The conventional approach of economists to the measurement of poverty is to use measures of income or consumption. This has been challenged by those who favour broader criteria, such as fulfilment of ‘basic needs’ and the ‘capabilities’ to be and to do things of intrinsic worth. This paper asks: to what extent are these different concepts measurable, to what extent are they competing or complementary, and is it possible for them to be accommodated within an encompassing framework? We conclude that it is possible to view subjective well-being as an encompassing concept, which permits us to quantify the relevance and importance of the other approaches and of their component variables. Any attempt to define poverty involves a value judgment as to what constitutes a good quality of life or a bad one. We argue that an approach which examines the individual's own perception of well-being is less imperfect, or more quantifiable, or both, as a guide to forming that value judgement than are the other potential approaches. The argument is illustrated using a South African household survey.