What is Poverty?

Poverty is not having access to the basic things in life, considered normal in a society.

Last Updated on July 15, 2022 by Karl Thompson

A working definition of poverty is: The condition of not having access to those things considered ‘basic’ or ‘normal’ within a society (1)

Origins of the Concept

  • The academic use of the concept can be traced back to Seebohm Rowntree’s (1901) study of Poverty in York, which set the tone for much later work which sought to uncover the extent of poverty in society.
  • In the late 1950s Peter Townsend developed a relational concept of poverty based on lifestyles, from which he distilled 12 recurring items, such as ‘household does not have a refrigerator’, into a poverty or deprivation index. This is a relative, rather than an absolute concept of poverty.
  • Later studies have used questionnaires to find out what people themselves define as necessities in order to measure ‘relative poverty’.
  • Today national governments also use ‘poverty lines’, which is usually set at 50-60% below the national average household income.

Absolute and Relative Poverty 

Sociologists generally recognize two definitions of poverty – absolute and relative

Absolute poverty is grounded in the idea of material subsistence -the basic needs which must be me in order to sustain a reasonably healthy existence, mainly food, shelter and clothing. By these standards, there are still hundreds of millions of people around the world who live in absolute poverty, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and rural India.

However, the problem with the concept of absolute poverty is that there is no universal definition of it, and definitions of need are culturally variable: for example the !Kung bushmen do not regard themselves as living in absolute poverty, but many people in the West may define them as suffering from this condition.

Most sociologists today use the concept of relative poverty, which relates poverty to the standards of living in a particular society. The main reason for using relative poverty as a measurement is that as societies ‘develop’, people tend to adjust their ideas of what counts as a ‘necessity’ upwards – for example in poor areas of less developed countries, running water and flush toilets are not generally regarded as necessities, while in more developed countries refrigerators and telephones may be regarded as necessities.

Critics of the relative poverty measurement argue that it detracts our attention away from the more serious issue of ‘absolute poverty’, which is potentially life threatening, whereas those living in relative poverty (in the UK and other developed countries at least) tend not to be starving.

However, measuring relative poverty is useful as it highlights injustice in society and groups which experience discrimination and marginalization – women, some ethnic minorities, the young and the old are more likely to be in relative poverty than other groups.

Individual and Social-Structural Explanations of Poverty

Explanations of poverty tend to either blame the individual (‘blame the victim’ approaches) or blame society (structural, or ‘blame the system’ approaches).

Blame the victim approaches tend to argue that poverty has always been with us, and always will be, they see society as generally fair and offering opportunities to individuals for advancement: if individuals fail to take advantage of these opportunities it is down to their own lack of effort, and those individuals who fail to ‘rise up’ in the system have no one else to blame but themselves.

Such ideas were popular in 19th century Britain, when work houses were developed to deal with the poor (the ‘failures’), and had a resurgence in the 1980s when New Right/ neoliberal ideas explained poverty as the fault of individuals themselves, probably the most classic statement of this being Charles Murray’s theory of the underclass in which he blamed persistent poverty on an over-reliance on benefits and an unwillingness to work on the part of the long term unemployed.

‘Blame the system’ approaches can be traced back to R.H. Tawney who argued that poverty is a key factor in explaining social inequality which results in extremes of wealth and poverty.

These approaches focus more on how the structure of society systemically disadvantages some groups rather than others – inequalities in class, gender, ethnicity and physical ability all make it more difficult for some to take advantage of opportunities, and this is no fault of the individual when discrimination or cultural capital possessed by the elite class effectively block opportunities for some while opening them up for others on an unequal basis.

Blame the system approaches also point out that major structural changes in society can also affect poverty levels – the decline of manufacturing in the UK from the 1970s for example led to declining job opportunities for large sections of the traditional working classes, while the flexibilisation of work patterns as part of neoliberal working regimes have locked millions of workers in the UK into temporary, low paid jobs during the 1980s and 1990s.

From this structuralist point of view, social policy is the solution to poverty, two recent examples being the introduction of the minimum wage and the expansion of in-work benefits.

Criticisms of the Concept of Poverty

Absolute poverty is difficult to measure because there is no universally agreed concept of ‘needs’, and the same criticisms can be applied to relative poverty – if we are to base the definition of this on not having certain items, then it is impossible to escape subjective interpretations of what the cluster of ‘necessary items’ should be.

The concept of relative poverty has also been criticised as only actually measuring inequality, rather than poverty, so the concept lacks clear meaning – – at least the concept of ‘absolute poverty’ helps us to identify people in real need, whereas it is not necessarily possible to say this about someone who is in ‘relative poverty’ when they level of it keeps rising with increasing standards of living.

Focusing on relative poverty detracts attention away from those in absolute poverty.

Some sociologists have moved away from the concept of poverty in favour of ‘social exclusion’ which focuses instead on the processes which deny poorer people access to certain citizenship rights.

Continuing relevance

Research on poverty has demonstrated that a substantial amount of people in both the United Kingdom and the United States are in poverty at any one time, and that there is a clear link between socio-economic structures and the persistence of poverty in modern societies.

Signposting and related posts

Poverty is one of the most important concepts within A-level sociology.

I teach poverty along with the related concept of relative deprivation as part of my introduction to sociology module in first two weeks of the course.

You might like to read this post next to understand more about the extent of poverty in the UK.

Having a critical understanding the concept of poverty in society is crucial to understanding how social class affects life chances.

The concept is especially relevant to the Marxist theory of society.

It is directly relevant to the concept of material deprivation in education, as a part explanation of why so many children do so badly at school, and the related concept of relative deprivation is part of left realist explanations of crime.

It is also absolutely integral to the global development module which is all about explaining why some countries are poor while others are rich!

Sources/ Find out More

(1) Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology

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