Defining poverty Summary notes
Operationalisation • Poverty is a difficult concept to operationalise. • It has a political implications - governments are supposed to deal with it. • It has social implications - poverty can be a source of shame and low status for individuals.
Absolute poverty • This is based on a measurement of the absolute minimum a person requires for biological survival: • Food • Water • Warmth and shelter • Clothing
Deprivation • People who lack the means of survival are defined as poor. • Seebohm Rowntree used absolute definitions of poverty in his studies of the poor in York. • This definition is typical of early studies of poverty.
Discussion point • Keith Joseph, 1976, Conservative politician said, ‘There is very little poverty in Britain today’, using an absolute measurement of poverty. • How far can you agree with this statement? • Who might you consider to be absolutely poor in Britain?
Problems … • Absolute definitions still tend to be subjective about the minimum requirements needed for life. • We need things for mental health for instance … books, tv, pets • Standards of acceptable health and food quality change over time.
Relative poverty • Relative poverty is when people are compared to those around them, or to what others might reasonably be expected to afford. • It can include lack of: • Educational opportunity • Material possessions • Health care • Good quality housing • Civil Rights • Social opportunity
Subjective poverty • This is a little used concept, but is based on the notion of felt poverty. • People feel poor if those around them have more than they do. • The people against whom one measures oneself are known as the reference group. • In the past, people may have been deprived, but not felt poor because they were unaware of what others have. • Could television have a role in creating subjective poverty?
Uses of such definitions • Poverty is a social construction and so this reflects general standards of living and expectation. • It helps us to understand broader debates such as social exclusion.
Problems with such definitions • This is not easy for people to understand, because most people actually think in terms of absolute poverty. • Relative definitions tend to measure inequality rather than poverty. • It is difficult to arrive at a fair definition of poverty, either high enough or low enough. • How often should such definitions be up-dated?
Peter Townsend • Be certain that you mention this man’s name in your answers. • He has been the leading British researcher in the field for many years. • Find out more by visiting www.bris.ac.uk/poverty/
Abel- Smith and Townsend (1965) • Introduced concepts of relative poverty to the study of poverty in Britain. • They based their measure on Social Security payments.
Peter Townsend (1979) • He drew up a list of indicators of deprivation and then chose the 12 most reliable he considered to indicate deprivation. • These included: access to holidays, ability to offer food to friends, lack of parties for children, lack of fresh meat, lack of cooked breakfast. • People on lower incomes tend to experience significant deprivation.
Piachaud (1981) • He points out that Townsend’s deprivation index includes people who make lifestyle choices (vegetarians?) • He claims that not having a fridge for instance is more significant than not having meat. • This suggests that Townsend’s index is not as scientific as it claims.
Mack and Lansley (1985) • Used a method of deciding on a list of essentials for living and found 7.5 million people were living in poverty in UK. This list consisted of 22 items including damp free home and outings for children. • Rising living standards meant that 32 items were used in a repeat study in 1990.
Falkingham and Hills (1995) • Measure poverty in terms of the ability to live a life characterised by active participation in society and a sense of security. • This is known as capability poverty. • This is related to notions of social exclusion
Social Indicators • Indicators are social symptoms of poverty • Long term benefit receipt • Low birth weight • Low educational attainment • Unemployment • Suicide • Non-participation in politics
Howarth et al. • Using a social indicators approach, Howarth et al discovered that poverty and disadvantage is concentrated into distinct community areas. • Deprivation is linked to social class with people in the two lowest indicators of class experiencing higher rates of • Young male suicides • Underweight births • Concentration into specific schools • Likelihood of premature motherhood • Depression and mental illness • Victimhood
Inequality approaches • We live in a culture where many people experience very high standards of living. • Some people have high levels of income and of spending. • This approach looks at public policy and uses data gathered by government agencies to analyse and comment on social change. • Goodman, Johnson and Webb use this approach to point out that levels of inequality are rising in modern Britain.
Government definition • The Government bases its analysis on the Family Expenditure Survey to estimate the number of people with household incomes in a fraction of national averages. • One of the most commonly used definitions of poverty is those who have less than 50% of the average national income. This measure is used cross-nationally. • Benefits tend to offer an income very close to 50% of national average incomes so if the poverty line was drawn lower, the percentage of those in poverty would be significantly higher • In Britain, 20% of the population has an income below the government definition of poverty.
Social Exclusion • This is a recent concept, used by the government in place of poverty. “Social exclusion is something that can happen to anyone. But some people are significantly more at risk than others. Research has found that people with certain backgrounds and experiences are disproportionately likely to suffer social exclusion. The key risk-factors include: low income; family conflict; being in care; school problems; being an ex-prisoner; being from an ethnic minority; living in a deprived neighbourhood in urban and rural areas; mental health problems, age and disability.” Source: Preventing social exclusion: report by the Social Exclusion Unit. Cabinet Office, 2001, p11.
General conclusions • Most definitions of poverty are arbitrary and relative, even if they are based on statistical analyses. • Most definitions of poverty are drawn at a low level. • Many people are clustered on or near poverty lines, so slight changes in definition can remove or add people to the lists of those who are poor.
Moral views of poverty We should all be equally well off. Relative definition Some people should be better off, they work harder Egalitarian view Elitist view We should be equal but no one needs to have more than they need. People who are poor are defective morally and intellectually. Absolute definition
Questions • Why is important to have an adequate definition of poverty? • What is it that can make the definition of poverty a source of political debate? • What moral questions are raised by the existence of poverty in our society? • Why should we care about poverty in Britain?
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