Relative poverty

You are here

Relative poverty

Peter Townsend: Poverty = low income

One attempt to develop a relative definition of poverty is that of Townsend. Townsend & Abel Smith (1965), The Poor and the Poorest. Their claim was that anyone with an income below 140% of a household's entitlement to National Assistance was living in poverty. This claim was based on the belief that even those above the National assistance level were still in poverty.

The problem with this research is firstly the arbitrary nature of the 140% level - why there? And secondly, that some see this level as so over generous as to conceal the real nature of poverty. Paul Ashton (1984), for example, argues that this definition would have resulted in 14 million people being, 'in poverty' in Britain in 1984.

A final problem is that one can hardly talk about relative definitions of poverty and then insist that the only way to measure it is via income levels.

Peter Townsend: Poverty = deprived lifestyle

Before the description, the problem:

  • Who decides a lifestyle is deprived?
  • How objective is that?
  • How can we be objective about relativism?

By 1979, Townsend had concluded that a definition of poverty based solely on income was inadequate, Townsend, Poverty in the United Kingdom (1979). In addition to income, Townsend thought that items such as a garden, or allotment, decent housing, good working conditions and caring friends or relatives, to be important in maintaining a decent lifestyle.


Townsend argued that poverty created exclusion from the accepted lifestyle of a community. He asked questions on what he took to be indicators of deprivation. Households deprived of a significant number of these indicators were deemed to be poor.

In support of his argument, Townsend argued that there was a correlation between relative deprivation as measured by the deprivation index and income. All households below 150% of SB were poor, below this level deprivation increases rapidly. Townsend argued that his deprivation index was an objective measure of relative poverty.

1. On the right, there is the criticism that Townsend is not uncovering poverty, but illustrating inequality. And since many view inequality as inevitable, and indeed some see it as desirable, the concept of relative poverty is seen as meaningless.

'What is offensive to Professor Townsend, in short, is not so much the existence of poverty in Britain as the existence of inequality. To pretend that one is interested in curing poverty, when one is really concerned about rectifying inequality, is intellectually dishonest? Short of imposing a uniform standard of living, there is no way of eradicating relative deprivation.' Worsthorne, Daily Telegraph, 27/10/79.

2. On the left, Piachaud (1981) has sympathy with Townsend's view of poverty but criticises his deprivation index as rather arbitrary in its choice of indicators of poverty. For example, not eating a cooked breakfast, like not eating meat, could be a matter of choice rather than an indicator of poverty.

Mack and Lansley: Consensus defines poverty

Mack and Lansley attempt to overcome some criticisms of Townsend's work in a survey carried out in 1983 and published in 1985 as Breadline Britain.

Like Townsend they drew up a deprivation index but:

  1. Items that respondents stated they lacked through choice were excluded.
  2. Items included were based on the views of the general public on what were essentials.

In 1990, London Weekend Television commissioned a new survey, Breadline Britain 1990s. As before, items classified as necessities by 50% or more of respondents were included in the list of essentials. The list included some new items and increased from 22 to 33... The increase was justified by Mack and Lansley on the basis of the increasing expectations of the population.

Comparison of the two surveys confirmed the views of many sociologists that poverty increased in the 1980s. While the first survey in 1983 estimated that 7.5 million people were in poverty in Britain, this had increased to 11 million in the 1990 survey.

While the items in their deprivation index were selected by the public, the authors constructed the definition of poverty - the lack of three or more items. It is not clear that the public would regard this lack as constituting poverty. Their defence is similar to that of Townsend, that below a certain level, in their case lacking three essential items, deprivation in other areas rapidly increases.

Poverty is increasing

Studies of the subjective attitudes of people with regard to poverty look at how people perceive their position in relation to others in society. Additionally, such studies look at patterns of behaviour as it relates to people's subjective experience of being poor.

Using a subjective analysis of poverty MORI researchers found between 5 and 12 million people were living in poverty in 1983. More than 5 million said they considered themselves to be poor all the time and nearly 12 million said they were poor some of the time.

Clearly, it is useful to know what to believe about themselves and their relationship to others because this helps us to understand their behaviour. However, some people may simply be wrong in diagnosis of their own situation.

Some people may be objectively poor, but not feel poor. Some may claim to be poor when objectively they are not.

  1. There is no objective definition of poverty. The choice of definition is related to the values of the researcher. So, academics and politicians influenced by market liberal theories tend to use absolute definitions. Researchers in the social democratic tradition tend to use relative definitions.
  2. There is no consensus about what constitutes poverty, it is essentially a political issue.
  3. Both the production of data and the interpretation of data may be biased by the values of the researcher.
  4. The debate about poverty is bound up with wider considerations concerning the desirability and necessity of social inequality.

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