This article attempts to deal with various forms of poverty. What do the long‐term unemployed, young people looking for work and on training schemes, single adults eligible for the RMI (guaranteed minimum income benefit), lone mothers, young couples crippled by the impossibility of paying bills and rent, all have in common? The author puts forward the hypothesis that they express a particular mode of dissociation from the social bond: disaffiliation. This is a different condition of misery from that of poverty in the strict sense. The latter can perhaps be read as a state, whose forms can be listed in terms of lack (lack of earnings, of housing, of medical care, of education, lack of power or of respect). By contrast, situations of destitution constitute an effect at the place where two vectors meet: one, the axis of integration/non‐integration through work; the other, an axis of integration/non‐integration into a social and family network. A model of four ‘zones’ of social life – integration, vulnerability, assistance and disaffiliation – constructed from pre‐industrial societies, may serve as a reference grid against which we can interpret contemporary social circumstances and the rise of social vulnerability. Present‐day insecurity largely results from the growing fragility of protective regulations which were implemented from the nineteenth century onwards in order to create a stable situation for workers: the right to work, extended social protection, coverage of social risks set up by the welfare state. We can describe the specific nature of present‐day insecurity as relating to the structure of wage society, its crisis or its disintegration since the mid‐1970s.