The Face of Poverty in Europe and Central Asia

February 10, 2014

  • Poverty is an especially complex issue in Europe and Central Asia, where some 80 million people live on less than $5 per day and struggle to meet even basic needs.
  • High heating bills during long, harsh winters and having to pay for more food (or more calories) to survive the cold make essential needs more expensive than in other regions.
  • Unemployment and low wages are seen as major contributors to poverty.


ImagePoverty remains a real issue in Europe and Central Asia.

As a percentage of population, the number of people living on $1.25 or less per day in the region was 0.7 percent in 2010, according to World Bank data. That compares to 31 percent in South Asia and 48.5 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.

But in Europe and Central Asia, $1.25 per day is seldom enough to survive.


The biggest, and most unique, problem that families face in ECA is its harsh and extremely cold winters that stretch for months.

Winters here mean temperatures as low as -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit), sometimes dipping to as low as -45 degrees Celsius (-49 degrees Fahrenheit) in the coldest parts of the region.

The severe cold means families in ECA need to spend a significant amount of money not only to stay warm but to also ensure that they get the minimum required amount of calories to survive winters. 

The average household in ECA spends over 7 percent of its income to pay for energy and food, compared to 4.7 percent in the East Asia and Pacific region and 4.6 percent in the Latin America and Caribbean region.

These costs add up and even with $2.50 per day for each person, families in the region struggle to afford heating and food, let alone other living expenses. Such households are considered to be extremely poor. There are others who live on $5 per day, and while their struggle is not as acute, they still live in poverty-like conditions.

When these conditions are taken into account, 80 million people in ECA live in poverty today, according to latest World Bank data.

Talking to Families in ECA

Living on $2.50 a day or $5 per day is hard to imagine.

Yet, it is the reality for millions of people in the region. The World Bank recently talked to several such families in Armenia, the Kyrgyz Republic, Poland and Serbia to document their struggles.

These families talked about their daily lives and the tough choices they are constantly forced to make because their income is often insufficient to cover even basic everyday needs.

All of them spoke of hardship, and in several cases, of their constant helplessness and frustration. But all families also talked about hope, and how they wanted, and believed, that their children could have a better future.

These families are the face of poverty in Europe and Central Asia.  

Key Issues

While every family had its own story to tell, some common themes emerged repeatedly in the Bank’s conversations with them.

Paying for heating and food, which are essential to survive the region’s unrelenting winters, drove almost every decision they made. But contending with these expenses left these families with little to no money, which often meant that other vital ones such as medical costs or school fees had to be put off or eliminated altogether.

Two households in the Kyrgyz Republic and one in Serbia underscored how these expenses take a toll on their lives.

Food Tops Wish List for Kyrgyz Republic’s Poor

Serbia’s Shining, but Expensive, City Lights

Most families interviewed by the World Bank said the lack of access to good, steady jobs was the root cause of poverty. Few working-age adults were employed and those that did have a job often worked only for a few hours a week or seasonally and were paid poorly.

The issue was highlighted in conversations the World Bank had with this family in Poland.

Young, Under-employed, and Poor in Poland

In the absence of jobs, social programs were often the only source of income, thus becoming the ultimate safety net.

Several adults in these families said while they had little hope that their situation would change soon, they were certain that their children could escape poverty and have better lives if they pursued their education through college, which in turn could help them find good jobs.

In Armenia, education is one family’s biggest hope for a better future.

Armenia’s Poor see Education as Means of Escape

The Face of Poverty project showcases the stories of these families in their own, compelling voices that shine the spotlight on a reality that people often forget about the region.

It also aims to show how the World Bank’s lending and analytical advice can help countries in the region address the needs of the most vulnerable, and support the Bank’s goals to end poverty and promote shared prosperity.