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The Vicious Circle of Poverty and Social Isolation

October 17, 2015

The link between social isolation and poverty is an obvious one – and a catch-22.  Social isolation can lead to missed economic opportunity, and poverty often means that social resources are inaccessible.  

This vicious circle is confirmed by the thoughts of one South African focus group participant: “Even if you are hungry…you can’t go to them to ask for food or money, because they are judging you that you are poor…they won’t give you money…so it’s better that you isolate yourself.”

This circle was the focus of a conversation panel at the Overcoming Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness symposium.  Joined by Dr. Sabina Alkire from the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), Kennedy Odede from Shining Hope for Communities, Radosveta Stamenkova from the Bulgarian Family Planning and Sexual Health Association and Lidia Kemeny from the Vancouver Foundation, convenor Ian Skelly jumped right into the poverty-social isolation connection and what is being done to disjoin these two global issues.

October 17th is the United Nations-sanctioned International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The goal at the forefront of the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is “to end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” Although this may seem a tall order, it is not impossible:  

Nelson Mandela maintained that poverty is “man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” While organizations work hard to eradicate poverty, it is necessary to continue to address the social problems that arise from indigence, not least of which is the total, debilitating obstacle that is isolation.

Dr. Alkire touched on an important fact during the panel when she stated that government officials are often reluctant to explore the poverty-social isolation relationship because of its complexity and because of the implications for responsibility.

So, whose responsibility is it to resolve these problems and where does one begin?

Dr. Alkire explained that the easiest way to address these problems is not through structural change but through grassroots work. Perhaps the best example of taking a grassroots approach is one made by the next conversationalist in the panel – Kennedy Odede. Odede began the organization Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) after experiencing “extreme poverty, violence, lack of opportunity, and deep gender inequality” growing up in the Kibera Slum in Kenya.

Today, the organization started by Odede (and his partner Jessica Posner) aims to: …link girls’ education to deeply-needed community-wide services. This increases the value of girls and women, invites both genders to participate in the solution, and allows girls’ schools to be portals for large-scale social change.

Poverty is a real threat to confidence and participation, especially in women and girls. Organizations like SHOFCO work to bring women and girls together, to promote social inclusion in destitute communities. SHOFCO’s website explains the scope of Odede and Posner’s work, saying: “bolstered by grassroots knowledge, they have dedicated their lives to bringing hope to urban communities.”

Another grassroots approach was shared during the panel, as Stamenkova highlighted some of the work her organization is doing with the Roma community in Bulgaria and neighbouring countries. Stamenkova touched on the vicious circle of poverty-isolation by explaining that the Roma are “isolated by the majority and by the community. And they isolate and stigmatize themselves.” A major part of this isolation and marginalization stems from poverty – in some regions the Roma population have an unemployment rate of 99.9%.


Stemenkova works with Roma groups on community capacity building, or CCB, which is a conceptual approach to development focusing on determining the obstacles that inhibit people from meeting their development goals. CCB is an framework often used by professionals when tracing linkages between poverty and social isolation.

This linkage is one that is misunderstood, and often perpetuated, because millions of global citizens are living an unaware life, oblivious or confused about the relationship between mental health and poverty. Odede touches on this fact by explaining his original anger at the middle-class Kenyans, removed from the daily struggles of the people in Kibera. Through his work, he actually found that these Kenyans wanted to help, but they didn’t know where to start or where to find “the link” to Kibera. Odede emphasized the need to build bridges between these communities – something that his organization is now doing. Changing the lives of Kenyans at risk of social isolation.  

Lidia Kemeny echoed this statement by sharing one of the findings from the Vancouver Foundation’s Connect and Engage report. They surveyed 3,200 people and, when asked why they are not involved in their community, the most frequent response was “we don’t get involved because we have nothing to offer.” This situation is particularly interesting for community foundations, such Kemeny’s, because two problems need to be addressed. Just as Odede found in Kenya, both the impoverished community and the middle-class need to be engaged to make a difference.

The issues that arise from poverty are not only happening in Africa and other parts of the developing world – they are happening in our backyard. A new report has revealed that Toronto remains the child poverty capital of Canada, with 28.6 percent of children living in low-income households.

The report highlights the need for Toronto to “adopt a poverty reduction strategy with significant investment,” says Anita Khanna of Family Service Toronto. As we have learned from the stories above, any serious reduction strategy to Toronto’s child poverty issue must also involve concrete steps for addressing and solving the problem of social isolation. The children of this city – and the world – deserve better.