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Regular version of the site

Two Poverties

Why Objectively and Subjectively Poor Russians Are Different


Not everyone whose income is below the official poverty line consider themselves as outsiders. On the contrary, some of those who feel that they barely make ends meet cannot objectively be considered as abjectly poor. Sociologist Ekaterina Slobodenyuk studied both groups of poor Russians. It turned out that they have little in common, which means they need different kinds of support.

Money and Self-Esteem

The first group of those studied in the paper consists of individuals who are deeply poor in terms of their income. The criterion is monetary: half the median of the national per capita income. Per capita incomes of deeply poor Russians (7,500 RUB a month) are much lower than the threshold that allows the Russian citizens to claim for an indigent person status, which entitles them to get monetary support from the state (10,444 RUB in 2Q 2018).

The second group is those who are subjectively deeply poor. They attribute themselves to the two lowest (out of nine) positions on the ‘poverty – richness’ scale and consider their financial standing to be bad.

This classification is based on the data of a monitoring by the RAS Institute of Sociology (survey among 4,000 respondents, April 2018).

In April 2018, the share of objectively poor Russians was 8%, while the share of subjectively poor was 4%. The overlap between the groups, when someone falls in the criteria of both categories at the same time, was very small: 7% in the first group, and 15% in the second one. This means that in most cases, individuals with the lowest incomes do not experience their everyday life as hard, and vice versa.

Similar, but Different

The group’s profiles are also not very similar. 60% of both groups are female, and most individuals from both groups live in rural areas. But there is little else to connect them.

The groups differ in age, household composition, employment status and demands for social aid.

The objectively poor are comparatively young: one third of them are aged 31 to 40, and 27% are 18 to 30. The subjectively poor are, on the contrary, older: 38% are over 60, and 20% are aged 51 to 60.

Age of deeply poor people in Russia (%, 2018)

Source: author’s calculations based on the data by RAS Institute of Sociology (April 2018, N= 4,000)

Interestingly, the retired, who are traditionally seen as one of the most impoverished, have more risk by appearing to be among the subjectively poor than among the poor ‘by income’.

The minimum pension in Russian is equal to the subsistence level officially established for a retired person. In 2Q 2018, it was 8,583 RUB, while the deeply poor ‘by income’ live on an average of 7,000 RUB. The retired can fall to this level only in one case – if they share their modest incomes with unemployed able-bodied relatives, Ekaterina Slobodenyuk explained.

Demographics under the highest risk of becoming…

...objectively poor

...subjectively poor

Families with three or more children
Families (including ones with children) with unemployed able-bodied members
Retired individuals who provide for dependents from their pension

Retired individuals who have serious health problems
Families with alcohol/drug addicts
Individuals employed on ‘bad’ jobs, whose rights at work are violated

Family Burden

Over 70% of objectively poor families have under-age children, almost 18% have three or more offspring, and one third of them include able-bodied unemployed members. This adds to their precarious financial situation.

For the subjectively poor, this burden is lower, but the share of alcohol drinkers or unemployed retired individuals is almost twice as high in this group. This brings additional costs, complicated relationships and everyday problems, which provoke a ‘pessimistic view of life and the feeling of being an outsider’ when compared to others.

Household structure of deeply poor families in Russia (%, 2018)

Source: author’s calculations based on the data by RAS Institute of Sociology (April 2018, N= 4,000)

Deprived Workers

The emotional status of objectively and subjectively poor individuals is different. The former, despite having minimal money, mostly feel relaxed and balanced (41% of responders). About one third of them feel anxiety and apathy (21%, 16%), while half of the subjectively poor experience these feelings (35% and 16%). What is worse, subjectively poor individuals often describe their everyday feelings as permanent anger, aggression, and annoyance (16%, with 10% in the other group).

The level of stress depends, among other things, on the individual’s position on the job market. It is worse among deeply subjectively poor employees:

 They are often not legalized at work according to the Labour Code (67% vs 53% in the other group);

 Their rights are less often protected: half of them have only one or two rights secured out of six (legal formalization at work; timely and officially declared salary; paid vacations/sick leaves; paid overtime work; social benefits).

‘This is partly due to the fact that subjectively poor employees are less frequently employed at state-owned companies. As a result, they have more often had experience of long-term unemployment, and, consequently, take lower-quality job positions’, believes the researcher.

Lack of Resources

At the time of the survey, almost 20% of able-bodied respondents in each group were unemployed, but the reasons for their unemployment were varied.

The poor ‘by income’ are comparatively young, so ‘unemployed’ here, in half of the cases, means ‘studying’ or ‘on maternity leave’.

Subjectively poor individuals are unemployed mostly ‘due to other reasons’ (e.g. they are unwilling or unable to find work), and their unemployment is usually long-term. Many of them live in rural areas, where the job market is limited, but this is not the only reason. The problems is exacerbated due to poor human capital, which means low levels of knowledge and skills, poor levels of education or bad state of health.

For example, 25% of the subjectively poor have not graduated from secondary school, and only 13% of them have a university degree. Almost one third of them assess their health negatively. In the objectively poor group, there are no people without secondary school education, and 18% of them are university graduates. Almost 15% in this group mentioned health problems.

Demands to the State

Deeply poor individuals believe that it is the government’s fault that they are in such a situation, and rely on the government as well. The vast majority believe that they cannot survive without support from the state.

They expect the state to guarantee fair salaries, material benefits, and accessible medicine.

Deeply poor individuals’ demands to the state (%, 2018)

Source: author’s calculations based on the data by RAS Institute of Sociology (April 2018, N= 4,000)

Some other studies demonstrate that the same demands are characteristic of the country’s population in general. But the poor have some specifics and furthermore, different expectations in different groups.

Objectively poor

Subjectively poor

Increased demand for access to health care and direct money payment.

Increased demand for fair salaries, assistance in employment and housing.


About 40% of this group are over 60 years of age. The vast majority of them assess their health as bad and do not have sufficient money for treatment (this is particularly true for retired individuals).

Young age of the group (61% are aged 18 to 40) and high share of unemployed able-bodied individuals.

All deeply poor people are willing to get fair salaries, are in need of education (mostly, families with kids) and continuing education. The author believes that this ‘refutes the popular opinion that the poor have dependency mentality’. The same goes for them expecting assistance with employment – this is not a dependent’s ‘give me’, but a forced reaction to the lack of jobs in rural areas. 

How to Help Effectively

The groups’ differences and their different expectations in terms of support signal that different methods should be used to fight deep poverty.

Objectively poor

Subjectively poor

Increasing salaries
Access to good-quality jobs
Support for families with children, including support with housing

Solving the problems of rural unemployment, through vocational education and transition to settlements with vacant jobs
Access to health care for retired individuals with serious health problems
In order to cut the share of such individuals in the future – better social aid for employed individuals
Increased unemployment benefits

The above means that material support is not a cure-all method for all of the poor. And information on the income is not the only indicator for high-quality social policy. The reasons for poverty are diverse, and poverty is largely due to external factors, such as specifics of local job markets, inaccessibility of health care, and many others. Determining the poor exclusively based on their income means not reaching ‘the part of the population that forms a focus of social tension’.



Author of the study:
Ekaterina Slobodenyuk, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Economic Sciences, Research Fellow at the HSE Centre for Stratification Studies
December 21, 2019