an impact on the type and amount of resources one is able to accumulate over each life course trajectory. Dempsey’s analysis in this issue of elderly immigrants demonstrates the impact on earnings of migration later in one’s life course.

Family, friends, and acquaintances offer support in times of need. Strong family support is critical in ensuring that children grow up in a loving and stimulating environment. Intergenerational support includes both financial and other contributions.

Of course, the market environment also plays a role. Economic tides affect employment prospects, as well as income and wealth accumulation. As workers, consumers, and investors, an individual’s fortune is intimately linked to the market in terms of the financial return to human capital, job opportunities, and the amount of income and assets he or she accumulates. During an economic downturn, jobs are more difficult to come by, and the value of one’s savings and assets decreases. Yet, even when the economic tides are rising, not everyone will share the benefits. For example, housing may be more unaffordable for those in low-income jobs, especially in places where the local economy is booming.


We have established that combating poverty is a Herculean effort. Yet, even Hercules could not completely eliminate the hydra, as one of its heads was immortal. In some sense, poverty and exclusion will likely remain a fact for all societies rich or poor. But the faces of poverty and the manifestations of exclusion will continue to change. Innovation and partnership are key to managing the associated social risks and capitalizing on emerging opportunities.

In the context of its project on New Approaches to Poverty and Exclusion (see accompanying text box), the PRI has undertaken conceptual and diagnostic work that has laid the groundwork for the assessment of new approaches to combating issues of poverty and exclusion. The current issue of Horizons provides an excellent indication of the directions this body of work is taking.


Finnie, Ross. 2000. Low Income (Poverty) Dynamics in Canada: Entry, Exit, Spell Durations, and Total Time. Applied Research Branch, Strategic Policy, Human Resources Development Canada. W-00-7E.

Giddens, Anthony. 2000. The Third Way and Its Critics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Maxwell, Judith. 2003. The Great Social Transformation: Implications for the Social Role of Government in Ontario. Canadian Policy Research Networks.

Øyen, Else. 2003. Poverty Production: A Different Approach to Poverty Understanding. Comparative Research Programme on Poverty, International Social Science Council.

Perri 6. 1997. Escaping Poverty: From Safety Nets to Networks of Opportunity. Demos.

Room, Graham. 2000. “Trajectories of Social Exclusions: The Wider Context for the Third and First Worlds.” In Breadline Europe: The Measurement of Poverty, ed. David Gordon and Peter Townsend. The Policy Press.

Ross, David, and Paul Roberts. 1999. Income and Child Well-Being: A New Perspective on the Poverty Debate. Canadian Council on Social Development.

Sen, Amartya. 2000. Social Exclusion: Concept, Application, and Scrutiny. Social Development Papers No. 1. Office of Environment and Social Development, Asian Development Bank.


  1. See <>.

  2. United Nations’ Human Development Reports. See <http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2002/en>.

PRI-SSHRC Roundtable Series

In order to address effectively the multifaceted problems facing contemporary society, governments are increasingly required to rely on the knowledge and expertise that are found in the work of academia, research institutions, and other authoritative sources. Nonetheless, the integration of available research, analysis, and empirical evidence into the policy development process remains a significant challenge. How do we ensure that knowledge producers are effectively connecting with those who, in their efforts to promote the well-being of Canadians, can make best use of their knowledge?

The PRI-SSHRC Policy Research Roundtables is a joint effort by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council and the Policy Research Initiative. Its objective is to improve the quality of knowledge transfer between experts from academia and those responsible for the design and development of federal policies and programs.

The PRI-SSHRC Policy Research Roundtables series provides a unique venue for informed discussions on key emerging policy priorities and policy research issues. In addition, it will contribute to the development and maintenance of networks between key policy researchers and senior policy personnel.

The autumn 2004 season of the PRISSHRC Roundtable series is now complete, and a number of eyewitness reports from the season appear in this issue of Horizons. Information regarding upcoming Roundtable activities will be posted on the PRI web site, at <www.policyresearch.gc.ca>, as it becomes available.