Poverty fifty years on —  but what IS poverty?

Poverty fifty years on — but what IS poverty?

John Veit-Wilson, Newcastle University.

Listening to government politicians talking about poverty is like hearing 18th century doctors discuss medicine — they don’t grasp their own ignorance, let alone that their diagnosis and prescription will kill rather than cure. Yet 2014 marks 50 years since the first national survey of poverty in the UK was launched, revolutionising how poverty could be understood, conceptualised and measured.

Until the end of the 19th century the common understanding of poverty was a middle-class view of other people’s deprived conditions and lifestyle, inadequate food, ragged clothing and squalid housing. Hence, Charles Booth in London and Seebohm Rowntree in York counted poor people not based on income but on appearance and lifestyle, just as the present government wants to do. But Rowntree did go further — by calculating the cost of ‘merely physical efficiency’ he discovered wages were too low even for that, let alone participation in social life. But many confused his distinction between physical and social needs (‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ poverty) and treated spending on social needs as merely ‘wasteful’, thus perpetuating muddle to the present day.

Confusion has also persisted between describing deprived conditions and ascribing them to poor people’s behaviour, and identifying the structural causes and constraints at collective as well as individual levels. Vague descriptions of widespread experiences and behaviour are not useful for distinguishing poor from non-poor populations. Rowntree’s primary poverty measure designed to show grossly inadequate incomes was widely adapted to suggest minimally adequate incomes, even by Rowntree himself (after some later supplementation for social needs). Many studies have used versions of such constructed ‘absolute’ budgets to count people in poverty in cities and rural districts across the country.

What drove change from 1964 was the new theoretical approach of the first national survey of poverty, jointly directed by Professors Brian Abel-Smith (LSE) and Peter Townsend (University of Essex). They recognised that as poverty was a sociological concept, the criteria by which to identify it had to be sought in society, and the authority on identifying minimally decent standards and adequate levels of socially-inclusive life was the whole population itself.

Four intensive qualitative pilot studies of groups who might be at risk of deprivation (families with unemployed or sick and disabled breadwinners, large families, and mothers alone) revealed what ordinary people themselves saw as being the necessary activities and conditions for life of which nobody should be deprived. These accounts, augmented by evidence from many contemporary community studies of older people and others, were used to construct a long list of potential ‘deprivation indicators’ to put to national sample survey respondents. Their answers on whether the items should be considered as necessities, whether they had or did them and what their household circumstances and incomes were, enabled researchers to calculate what proportion of the population suffered socially-defined deprivations, and at what average household incomes people risked deprivation. For the first time the ‘poverty line’ estimate of minimum necessary incomes was determined by the evidence instead of being driven by prescribed budgets or political preferences.

Townsend had already written about the new approach in the 1950s, though the research report was not published until 1979. The method was subsequently refined by other researchers to allow for the question of enforced lack of items or deliberate choice [1, 2], and for the strength of popular assent rather than mere majority preferences [3]. In each case the voice of the population, expressed in reliable surveys, set the standards of minimum adequacy for all, and statisticians reported the average income levels at which households actually achieved them or suffered deprivations.

This was not only the first methodologically reliable sociological approach to identifying and measuring the social standards which define poverty, but it also transformed the language in which poverty was discussed. As a sociologist, Townsend understood that talk about absolute ‘minimum subsistence’ poverty was merely a rationalisation of changing conventional notions of what was enough for ‘other’ people, and in that sense it was no less relative to time, place, culture and observer than approaches based explicitly on socially-derived standards for all — as Adam Smith himself explicitly recognised in The Wealth of Nations: “By necessaries I understand, not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.”

However, many still believe that ‘relative poverty’ applies to only one form of relativity —such as income inequalities measured as 60% of median household incomes. The language the public uses for its decency standards for everyone may well be affected by class and ideological perspectives on income inequalities. Broadly speaking, ideas of absolute poverty are promoted as appropriate for ‘other’ people even though not adequate for ‘us’ (what Sargent Shriver described as ‘We The People and They The Poor’), while relative poverty describes what ‘we the people’ see as minimum adequacy standards for all in our society. This reflects the distinction between more and less egalitarian visions of the good society.

Amartya Sen has disputed Townsend’s rejection of the possibility of absolute poverty measures and described some irreducible aspects of human needs as ‘absolute’. But these two outstanding authorities seemed often to be at cross-purposes. What Sen described abstractly as absolute needs such as food and shelter, Townsend asserted could only be expressed in concrete terms relative to a society’s conventional and available dietary foodstuffs, climate, geography and building technology. Thus whatever the level of abstracted analysis of absolute human survival needs, they can only be expressed in concrete terms relative to specific societies. [4]

Sen is most widely known for his identification of expected functionings in society and people’s capabilities of achieving them. These perspectives are often posed as parallel to Townsend’s, but a more constructive approach sees them as complementary expressions of similar understandings of the conventional social standards which define acceptable adequacy for inclusion, and the variety of tangible and intangible resources (not just disposable cash incomes) needed to achieve social functioning to the minimum standards in different contexts. Townsend’s original insights focussed on poverty in countries where cash incomes are the principal essential resource which is lacking, while Sen’s focus was on societies in which markets and money were only one among many resources needed for full functioning. Sen later acknowledged, however, the importance of income adequacy wherever money markets ruled, just as Townsend’s poverty interests extended to deprivations and development policy across the globe. [5]

In the last half century two other approaches have been developed, the so-called Leyden approach based on public opinion surveys and the ‘consensual minimum income standards’ approach based on focus group discussion. The first was developed in the Netherlands and was based on Gallup Poll’s US public opinion survey methods. It used sophisticated econometric methods to analyse population survey responses to questions such as ‘how much income does your household need to make ends meet?’ and rating scales of income as good to bad with ‘just enough’ taken as the critical level. A difficulty with this approach was that public opinion responses are not particularly accurate in estimating household income levels; the jump from the complexities of implicitly judging adequate levels of living to recalling income over time makes responses hard to interpret or use at accuracy levels needed for policy evaluation or for cross-national comparisons. [6]

The consensual focus group approach addresses the old quantitative survey problem that large scale quantitative findings cannot explain or justify qualitative aspects. If experts can discuss and explain their detailed household budget constructions, then the public voice could equally be expressed through representative groups discussing what are essential items and activities which nobody should be without for typical households (families with children, single parents or old people) until consensus is achieved. The method developed at Loughborough and York universities involves these conclusions being reached after repeated discussion with experts in such subjects as nutrition, housing and heating standards, so that the conclusions are as robust and reliable as possible. The complex lists of items and activities are then costed and necessary incomes calculated to arrive at what are called Minimum Income Standards. Since the standards are explicitly relative to society, group, time and place, the detailed consensual budgets themselves are not necessarily transferable but the method itself has been used and adapted in other places and countries. It is, for instance, the basis of UK calculations for the Living Wage which in other countries is often based on more traditional budget methods.

The original Townsend socially-prescribed ‘deprivation indicator’ approach, in which the necessary minimum incomes are statistically derived from the average household income levels at which the population just escapes suffering serious enforced deprivations, has been much modified over time but has been periodically updated and repeated by the Poverty and Social Exclusion research team. The findings of the first and subsequent national surveys now offer evidence of how socially-defined necessities change over time as ‘luxuries’ become seen as necessities for social inclusion, and then decline not only as new technologies and goods are developed and prices change but also if public standards become more restrictive. In addition, new research is exploring the precise causal role of lack of money itself across a range of potentially deprived outcomes often ascribed imprecisely to ‘poverty’, as well as the well-known correlations between income inequalities and a range of social ‘evils’, to see if there are critical income thresholds between tolerable income inequalities and those causing deprivation.

In spite of these theoretical and methodological advances, evidence of increasing social polarisation combined with the revival of public opprobrium against the ‘undeserving poor’ and political reluctance to combat it, re-emphasises the continuing importance of demystifying issues about whose minimum standards of adequacy, of toleration, of inclusion in society are to be embodied in the public image of poverty and the political responses in effective policy-making and implementation. Failure to do so perpetuates the avoidable human suffering which poverty represents.


[1] Mack, J. and S. Lansley (1985). Poor Britain. London, Allen and Unwin.

[2] Gordon, D. and C. Pantazis (1997). Breadline Britain in the 1990s. Aldershot, Avebury.

[3] Halleröd, B., J. Bradshaw, et al. (1997). “Adapting the consensual definition of poverty”. Breadline Britain in the 1990s. D. Gordon and C. Pantazis. Aldershot, Ashgate: 213-234.

[4] Sen, A. (1983). “Poor, Relatively Speaking.” Oxford Economic Papers 35: 153-169.

[5] Townsend, P. (1993). The International Analysis of Poverty. London, Harvester Wheatsheaf.

[6] Goedhart, T., V. Halberstadt, et al. (1977). “The Poverty Line: concept and measurement.” Journal of Human Resources 12(4): 503-520.

John Veit-Wilson is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy of Northumbria University and Visiting Professor in Sociology at Newcastle University. He was a member of the original national poverty research team in 1964 and was a founder member of the Child Poverty Action Group in 1965. His book Setting Adequacy Standards: how governments define minimum incomes (Policy Press, 1998: out of print but is available here) developed the idea of governmental minimum income standards as political criteria of income adequacy for minimum real levels of living, as opposed both to empirical and prescriptive poverty measures or arbitrary administrative criteria of low incomes.