What Is Urban Poverty? Meaning, Definition, Reason, Urban Poverty Meaning

We are living in what is often described as the ‘urban century’ as over 50% of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. The world continues to urbanise and this growth is mainly led by growth of world population in low and middle income countries. Though the city life is largely perceived as comfortable and lavish yet the picture on the other side is not rosy. Many areas in the urban regions are characterised by poor quality, overcrowded houses, where there is lack of safe and readily available water supplies. Sanitation, drainage and solid waste collection is poorly developed. There is little access to affordable healthcare, emergency services and more risk of contracting deadly diseases. These are the regions where the urban poors reside. They are always at the risk of forced eviction by the government authorities or due to court orders.

According to 2011 census, almost 13.7 million people were living in slum areas which made up almost 17% of the total urban population of India. It is the mega cities of India where most of the growth in urban poverty occurs. Greater Mumbai, Delhi NCR and Kolkata have almost 40% of their urban population living in slum areas which are temporary spaces of living.

Characteristics of Urban Poverty and Vulnerability

The specific characteristics of urban poverty is related mainly with three distinct characteristics

• Commoditisation

Urban poor population becomes more vulnerable as compared to the rural poor because in urban areas, people are integrated into a more formal cash economy where they are required to pay for their food and shelter, rather than relying on their own food production. They have to pay more on transport and education services as compared to the rural poor. Employment is not regularly available or may be highly insecure. Shelter is illegal and insecure. Many sections of urban poor who are not able to pay for these services become homeless. Further, they are vulnerable to various economic shocks and to macroeconomic policy adjustments in prices, wages and public expenditure.

• Environmental Hazards

The urban poor are disproportionately affected by urban environmental problems such as inadequate water which is fit for drinking, inadequate sanitation, drainage, and solid waste management, poor quality of housing that doesn’t prevent them from the phenomenon of nature such as sunlight, rainfall etc.

There are densely populated shanty colonies which are overcrowded and poorly managed and these are built on marginal or degraded lands. All these factors increases the health risk of the poor and reduces their productivity. They have to pay high amounts for their healthcare, which further makes them vulnerable to poverty and homelessness.

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• Social Fragmentation

The vulnerability of urban poor is high because community and inter-household mechanisms are less likely to operate in urban areas as compared to rural areas. Urban areas are characterised by higher levels of violence, alcohol, drug abuse, exploitation, discrimination as well as there is another risk of motor vehicle accidents for the urban poor.

• No Employment

Urban poor are less likely to gain employment in urban areas because of absence of skills as compared to rural areas. In rural areas, farming and agriculture are the most practised occupations but in urban areas, an individual can not engage in farming activities. He would need to be engaged in secondary on tertiary sector activities to get gainful employment. Hence, they becomes more vulnerable as compared to a rural poor.

Reason for Urban Poverty

Following are the reasons that are responsible for urban poverty

• Rural Urban Migration

when people who do not have sufficient incomes migrate from rural areas to urban areas for earning a living, it leads to creation of informal settlements in the cities. Most of these people do not have adequate income or skills and thus they get involved in manual work. This type of work does not provide much income to live a decent life in such a big city. These people are forced to live in slums and shanties that are temporary shelters. These conditions give rise to urban poverty.

• Lack of Jobs

Urban areas are highly competitive places with job opportunities for people. But high influx of people from rural areas leads to lack of job opportunities. The people from rural areas coming to urban cities for jobs and employment are not very skilled and lack any professional or vocational training. They are left with only an option to search for jobs in the informal sectors such as construction work, domestic workers, rikshaw pullers. This pushes them towards more informalisation and their poverty conditions are further worsened.

• Lack of Affordability

Commodification of even the basic services such as food, shelter, water, sanitation, health etc. has led to rising prices of these commodities. The urban poor are required to pay for the services. When they are not able to pay for such services they become unaffordable to them. The land prices are increasing in urban areas and these poor people are not able to afford the high rent. Unless the urban poor people make money with employment and job opportunities, they are not able to afford an urban life.

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•High Population Growth

Higher population leads to scarcity of resources. If there are more members in a family, it becomes difficult for a family to meet all their requirements. Limited income and employment opportunities will not be sufficient for the urban poor to fulfil their basic needs. The poor families also lack access to contraceptive and birth control services. They have no access to health services which further pushes them towards the vicious cycle of poverty.

• Lack of Education

Education plays an important role in survival. A well educated person is more likely to be better paid and have a secure job but the migrants coming from rural to urban areas are mostly uneducated. Lack of education for these people deprives them of various economic opportunitie Uneducated women are more vulnerable to the social ills of the society. Th also face discrimination and harassment at the hands of the society.

• Lack of Housing

Cheap and affordable housing is not provided to the poor people migrating from the rural to urban areas. These people are deprived of housing facilities alongwith basic services such as electricity, water, sanitation etc. This makes them vulnerable to diseases and affects their health. They are forced to live on pavements or in undocumented community lands which are in very poor conditions.

Ways to Tackle Urban Poverty in India

The following measures can be taken to fight urban poverty in India

•Improving Rural Lives

In order to control large scale migration from rural urban areas, the current state of rural infrastructure should be addressed. Sma and medium scale industries can be promoted by incentivising rural people as well as other income generating opportunities should be started. These opportunities should be in the high income generating sectors that should satisfy the demands of the economy. More research can be carried out in the agricultural sector so that it can absorb more number of people and generate higher income.

• Better Urban Planning and Slum Development

As the level of urbanisation will increae, informal slum development is going to take place at a faster rate Slums are nothing but the result of lack of planning and proper cheap and affordable housing to large number of migrants that come to urban areas. If there is proper planning in urban areas, then these slums can be effectively rehabilitated and instead of shanty and temporary settlements, safe and decent homes for the poor can be provided.

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• Participation of Poor People in City Level Governance

Poor people should be able to participate in policy making that concerns their lives. The city governance should integrate the needs of the poor such as anti-poverty measures, health, education, increased allocation of resources etc. Participation of informal labour, slum dwellers, homeless people, women, elderly etc should also get due representation in city governance.

• Need for Urban Poverty Departments

The mega cities where there is more proportion of urban poor, urban poverty departments should also set u so that specific needs of the urban poor people can be met. They should be provided with basic services such as food, education, health services, sanitation, work on daily wages etc. so that they are able to live a healthy and decent life.

•Adequate Housing

Adequate housing facilities should be developed by the respective State Governments so that the poor people are not deprived of their right to shelter. These housing facilities must be available to the poor for very low costs and rents. There should also be provision for low cost basic facilities such as electricity, water supply, etc.

• Urban Poverty Programmes

Urban poverty alleviation programmes on lines of MGNREGA of rural areas can be started. These type of programmes will tackle vulnerability of the poor people and improve the economy of urban areas. These programs can be used to build new urban infrastructures and improve the existing ones. They will surely provide a sense of security in terms of livelihood for the poor and improve their standards of living. Improvements in the standard of living of one generation results in improving future generation’s lives and opportunities.


The trends in urban poverty suggests that the number of urban poor are likely to increase in the future in absence of a well-planned long term strategy. There must be effective participation of all the stakeholders such as the Central Government, State Governments, NGOs, rural as well as urban planning bodies, the vulnerable communities, job seekers as well as job providers and above all the policy makers and those who are responsible for implementing them on the grounds. The urban poverty challenge can be tackled and homelessness can be reduced by improving the lives of the people.