What are the subtle differences in meaning and usage between poverty and poorness?

  • 2
    Can we have the context where you want to insert one or the other?
    – Yohann V.
    Apr 22, 2015 at 8:54
  • 1
    "Poverty" is a condition that, while it has graduations, ultimately either is or isn't. A millionaire would never be considered to be in (financial) poverty. "Poorness" is a relative term, in that a millionaire might be unable to buy that second Lear Jet due to his poorness (though it's certainly stretching things to phrase it that way). And there's the simple matter that "poorness" is a relatively rare word.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 22, 2015 at 12:25
  • 'Poorness' is a word? What does a dictionary say about the two? Which is to say, 'poorness' is rare.
    – Mitch
    May 22, 2015 at 13:16
  • 2
    Poorness would be used in metaphorical sense of poor, as in talking about poor grades. You wouldn't say *the poverty of your grades. May 22, 2015 at 15:03
  • @HotLicks Your distinction seems to be the correct answer. Why don't you post it as an answer so it can be accepted or at least voted on?
    – GetzelR
    Jul 7, 2015 at 17:07

5 Answers 5


I'll tell you one big difference: the frequency :-)

At Google Books:

"poverty is"

About 938,000 results

"poorness is"

About 815 results

"Poorness" is quite rare, by comparison.

Also, that "poverty" is used only in financial contexts is not true. Better dictionaries show:

pov·er·ty noun

1 a : lack or relative lack of money or material possessions : privation, want

transition from a life of almost the greatest pomp and circumstance … to one just, but only just, above the line of genteel poverty — Geoffrey Gorer>

in poverty, morality and even a touch of happiness was possible, never in destitution — R. A. Schermerhorn>

had roamed the picturesque poor quarters … but this ugly, barren poverty on the Spanish land was his first view of some men's helpless fate — Janet Flanner>

b : renunciation as a member of a religious order of the right as an individual to own, to receive by inheritance or gift, or to dispose of property

2 a : meagerness of supply : scarcity, dearth

biographer … is necessarily embarrassed by the poverty of personal information preserved — John Loftis>

the cold thin atmosphere of his work was due … to a poverty of ideas and sensuous imagery — V. L. Parrington>

b : poorness in kind or quality : inferiority

cannot hide poverty of form under an opulent mask of orchestral color — Hunter Mead>

c : lack of desirable elements or attributes : deficiency

the … poverty of North and Northeastern Africa in river-producing power — Samuel Haughton>

suffered … from a certain poverty in our English critical vocabulary — Irving Babbitt>

3 a : debility due to malnutrition : feebleness, emaciation

produce insufficient fodder … and one or two ranches suffered quite heavy losses from poverty — Report: Northern Rhodesia Veterinary Department>

b : lack of fertility

poverty of the soil>

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary


Poverty is the word for the concept of "poorness." There is nothing that grammatically prevents "poorness" from being used. "Poorness" is technically correct, but inelegant. Inelegance is something of a flexible concept, but it includes words like "cactuses," "angryness," etc. A creative writer might use poorness in place of poverty to make the reader involuntarily think twice about it, but it isn't a word normally encountered.

Caveat: this is true when talking about "poor" as it relates to scarcity. When used to describe low quality (i.e. poor test scores), "poverty" no longer applies. -Credit for pointing this out: Janus Bahs Jacquet.

  • That’s not true. There are some senses (2b and 2c in the definitions quoted in Marius’ answer) where poorness is more common and idiomatic than poverty, and where poverty might appear very odd or indeed mean something else: “the poverty of these examples” refers to scarcity; “the poorness of these examples” refers to quality; and similarly with “the poverty/poorness of the food”, except there, poverty just generally sounds bizarre, even if referring to scarcity. Jun 21, 2015 at 13:33
  • Hey that's true! When "poor" is used to indicate bad quality, "poverty" no longer works. I'm gonna put that in. Thanks :)
    – Misha R
    Jun 21, 2015 at 13:38
  • ...However, if talking about the scarcity of the food, you wouldn't say "poorness" either. You would, in fact, say "scarcity." "Poverty" is used when the subject is the owner of the food, not the food itself.
    – Misha R
    Jun 21, 2015 at 13:58

Poverty : One meaning :

The state of having little or no money and few or no material possessions.

Poorness : 4 meanings :

The state of having little or no money and few or no material possessions

Less than adequate

The quality of being meagre

The quality of being poorly made or maintained

Summary Of Difference : Poverty is used in financial contexts, while Poorness is used in wider contexts.

  • 1
    Nah, you can say stuff like "moral poverty." It's quite common.
    – Misha R
    Jun 21, 2015 at 13:01
  • @MishaRosnach , the word "moral" Deliberately moves "poverty" away from financial contexts. Now consider "the poverty of his students is a reason for their ragged clothes" & "the poorness of his students is an indication of his bad teaching skills". Without any Deliberate words, the Default context is set.
    – Prem
    Jun 21, 2015 at 13:42
  • Yah I agree, poverty is not useful when talking about lack of quality. I actually just edited my own answer to include that. "Moral poorness" still doesn't work, though; nor does "poorness" imply moral poverty. The term "moral poverty" is both correct and common.
    – Misha R
    Jun 21, 2015 at 13:52
  • @MishaRosnach , I have no arguments over the correctness (& commonness) of "moral poverty" , but I point out that the word "moral" Deliberately takes it out of financial contexts. In my answer , I mention "poverty" having 1 meaning , with "poorness" having 4 meanings.
    – Prem
    Jun 21, 2015 at 14:33
  • 1
    Your conclusion is incorrect, however. "Poorness" isn't used in wider contexts, it's used in different contexts. As for the word "moral," it would be no less necessary if someone were to use "poorness" instead of "poverty." Although, again, "poverty" is the proper term there.
    – Misha R
    Jun 21, 2015 at 15:07

Poverty is French/Latin pauvreté from Latin paupertas/tatis. Poor and poorness is the English development from French pauvre, adj, and Latin pauper, pauperis, adj. So both nouns belong to the same word family and basically mean the same. Poorness can be used figuratively as in the poorness of his style (speaking of a writer).

Etymonline's article on poor, adj, is very interesting. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=poor&searchmode=none


To me, "poorness" relates to a current state of affairs under which a person has low or no income, which may be by choice (such as farming or a business which produces limited income, or choosing to live off of limited savings for a period as a break, such as backpacking through Europe), or a temporary status such as between jobs or while a college student, whereas "poverty" relates to a prolonged, non-voluntary condition from which one cannot easily extract him/herself or be easily extracted.

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    – Helmar
    Sep 29, 2016 at 16:43

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