Does Poverty exist in contemporary Britain?
The answer to this question depends to a large extent on how poverty is defined and measured. It is, like many sociological issues, an ‘essentially contested concept’ and as such, there has been much debate around what exactly constitutes poverty. However, even accepting that poverty itself denotes different things to different people, it can still be argued that poverty or indeed ‘poverties’ are a real problem in Britain today which need to be addressed by government and society in order to optimise equality in our society.
How should we define poverty? It is useful firstly to refer to some widely used definitions. Charles Booth writing in 1889 was one of the first to explore the area of poverty when he published a work showing that one third of Londoners were living in dire poverty. By ‘poverty’ he was referring to a ‘lack of basic requirements to sustain a physically healthy existence [and] sufficient food and shelter to make possible the physically efficient functioning of the body’ (cited in Giddens, 2001, p236). This is referred to as subsistence poverty- literally not having the means to survive. Benjamin Rowntree referred to primary poverty and secondary poverty. By primary poverty he meant those who were unable to afford a basket of necessities for ‘merely physical efficiency’. Secondary poverty referred to those who had more income than those living in primary poverty but who still suffered poverty lifestyles. (cited Flaherty et al 2004, p16)
Another widely quoted definition of poverty is Townsend’s. In 1979 he stated,
‘Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely recognised or approved, societies to which they belong. Their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities’ (cited Flaherty et al, 2004, p17).
Whilst the World Bank described poverty as ‘the inability to attain a minimal standard of living’, the UN defines poverty as follows:
‘Poverty has various manifestations including lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments and social discrimination and exclusion. It is also characterised by lack of participation in decision making and in civil, social and cultural life. It occurs in all countries: as mass poverty in many developing countries, pockets of poverty amidst wealth in developed countries, loss of livelihoods as a result of economic recession, sudden poverty as a result of disaster or conflict, the poverty y of low-wage workers, and the utter destitution of people who fall outside family support systems, institutions and safety nets’ (Flaherty et al 2004, p13).
From this range of definitions can be seen the difference between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is based on the notion of subsistence which in itself is defined as the minimum amount needed to sustain life. As Alcock points out however, it is a contradiction to say someone is living below subsistence levels because, how can those without enough to live on, live? (1997, p68) The answer of course is that they do not- or at least not for very long. In contrast relative poverty is, in Alcock’s words, ‘a more subjective or social standard’ (1997, p69). This is the poverty which Townsend refers to where poverty and deprivation are judged in the context of the society in which an individual lives. Townsend also looked at poverty in terms of how it affected an individual’s ability to engage in social activities. From this the notion of social exclusion was developed and definitions of poverty broadened to include various types of deprivation.
Townsend developed a deprivation index based on items which he saw as necessary to the whole of society and used these along with income levels to measure deprivation. However, there are some difficulties with this approach. For example as Baldock et al point out, where one of the deprivation indicators was not eating cooked meals, some people may prefer to eat salads and sandwiches from choice. (Baldock et al 2003, p119) Therefore it is difficult to differentiate where in some instances people may choose to be without what Townsend considered to be a necessity. Mack and Lansley further developed Townsend’s work by coming up with a ‘consensual approach top poverty.’ They asked respondents what they considered as necessities and from this feedback they measured poverty which they defined crucially as ‘an enforced lack of socially perceived necessities’ (cited in Baldock et al p119). By referring to ‘socially perceived necessities’ they avoided having to make judgements on what constituted necessities.
The difficulties with subsistence approaches to poverty is that it is inevitable that at some point an arbitrary decision will have to be made about what exactly is needed for subsistence. On the other hand, the problem with the relative measure of poverty is that where a society may have a small section of extremely wealthy people, the level of what is considered to be poverty relatively may be artificially high.
For our purposes, it is easier to work with Sen’s assertion that ‘if there is starvation and hunger then, no matter what the relative picture looks like there clearly is poverty’ (cited Flaherty et al 2004, p17).
However it is measured, it is clear that poverty exists and is even becoming a more acute problem in contemporary Britain. Flaherty et al cite statistics which reveal that between 1979 and 2001/2 the numbers of people living in households with below 60% of the median income after housing costs rose from 7.1 million to 12.5 million, that is, from 13% of the population to 22% of the population (2004, p31). Nearly a third of children in the UK live in poverty and this figure is even higher in Northern Ireland. In March 2003, 7.6 million British people were living on the safety net of benefits of income support or the jobseeker’s allowance. By the mid nineties, Britain’s child poverty rates were third only to the USA and Russia (2004, p69).
The measure used to determine poverty by the British government is based on the Household Below Average Income Statistics. The HBAI looks at data along a number of income thresholds. The 60% of median income after housing costs, adjusted for family size, is a measurement tool used as a proxy for income poverty. As Flaherty et al state, ‘it is an explicitly ‘relative’ measure which looks at how people at the bottom of the income distribution have fared in relation to the median’ (2004, p31). As well as being used by the British government, it is also the headline indicator used by the European union to determine those who are at risk of poverty.
Although the poverty we refer to here is largely to do with income and having the basic necessities in life- the term poverty is also used to describe people who are missing out on elements of social life which may be considered important by others. For example, cultural poverty or educational poverty. Whilst education is accepted as a basic human right, not having an education does not necessarily mean that a person cannot live a healthy and happy life, whereas not having food and warmth does. These poverties might be more aptly described in terms of social exclusion. Blakemore highlights the differences between social exclusion and poverty. Firstly, social exclusion focuses on relationships to society rather than material resources. Secondly social exclusion normally refers to exclusion from educational opportunities or from the labour market. Thirdly, remedies for social exclusion are different than those for poverty (2003, p85)
What kind of people are at risk from poverty? Whilst it would seem natural to assume that unemployed people would be most at risk, this is not the case. Bilton et al (2002) outline which groups o people are more likely to suffer poverty and assert, ‘it is people in low-paid, insecure work who constitute the bulk of those below the income poverty line.’ The second largest group of people likely to suffer poverty are the elderly. ‘because life expectancy has increased, earlier retirement has become more common and state pensions have reduced in real terms, the elderly comprise an ever larger section of the poor. Unequal life chances continue through old age.’ Another group at risk are lone parent families and although less common, large families. In addition those who are sick or disabled are also more vulnerable to poverty(Bilton et al 2002, pp78-79). Millar argued in 1993 that three factors have contributed to the growth of poverty: a significant level of unemployment; the increase in low-paid work; the growth of ‘precarious’ or ‘flexible’ employment (cited Bilton, 2002, p79). Such employment patterns tend to optimise profit and boost the economy but the downside is that vulnerable workers especially in unskilled occupations, are lacking in job security and all the benefits that brings.
Another question which must be asked is whether it is possible to escape poverty. This depends on social mobility which Giddens defines as ‘the movements of individuals and groups between different socio-economic positions’ (2001, p229). The evidence seems to suggest that whilst those most at risk of poverty may be likely to always be vulnerable to extreme poverty, many people suffer regular periods of short-term poverty. As Jenkins et al state, ‘from a dynamic perspective, one may distinguish three groups: the persistently poor, the recurrently poor, and the temporarily poor’ (cited Flaherty et al 2004, p47) Jenkins et al’s studies over a number of years (1991-1999) found that a pattern emerged of ‘one of relatively short poverty spells for the majority, but relatively long spells for a significant minority.’ For many people life events can be the push factor in or out of poverty. For example exit from family poverty is most likely to come through finding paid work whilst a change in household composition is more likely to assist a lone parents family’s exit from poverty. (Flaherty et al 2004, p48)
In conclusion, the evidence is ample to show that poverty is a very real problem in Britain today whether it is measured in relative or absolute terms or whether it is conceptualised along lines of deprivation or exclusion. What is perhaps most worrying is that as a society, Britain is becoming more unequal than ever before. For example between 1979 and 1995, whilst the incomes of the richest tenth of the population rose by 60%, the incomes of the poorest tenth fell by 8% (Hills 1995, cited Baldock et al 2003, p121). This was still the case in the late 1990s when, according to Gordon et al, ‘the disposable incomes of the poorest and richest groups were still edging apart’ (cited Blakemore, 2003, p78). Those who are most likely to experience a reduction in income levels include ethnic minorities and women. Children are also more likely to suffer the worst effects of poverty. In 1999, Blair promised to end child poverty in a generation. It remains to be seen whether this will be achieved although with a mandate for a third term, it can only be hoped that important work already carried out to tackle child poverty will be consolidated. Some policy changes have already begun to make a difference in child poverty but poverty as a whole is still an issue which needs more time and resources devoted to it if poverty is to be eradicated.
Alcock P, (1997) Understanding Poverty 2nd Edition Basingstoke: Palgrave
Baldock J, Manning N, Vickerstaff S (2003) Social Policy London: Oxford University Press
Bilton T, Bonnett K, Jones P, Lawson T, Skinner D, Stanworth M, Webster A, (2002) Introductory Sociology 4th Ed Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Blakemore K, (2003) Social Policy an introduction Buckinghamshire: Oxford University Press
Flaherty J, Veit-Wilson J, Dornan P (2004) Poverty: the facts 5th Edition London: Child Poverty Action Group
Giddens A, (2001) Sociology Cambridge: Polity Press