Measuring poverty

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Measuring poverty

Because there are differing ways of defining poverty, it is inevitable that the measurement of poverty is rather difficult. Clearly, definition indicates what is to be measured. In the UK, there have been four main approaches to defining and measuring poverty:

  1. Subsistence or minimum consumption poverty line, for example, Rowntree. No attention to what the poor actually ate or allowance for 'non-essentials'.
  2. Relative deprivation poverty line, for example, Townsend. Based on the observation that participation in a sample of conventional behaviours varied little between income groups but fell off rapidly below a certain level of income. Cut off rate was 38% above the basic rate of supplementary benefit (exclusive of housing).
  3. Public perception poverty line. Received little attention in UK until Mack and Lansley's 1985 study. Poverty defined in terms of an enforced lack of socially perceived necessities. A similar approach is adopted by EU research.
  4. State minimum poverty line - official poverty line - supplementary benefit. Basic problem is whether people on the line live in or out of poverty.

More recently there has been the European poverty line: anyone living on below 50% of average national income.

At this stage, we clearly enter the political arena. Critics of Conservative governments since 1979 argue that government policies have increased poverty and widened the gap between rich and poor. For their part, Conservative ministers argue that absolute poverty has been virtually eradicated.

'The fact remains that people are fully and properly provided for.' Margaret Thatcher, House of Commons, 22/12/83.
Margaret Thatcher

The wealth inequalities that exist are seen as vital to encourage wealth creation. Certainly higher living standards have led to a reduction in absolute levels of poverty. For example, Rowntree's studies in York show a decline from 33% of the population in absolute poverty in 1899, to 1.5% in 1950. However, sociologists using relative definitions of poverty are not so optimistic, for example Townsend's view that in 1979 22.9% of the population lived in poverty. Clearly, there is implicit in this view a questioning of the role of the welfare state which was set up to, among other things, eradicate poverty.

Factors which are seen as contributing to the increase in poverty in recent years:

1. Many of the groups most vulnerable have grown larger. As people live longer there are more elderly. As more people divorce there are more lone parent families; and there are more unemployed people. All these groups have many individuals who are dependent on welfare.

Lone parent families

2. Poverty is also increasing among those who do not depend on welfare, such as families dependent on a low wage earner. The difference in earnings between those in well paid secure jobs and those in low paid often insecure jobs has widened since 1979.

3. The incomes of the poor have not kept up with the majority. Child Poverty Action Group claim that the income of the poorest tenth of the population fell by 6% in real terms between 1979 and 1988/9, while the average income rose by 30%.

4. Benefits have fallen behind both prices and average earnings.

Groups as likely to be poor:

  1. The unemployed - official statistics estimate 2.9 million at the end of 1992.
  2. Low wage earners (below two thirds of median male earnings) - according to the Low Pay Unit 36% of workforce in 1979, but 41% in 1989.
  3. Families - people with children tend to be worse off than childless couples. Real value of child benefit has declined. Family Credit only has a 40% take up rate. According to Family Expenditure 1990 the average income of the poorest 25% of the single population was £155 a week, while for the poorest 25% of lone parents it averaged £74 a week.
  4. Disabled - disproportionately represented among those with low incomes.
  5. Old people - In 1988 those over pension age numbered 18% of the population, of which two thirds were women. According to DHSS, the retirement pension for a single person was 20.4% of male average earnings in 1979, but only 16.3% in 1989.

Old people

Most poor people are working class. Townsend (1979) notes that most low paid, unemployed, elderly, sick and disabled poor, hold or have held unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. In addition to low pay, such jobs also carry greater risks of redundancy, accidents and industrial diseases. Westergaard and Ressler (1975) argue that class inequalities generated by the capitalist system are the fundamental reason for the persistence of poverty.

There is considerable evidence that women are more likely to experience poverty than men. Peter Townsend et al (1987) argue that there has been a feminisation of poverty.

Townsend identifies four main groups that make up the female poor:

  1. Women who look after children or other dependents. They are unpaid and unable to take paid employment.
  2. Lone women with children, whether or not in employment.
  3. Elderly women pensioners, especially those who live alone.
  4. Women with low earnings where the earnings or income of others does not enable total household income to exceed the poverty line.

Unemployment is higher among ethnic minorities. In 1993, male unemployment among ethnic minorities was 21%, among whites it was 10%. Black people are also disproportionately represented in low paid jobs. The social security system can operate against some members of the ethnic minority community, for example to claim severe disablement allowance or certain types of old age pension there are residence requirements that will exclude many more recent arrivals.

Regional inequality is reflected in the term 'the north-south divide'. A higher proportion of people on low incomes (less than 50% of average income) come from the north. Poverty is also more widespread in Wales and Scotland. The poorest region is Northern Ireland, while South East England is the most affluent region.

However, regional averages conceal wide variation; thus, according to the Dept of the environment's official scores of multiple deprivation, the ten local authorities with the highest scores in the country were all inner London boroughs, part of the affluent South East.

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