Definitions of Poverty

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Definitions of Poverty

There are a number of key areas that are regularly explored in exam questions.

These are:

  1. Problems concerning how poverty is defined and measured.
  2. Questions concerning who the poor are.
  3. Questions concerned with the causes of poverty.

So the objectives in this unit are quite straightforward.

Definitions of Poverty

Poverty is a contested concept - there is little agreement on how it should be either defined or measured. This is particularly true of attempts to define relative poverty. Thus, contemporary attempts to investigate poverty usually fall back on official subsistence definitions, as represented by the safety-net minimum social security benefit levels. The general term for such minimum income schemes is social assistance, and at the present time in Britain the scheme is called income support. These benefits can be seen as a sort of 'official' poverty line.

However, governments have been reluctant to accept the use of benefit ratesas indicators of poverty since to do so would be to acknowledge the need for far ranging and very costly remedial action. In addition, it should be noted that the more generous a government is in lowering the threshold for entitlement to benefit - allowing more people to claim, the greater the extent of poverty becomes if such entitlement is also used as an index of those people living in poverty, clearly here is an illustration of the extent of poverty beingan artefact of the definition.

Another problem raised by the politically contested nature of poverty is where to draw the line between poverty and inequality.

Poverty then is difficult to pin down and define in a way acceptable to everybody; it clearly has both political and moral dimensions.

'An absolute standard means one defined by reference to the actual needs of the poor and not by reference to the expenditure of those who are not poor. A family is poor if it cannot afford to eat.' (Keith Joseph, 1979)
Definitions of Poverty

Throughout the 20th century, there were proponents of the idea that it is possible to draw up an absolute minimum standard of living on what is required for physical health. It is this idea that lies behind the view that there is no poverty in Britain today. It is an extremely influential notion reflecting much public and governmental opinion.

The concept of absolute poverty was developed in the 19th century by Rowntree. It was developed to counter the view that poverty was due to fecklessness, and individual failings, although it has since become associated with attempts to limit the needs of the poor. Sometimes known as subsistence poverty, it was expressed in simple absolute terms, usually as a minimum sum of money.

Inherent in such an approach is a judgement of basic human needs and a calculation of the resources required to meet those needs and maintain physical health. It was therefore concerned to establish the quality and amount of food, clothing and shelter required for a healthy life.

Examples of such an approach are:

  1. Booth, Life and Labour in East London.
  2. Rowntree's early studies of York, 1899, 1936, 1950.

Rowntree considered that families whose income was too low to provide minimum necessities were in primary poverty, while families whose incomes were marginally above the poverty line would place themselves in secondary poverty if they budgeted unwisely. Note the moral judgment buried in the concept of secondary poverty - an approach that is still very much a part of New Right condemnations of behaviour.

Rowntree changed and upgraded his assessments in later investigations, realising that poverty is a concept that has social dimensions because it is socially constructed. Poverty as a concept makes no sense if confined to definitions of physical well-being. Thus, Rowntree came to include cultural needs. A more recent example of such an approach is that of Drewnowski and Scott, Level of living Index.

The application of the subsistence/absolute approach has obvious implications for social policy. If society can provide everyone with an income to meet subsistence needs then poverty can be abolished. It is possible to trace the practical application of the subsistence definition from the poor law, through the Beveridge system of social insurance to the present levels of income support.

Although the amounts paid have risen because of inflation the rationale remains the same, the subsistence standard originally worked out by Rowntree in 1899 and updated by Beveridge in 1942. One reason for this that will feature again later is that of incentive; people must not be allowed to enjoy life if they don't work, so benefit rates are set at minimum levels.

1. The search for an objective measure of poverty is impossible, no absolute criteria are available.

'There are some people who would want to make poverty entirely objective by seeking a measure of it outside people's heads and outside people's expectations and outside society's norms. And they sometimes think that death might do the trick for them. But it is not like that. Because of course the expectations that people have of how long they will live will always depend upon their expectations of others.
It will depend on a socially created idea of life and death. And so even the use of mortality statistics is itself an essentially relative approach to poverty.' (A.H. Halsey, quoted in Mack & Lansley, 1985)

2. Rowntree too had found that when drawing-up a poverty line based on health that it was impossible to exclude society's norms and customs. Translating a minimum diet in terms of calories into actual food purchases cannot ignore the fact that food may be bought not because of calorific value but because of custom, for example tea.

Definitions of Poverty

However, if tea, and coffee are allowed why not books?

3. The approach is too simplistic and inflexible. The assumption that there are basic needs for all people in all societies is questionable. Needs vary within and between societies. The needs of occupational groups vary, as does the need for water supply and flushing loos, for example.

4. When the concept of absolute poverty is widened to include cultural needs it becomes even more difficult to establish an agreed poverty line. Definitions of adequate provision are constantly being updated, and cross-cultural comparison becomes impossible, for example, the ownership of a T.V.

5. The subsistence definition ignores the fact that diet as well as lifestyles in general are determined by social convention rather than expert judgment. Thus, the subsistence approach tends towards a condescending approach to the poor by proposing a style of life for them, which is significantly different from the rest of society.

6. The subsistence definition of poverty is simply inadequate and benefit rates calculated on this definition are inadequate.

'The living standards of families on SB, particularly those on the ordinary rate of benefit, is harsh: the food is short on calories and even that is only achieved with the most determined of self-control in purchasing only the cheapest items and avoiding all waste.' (Bradshaw et al, 1987)
'Life on SB is a bleak struggle to make ends meet.' (Beltram, 1984)

Despite these criticisms, the DHSS reaffirmed its commitment to this approach in 1985.

7. A study by Oldfield and Yu (1993) undertaken for the Child Poverty Action Group concluded that even with a basic, low-cost budget income support, scales were inadequate. That is that income support does not lift those at risk out of poverty, but simply sustains those who are poor in poverty.

Definitions of Poverty
  1. Absolute poverty corresponds to a 'commonsense' or 'lay' view of what it means to be poor.
  2. Absolute poverty is easier to measure, and therefore easier to research.
  3. Absolute poverty is seen as objective in that it measures in terms of level of income and calorific requirements of diet.
  4. Sen (1982) argues that looking at the world as a whole - there is still a need for an absolute concept of poverty linked to malnutrition.
'While it can hardly be denied that malnutrition captures only one aspect of our idea of poverty, it is an important aspect, and one that is particularly important for many developing countries. It seems clear that malnutrition must have a central place in the conception of poverty.'
'To have one bowl of rice in a society where all other people have half a bowl may well be a sign of achievement and intelligence... To have five bowls of rice in a society where the majority have a decent, balanced diet is a tragedy.' (Harrington, 1962, The Other America)
'Our needs and enjoyments spring from society; we measure them, therefore by society and not by the objects of their satisfaction. Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature'. (Karl Marx, Selected Works)

The concept of relative poverty has largely replaced the older idea of absolute poverty in sociological research. Relative poverty is measured in terms of judgements by members of a particular society of what is considered a reasonable and acceptable standard of living. Thus, this definition can never be fixed; it moves in response to changing social expectations and living standards. So, luxuries become necessities.

'Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diets, participate in the activities and have the living conditions which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies to which they belong.' (Townsend, 1979, Poverty in the United Kingdom)

The implication of adopting a relative standard of poverty is that in those societies with high levels of social stratification the eradication of poverty is impossible.

Adapted from: Developments in Sociology, Volume 7, A. Walker, 1990.