The easy answer is to say around 22% of the population, roughly 14 million people. The long answer starts with the sentence ‘it depends on how you define and measure poverty’, in which case you get various different statistics on the poverty rate.
22% of the UK population are in poverty, equivalent to 14.2 million people: 8.4 million working-age adults; 4.5 million children; and 1.4 million pension age adults. Source: The Social Metrics Foundation, 2018.
1% of the total UK population (7. 7 million people) live in persistent poverty. Source: The Social Metrics Foundation, 2018.
This definition of poverty is broader than any previous definition because:
It takes account of all material resources not just incomes. For instance, this means including an assessment of the available assets that families have; •
It takes into accounts the inescapable costs that some families face, which make them more likely than others to experience poverty, such as the extra costs of disability, and costs of childcare and rental and mortgage costs; •
It automatically defines anyone who is ‘sleeping rough’ as being in poverty.
However, it also sets the relative poverty line at 55% of median income rather than 60^ of median income (as the government has done for many years), seemingly because to keep it at 60% while making all of the other changes above would put too many people in poverty?!? See page 63 of the report for more details:
According to the Government’s own data:
16% of UK households were in relative low income households (before housing costs)
22% of UK households were in relative low income households (after housing costs).
Relative low income households have an income of less than 60% of median household income (equivalised), which is equivalent to £296 per week (or approximately £1000 per month). Source: Households Below Average Income, published March 2018.
7.3% of the UK population (4.6 million people) are in persistent poverty. This study defines ‘persistent poverty as being in a relative low income household (using the BHAI definition of this) consistently for 3 years. Source: Persistent Poverty in the UK and the EU: 2015.
Which of these is the most valid measurement of poverty?
You’ll notice that there’s some different between these figures, especially between the Social Metric Commissions’ persistent poverty rate and the ONS’ poverty rate – 12% compared to 7%, so it really matters which of these is the most valid!
Given that the Social Metrics Commission’s definition was agreed by a large panel of people, which included government representation, I’m going to say the SMC’s definition/ measurement is the most valid.
In brief, 22% of the UK population, or 13.9 million people live in poverty in the UK (2016). Poverty rates are higher for lone parent households (46%), disabled households (34), and rates also vary significantly by ethnicity (e.g. the Bangladeshi poverty rate = 50%).
Below is a summary of the latest statistics on the characteristics of those living in poverty in the UK. NB These are the latest stats I could find which have been comprehensively analysed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, based on their 2017: Poverty in the UK report.
If you can’t see the above chart online (it’s designed to be downloaded and printed off in A3) the it’s all replicated below!
Basic Poverty in the UK Statistics
A total of 13.9 million people lived in poverty in the UK in 2015-16, or 22% of people live below the poverty line, 30% children, and 18% of pensioners. However, there is significant variation between the proportion of working age adults, pensioners and children living in poverty.
What is Poverty?
Relative poverty: the stats in the JRF report summarised here mainly show ‘relative poverty’: when a family has an income of less than 60% of median income for their family type, after housing costs.
A related measure is persistent poverty which is when a person is currently in poverty and has been in poverty for at least two of the three preceding years.
For more details for different ways of defining and measuring poverty please see this post: What is poverty?
Poverty rates by household type
46% of lone parent households are in poverty, twice as many as all other household types.
The ‘poverty line’ varies by household type:
Family type £ per week, equivalised,
Couple with no children = £248
Single with no children = £144
Couple with two children* = £401
Single with two children* = £297
*aged 5 to 14
Poverty varies most significantly by disability
In 2016 34% of working-age adults in families with disabled members lived in poverty, compared with 17% of those who did not.
Poverty also varies by ethnicity
Approx. 2016 rates for working age adults Bangladeshi – 50%, Pakistani – 45%, Black British 37%, White – 19%.
Find out more…
There are other variations in poverty highlighted by the JRF report (link above), I’ve just selected the main ‘in focus’ trends as things stand in 2017.
NB on the ‘data lag’ – that’s just one of the problems of Official Statistics more generally – most of the data above has been analysed from various different types of government stats, which are already a year out of data before the ONS publishes them, then you have wait further for the JRF summary. If you want the 2018 stats, you’ll just have to wait til 2019!
If you like this sort of thing, then you might also like my previous post on ‘Poverty Trends’ in the UK, which looks at how poverty rates changed between 1996 and 2016.
The UK has seen significant falls in poverty over the last 20 years, HOWEVER, this progress is now at risk of reversing as poverty rates have been increasing in recent years. This blog posts summarizes the 20 year trend in UK Poverty according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2017 Poverty Report. Specifically it looks at:
The overall 20 year trend in UK poverty
poverty among pensioners and children
Three drivers of the reduction in poverty rates
Three threats to the continued reduction in poverty rates
NB I’m using the same information from the report, but I’ve changed the order in which it’s reported and summarized it down further. Personally I think my version is much more immediately accessible to your ‘non-expert’: IMO the ‘JRF have a tendency to ‘over-report’ reams of nuanced data, and the overall picture just gets lost. The detail’s important if you’re a policy wonk, but probably going to get lost on the average, interested member of the general public.
Before reading this post you might like to check out my ‘what is poverty?‘ post which covers the basic definition of some of the terms used below.
The overall 20 year trend in UK poverty….the fall and rise of UK poverty rates
20 years ago, in 1996, nearly a quarter (24%) of the UK’s population lived in poverty. By 2004, this had fallen to one in five (20%) of the population. However, by 2016, the proportion had risen slightly to 22%.
*Relative poverty is when a family has an income of less than 60% of median income for their family type, after housing costs.
Children and pensioners living in poverty
As the chart above clearly shows, the biggest success stories in the long term reduction in poverty over the last 20 years are the numbers of pensioners who have been taken out of poverty and (to a lesser extent) the number of children.. As the chart above shows:
In 1995, 28% of pensioners lived in poverty, falling to 13% in 2012, but rising to 16% by 2016.
In 1995, a third of children lived in poverty, falling to 27% in 2012, but rising to 30% in 2016
However, during that time the proportion of working age couples without children in poverty actually grew slightly, from 16% to 18%.
Factors correlated with falling poverty rates
The report notes three main factors which are mainly responsible for this long term overall decline in poverty:
Rising employment, linked with higher wages due to the minimum wage, and better education.
Increased support through benefits, especially the increase in the state pension age, but also out of work benefits for working age people with children
Housing benefit and increased home ownership containing the impact of rising rents.
Factors explaining the long term decrease of UK Poverty in more depth
It seems that the main drivers behind the long-term decrease in poverty in the UK are the ‘positive’ economic factors such as improvements in the employment rate, pay and conditions, rather than increases to benefits.
Below I select what appear to be the five most import factors from the report which explain the long term decrease in poverty.
The increase in the state pension
The most significant reduction in poverty has been achieved with pensioners, and according to the JRF report, the main reason for this was a one off increase in the state pension at the beginning of the century:
NB – there is a lot of variation in pensioner income, which I may explore in a future post…
The employment rate has increase from around 71% in 1996 to around 75% in 2016…
NB – while you are statistically more likely to be in poverty if you’re not in-work, being employed it itself is not sufficient to avoid being in poverty. Both the introduction of the minimum wage, and changes to in work benefits for lone parents have been essential to making sure that a higher proportion of people in employment are also not officially in poverty. While work today is more likely to lift you out of poverty than in 1996, it remains the case that a large percentage of those in poverty are in-work (typically in part-time jobs).
Earnings are up for people with all levels of qualifications…
Obviously higher earnings are more likely to lift people out of poverty, HOWEVER, at the bottom end of the income earning scale, and especially for those with children and in part-time jobs, the increasing cost of living, especially rent (but also childcare and even food and utilities) has negated much of the above increase in wages, hence why government support in the form of child tax credits and housing benefit remains important.
The number of people with degrees has nearly trebled in this period: from around 12% of the UK population to over 30%
Those with degrees earn approximately twice the amount of those with no qualifications, so it would seem that New Labour’s focus on ‘education, education, education‘, and their push to get more people into higher education has had a positive impact in poverty reduction. However, with the introduction of tuition fees and with increasing competition for highly skilled jobs coming from abroad, it’s not clear that this trend (of more and more people getting degrees) is set to continue.
The introduction of the national minimum wage has resulted in a 46% relative pay increase for the poorest 10%, compared to a 40% median national increase
Both the introduction of the minimum wage and its subsequent increases seem to have been one of the most important factors in tackling in-work poverty. However, even with the minimum wage, a possible future barrier to further poverty reduction lies in the growth of precarious jobs leading to ‘underemployment’ – where people get too few hours to earn a decent living. For more on this, see my summary of the RSA’s report on ‘Future Work in the UK‘.
The increase in out of work benefits for people with children
Basically, there has a been a very slight long-term increase in out of work benefits for people with children, who are now slightly better off than 20 years ago, while poor people without children have seen no change, or are slightly worse off.
I guess this leads to an overall reduction in the poverty rate simply because there are more people per family household rather than just couple or single person household.
You can see from the above chart, that lone parents claiming JSA and child benefits were briefly lifted to 60% of median income (just on the poverty line) – sufficient to take them out of poverty, however, you can also see that benefits are again being cut back, so we can probably expect poverty rates to increase again in the future!
And one factor which doesn’t seem to explain the overall reduction in poverty… changes to in-work benefits…
With the exception of single parents who are better off over a twenty year period, every other household type seems to be worse off! Thus I can’t see how this variable would explain the long term decrease in UK poverty.
Potential barriers to further reductions in poverty
All three of the main drivers of poverty reduction mentioned above are now under question:
The continued rise in employment is no longer reducing poverty.
State support for low-income families is falling in real terms, and negates the gains made by increasing employment and wages.
Rising rents, less help for low-income renters and falling home ownership leave more people struggling to meet the cost of housing.
The chairman of the Social Mobility Commission, Alan Milburn, accused the government of being so preoccupied with Brexit that were failing to address the poverty and lack of mobility that led so many people in poorer areas to vote for it in the first place!
Earlier, the commission’s report had identified 65 social mobility cold spots, of which 60 had voted to leave the EU.
400, 000 more children have fallen into poverty since 2012 to 2013, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which is a direct effect of Tory benefit cuts: when you are suffering material deprivation and having to do your homework in cramped conditions then it puts you in no position to be able to compete with richer kids who will have their own private study space at home.
Then there’s the fact that kids from richer households are twice as likely to get into outstanding schools as kids from poorer backgrounds, suggesting that this route to social mobility is ineffective, while Oxford remains an institution which seems to perpetuate class privilege.
So, if we’re judging Theresa May’s and the Tory’s commitment social mobility on their social policies, they clearly are not committed, which suggests they don’t give a stuff about the poor.
The Week (Print Edition, 9th December 2017)
(1) An alternative interpretation of why they resigned is that they all spontaneously realised the methods behind the report were a bit rubbish (the technical term escapes me). In that it didn’t actually measure social mobility, as such! OOPS!
In this Channel 5 series, one family in the ‘wealthiest 10%’ of Britain swap lives for a week with a family in the ‘poorest 10% of Britain’. As I see it this programme performs an ‘ideological control function’ – spreading the myth of meritocracy.
They two families swap houses, budgets and leisure-timetables for a week – in episode two for example, the poor family, living on the rich family’s typical weekly disposable income, have to live off about £3000 per week, while the rich family, have to live off just under £200 per week, and in this episode, both families seem to be genuinely hard working and just, well, nice.
The meat of the programme consists of watching the families hanging out in their respective houses, doing whatever activities the other family would normally do, and meeting their respective friends/ work colleagues, including some running reflections on how ‘nice’ it is to be rich, and what a ‘struggle’ it is to be poor.
Here’s how the programme performs the function of ideological control – basically it spreads the ‘myth of meritocracy‘.
It misrepresents what the top 10% look like – the narration keeps talking about how the rich family is in the top 10%, they are, but their weekly disposable income of over £3K, and the fact that they own 12 restaurants and employ 60 odd people, puts them easily in the top 1%. This fact alone really annoys me – it is the extreme minority that lives like this. I worked this out using the IFS’ income calculator)
The family in the top 1% are further unrepresentative in that the father genuinely worked his way up after failing school, cleaning toilets and then getting into restauranteering. This is most definitely NOT how the majority get into the top 1%, especially since social mobility has been declining in recent years.
The working class father keeps saying ‘I want my children to see this and want this’ – he seems to take the experience of his week in the rich mans world as evidence that anyone can make it if you try hard enough – in fact there is LESS CHANCE TODAY HIS KIDS than he would have had to climb the career ladder.
Maybe the same point as above – the working class guy has 4 kids – I wonder what the actual chances of all four kids from one working class family independently becoming millionaires actually are? It’s probably lottery odds.
The ‘luck’ word is mentioned once, apparently it’s all about hard work. NO – this view is just plain wrong, Malcome Gladwell convinced me of this in his book ‘Outliers’
Personally I think this series (if it carries on this vein) is lazy and appalling television – it wouldn’t take much to add in some depth analysis, have some commentary or stats overlying how likely it is for someone to go from working class to millionnaire, for example.
There’s also absolutely no mention of the sheer injustice of the fact that both sets of parents are doing similar amounts of ‘work’ but the rewards are so incredibly different, and no mention of how good it is that we’ve got social housing so at least the poor family have a decent house.
In short, my intense dislike of this show stems from the misleading portrayal of the richest 1% as representing the richest 10% and from its total lack of analysis of the actual chances of social mobility occurring.
NB – It was also quite dull viewing. If you think it sounds a little like Wife Swap, it’s much less entertaining as it’s the whole family doing the swapping, so there’s much less conflict.
A summary of The End of Development: A Global History of Poverty and Prosperity, by Andrew Brooks (2017)
This blog post covers Part 1: Making the Modern World
Chapter 1: environmental determinism and early human history
The argument in this chapter is that nature (as in the natural environment) does not determine human society and culture, rather it is more accurate to talk of humans shaping nature, especially since the emergence of agricultural societies 12000 years ago.
From between 12-8000 years ago, agricultural societies emerged independently in 11 distinct places, and in each region, these societies domesticated crops and animals, thus adapting to and changing local environments in different ways.
Agricultural societies eventually came to dominate hunter gather societies because they are more resistant to environmental shocks, given their greater capacity to store food to see them through famine periods.
Early agricultural societies also allowed for the development of a specialized division of labour, and were organised along feudal lines, with a tiered hierarchy of ruling classes taking tribute from those working the land. Europe in the 15th century was only one such system among many historical antecedants.
Brooks rounds this chapter off by reminding us that Europe did not colonize the rest of the world because of some kind of manifest destiny based on a unique set of environmental and cultural advantages, there were plenty of other cultures existing around the world in the 15th century that had similar features to the European feudal system.
What Europe did have was an emerging capitalist system, it is this that sets it apart and explains its rise to globalpower from the 15th century onwards.
Chapter 2: colonizing the world
This chapter outlines a brief history of colonialism, starting with the early colonial projects of Spain and Portugal in the Americas, which provided the silver and gold which kick started the global capitalist economy.
Brooks goes on to outline European colonial expansion across the globe more generally, arguing that European big business, governments and religion all worked together to dominate The Americas, Asia and Africa – often exploiting existing power structures to establish rule: profit, politics, piety and patriarchy all played a role in reshaping the colonial world from 1992 to 1945.
Brooks breaks down the history of colonialism something like this:
1500 – 1650 – Spanish and Portuguese colonialism – which involved the extraction of gold and silver, which was used to finance wars against Islam and other European nations. Spain also borrowed heavily from Holland on the basis of expected future returns from its mines in Latin America. This led to the establishment of financial centers in Holland, and increasing wealth. Span eventually went into decline as its wars were unsuccessful and its colonial returns decreased
1650 – 1900 – Dutch and British colonialism – A newly rich Holland and Britain took over as the main colonial powers – state building was essential to this – a combination of political power and the granting of monopolies to the Dutch and British East India companies (for example) led to the increasing dominance of these two powers.
Brooks also outlines how slavery and the industrial revolution were crucial to the rise of these two powers, and includes a section on the famine in India to illustrate how brutal their colonial projects were.
It’s also important to realise that increasing inequality was an important aspect of Colonialism – obviously between Europe and poorer parts of the world, but there were also some colonies which were more prosperous (such as Australia) and also, within the the mother countries and colonies, this period of history led to increasing inequality.
The chapter rounds of by pointing out that from 1900, the base of world power is already starting to shift from European centers to America.
Chapter Three: American Colonialism
This chapter starts with the ‘rise and fall of Detroit‘ which illustrates how industrial capitalism led to huge economic growth in America from the late 19th century to the 1960s, only to decline once industrial production moved abroad.
Brooks now argues that, following US Independence in 1776, American capitalists essentially focused on colonising the homeland rather than overseas territories, as there was so much land and so many resources within America – typically treating native Americans as non-people, who ended up in reservations.
There was some expansion overseas during the 19th and early 20th centuries – most notably with establishment of the Panama canal, but the ideology of American isolationism prevented this from happening.
It was effectively WW1 which led America to become to the world’s global hegemon – through lending money to the Allies, it built up huge economic dominance, which only grew as Europe was thrown into turmoil during WW2, following which America rose to dominance as the country which would seek to ‘develop’ the rest of the world, which is the focus of part two of the book….. (to be updated later)
This 2008 Documentary seeks to answer the question of why there is still so much poverty in the world when there is sufficient wealth to eradicate it.
In order to answer this question, the video goes back to 1492, which marks the start of European colonialism and the beginning of the global capitalist system, making the argument that European wealth was built on the back of a 500 year project of extraction and exploitation of the Americas, and then Asia and Africa.
Using various case studies of countries including Venezula, Bolivia, and Kenya the video charts how brutal colonial policies made the colonies destitute while the wealth extracted led to the establishment of global finance, the industrial revolution, and the foundation of a global capitalist system which locked poor countries into unequal relations with rich countries.
Following Independence, a combination of unfair trade rules and debt, managed through global institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation have effectively kept these unequal relationships between countries in place, meaning wealthy countries have got richer while many ex-colonies have remained destitute.
This video is quite heavy going, and jumps around from continenent to continent a bit too much for my liking, which, combined with a lot of sub-titles (as many of the people interviewed are not English-speakers) does make it quite hard to follow. Nonetheless, this video does offer a systematic account of a Dependency Theory view of underdevelopment and development, including interviews with numerous politicians and activists from development countries as critical thinkers such as Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Naomi Klein, among many more.
Part of the traditional American Dream is that anyone, even children from low income families, can work their way through college, get a degree and be upwardly mobile.
However, some recent research suggests that this is no longer the case – a full 50% of American university students from disadvantaged backgrounds drop out of college, and the main reason is because financial constraints means they cannot afford to pay the bills.
Sara Goldrick-Rab conducted a longitudinal study of 3,000 disadvantaged young adults attending various universities in the state of Wisconsin, USA (commenced in 2008), and some of her main findings include:
50% of students from low-income households drop out of college and thus end up with college degree.
The experience of university is, for many poor students, quite grim – 24% of students in her study had problems with basic food security, and 13% were homeless.
They controlled for the amount of effort students put into their studies – and found that students did not drop out because of lack of effort, but the main reason was literally not being able to pay the bills.
Less than 20% of the sample managed to complete a degree within five years.
Goldrick-Rab also argues that there are clear ‘structural’ reasons why poor students cannot afford college:
Financial assistance (in the form of the Pell grant) is available to those from households which earn less than $30K a year, but this only covers a third of the cost of college (it used to cover the full amount, but it no longer does)
Job opportunities are insufficient to make up the difference – there are too few jobs, employers offer too few hours (they limit hours to avoid having to pay certain in-work benefits) and wages are too low – thus half of all poor students simply can’t earn enough to pay the rent or for food.
Goldrick-Rab concludes that low-income American families are being sold a ‘myth’ – the ‘myth of the American Dream that it is possible to be upwardly mobile by working your way through college – for 50% of poor students attempting to do so will result in no degree and a lot of debt. They thus have an expectation which is not going to be met.
However, many families and students feel that it is there fault if they fail to complete, and feel a sense of guilt and shame if they do so.
Goldrick-Rab hopes that her research will act as a wakeup call, alerting people to the statistical facts that you only have a 50-50 chance of getting a degree if you’re poor.
She rounds off by suggesting a policy solution – to make the first two years of college free. Interestingly (which dates the research!) she talks hopefully about Obama and Hilary Clinton putting such policies into practice, but given that we’ve ended up with a Trump administration, it’s unlikely that poor kids are going to get access to fairer opportunities any time soon.
This is great piece of research which encourages people to develop a sociological imagination – translating private troubles into public issues
It adds weight to the argument that America is a ‘less developed country’ – poor, hardworking people have opportunities blocked – if they try to rise up they face homelessness and hunger (absolute poverty!).
It also ties in nicely with other research on how the experience of university varies with your social class background.
Being in poverty has a negative affect on an individual’s life chances. Being poor means you’ll struggle to make ends-meet, you’ll be stuck renting rather than buying your own house, you’ll probably be in stuck in a debt-cycle, your kids are more likely to fail their GCSEs, you’re more likely to a victim of crime, less likely to feel like you’ll belong, you’ll feel more miserable, and suffer more mental health problems during the course of your life. You’re also much less likely to save sufficient money towards your pension, but fortunately that won’t matter, because you’re also likely to die younger, so at least you won’t suffer for too many years in old-age.
This post explores some of the statistical evidence on the relationship between poverty and life chances, looking at a range of evidence collected by the office for national statistics and other agencies such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The point of this post is simply to provide an overview of the statistics, and offer something of a critique of the limitations of these statistics. I’ll also provide some links to useful sources which students can then use to explore the data further.
Most of the statistics in this post use a relative measurement of poverty based on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s definition of a low income household which is defined as one which has income of 60% of the average income, roughly equivalent to £7500 for single person households and £11000/ year for two person, or couple households in 2014-15.
According to this measurement there were 13.5 million people, or 21% of the U.K. population living in low-income households in 2014/15 (1).
Life chances simply refers to your chances of achieving positive outcomes and avoiding negative outcomes throughout the course of your life – such as succeeding in education, being happy, or avoiding divorce, poor health and an early, painful death.
How poverty affects life chances – in six statistics
One – the poorest fifth are at least FIVE times as likely to be able to keep up with paying bills compared to the richest fifth
Almost half of all families with children in the poorest 20% find it ‘difficult to make ends meet’. A fifth are unable to keep up with bills.
This compares to 10% and approximately 3% respectively for the richest fifth of households.
Two – Housing: people renting are 3-4 times more likely to be in poverty than owner-occupiers
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation notes that ‘11% of owner-occupiers live in poverty after housing costs, over two in five (42 per cent) of all social rented sector tenants and over a third of private rented sector tenants (36 per cent) live in poverty (DWP, 2015b). The extent to which housing costs contribute to poverty levels is particularly acute in the private rented sector with poverty levels in this tenure doubling from 18 to 36 per cent when housing costs are taken into account.’
Rent accounts for at least a third of income for more than 70% of private renters in poverty.
Three – poor people are FOUR TIMES more likely to be in debt
Living in a ‘low income’ household (or being ‘in poverty’) is strongly correlated with being in debt – in 2014/15 20% of people in poverty were behind with a bill (excluding housing costs), compared to only 5% of households not in poverty.
Where a pupil’s family have claimed eligibility for free school meals in the School Census they are defined as eligible for Free school meal (FSM).
In 2016, 13.4% of pupils at the end of key stage 4 were eligible for free school meals, compared to 13.8% in 2015.
Pupils are defined as disadvantaged if they are known to have been eligible for free school meals in the past six years (from year 6 to year 11), if they are recorded as having been looked after for at least one day or if they are recorded as having been adopted from care.
In 2016, 27.7% of pupils at the end of key stage 4 were disadvantaged, 0.4 percentage points higher than 2015 (27.3%).
There was a 12.2 and 12.6 attainment gap between ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘Free School Meals’ pupils respectively in 2016.
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.
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.
(1) Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology