The definition and measurement of poverty
Since studies of poverty began, researchers have been trying to establish a fixed standard against which to measure poverty. There are three main areas of controversy.
Some writers argue that a common minimum standard of subsistence can be applied to all societies. Individuals without the resources to maintain a healthy life can be said to be in poverty. Supporters of the concept of relative poverty dismiss this idea. They believe that definitions of poverty must relate to the standards of a particular time. The poverty line will vary according to the wealth of a society.
Some sociologists assume that poverty consists simply of a lack of material resources – a shortage of the money required to maintain an acceptable standard of living. Others argue that poverty involves more than material deprivation. They see poverty as a form of multiple deprivation, involving additional factors such as a inadequate educational opportunities, unpleasant working conditions and powerlessness. Today many writers prefer to use the term social exclusion to describe a situation where multiple deprivation prevents individuals from participating in social activities such as paid employment.
From one point of view any society in which there is inequality is bound to have poverty. Those at the bottom will always be ‘poor’ and poverty cold only be eliminated by abolishing all inequality.
Most sociologists accept that some reduction in inequality is needed in order to abolish poverty but believe that it is possible to establish a poverty line -a minimum standard below which it is not possible to maintain an acceptable standard of living. Thus it would be possible to have a society with some inequality but where poverty no longer exists.
There have been many attempts to operationalize (put into a form which can be measured) the concept of absolute poverty.
Drewnowski and Scott (1966) define physical needs in the following way:
Drewnawski and Scott also introduce the idea of basic cultural needs. These broaden the concept of human needs to include education, security, leisure and recreation.
Criticisms of the concept of absolute poverty
The concept of absolute has been widely criticized. It is based on the assumption that there are basic minimum needs for all people in all societies. The problem is that needs vary both within and between societies.
The concept of absolute poverty is even more difficult to defend when it includes cultural needs. These needs vary from time to time and place to place so that any attempt to establish a fixed standard is bound to fail.
Budget standard and poverty
The budget standards approach to measuring poverty involves calculating
the cost of those purchases that are considered necessary to raise an
individual or family out of poverty. Rowntree conducted three studies of poverty in
Rowntree – trends in poverty
Rowntree drew a poverty line in terms of a minimum weekly sum of money needed to live a healthy life. In the later studies he included extra items which were not strictly necessary for survival, such as newspapers and presents. He found that the percentage of the population in poverty dropped rapidly between 1899 and 1950. Rowntree believed that increased welfare benefits would eventually eliminate poverty.
Criticisms of Rowntree
Bradshaw, Mitchell and Morgan – the usefulness of budget standards
Bradshaw et al. believe that the budget standards approach is still useful because it focuses attention on the amount paid in benefits to those on welfare. Sociologists can assess whether benefits can provide adequately for people’s needs. In the 1990s Bradshaw established the Family Budget Unit (FBU) to develop this approach. Using FBU measure, Oppenheim and Harker (1996) found that in 1995 income support would meet just 34% of a modest but adequate budget for a single man and 40% for a lone mother with two young children.
Townsend – poverty as relative deprivation
Townsend has carried out a number of studies on poverty and has played a major part in highlighting the continuing existence of poverty. He has also been a leading supporter of defining poverty in terms of relative deprivation. Townsend believes that it is society that determines people’s needs. Tea, for example, is not essential but members of British culture are expected to be able to offer visitors a cup of tea.
Townsend argues that relative deprivation needs to be thought of in terms of the sources available to individuals and households, and the way in which these resources affect participation in the community. Poverty involves an inability to participate in social activities that are seen as normal, such as visiting friends or relatives having birthday parties for children and going on holiday.
Poverty in the
Townsend used his definition of poverty to measure the extent of poverty in Briatin. He used a deprivation index which included 12 items that he believes would be relevant for the whole population, and he calculated the percentage of the population deprived of these items. They included:
On the basis of these calculations
Criticisms of Townsend’s research
In 1985-6 Townsend used a new
approach to defining poverty in a study based in
Townsend allowed for greater variations in taste in this study and also distinguished between objective deprivation (measured by a deprivation index) and subjective deprivation (measured by asking people the level of income their household needed to escape poverty).
Townsend found that both methods of determining the poverty threshold showed that government benefit levels were inadequate.
Mack and Lansley – Poor
Criticisms of Mack and Lansley
In recent years some commentators have tried to broaden the issues surrounding deprivation by using the term social exclusion rather than poverty. The use of the term has several implications:
The government set up a Social Exclusion Unit in 1997. This aimed to encourage social inclusion by tackling social problems such as truancy and unemployment.
Some problems with social exclusion
Official statistics on poverty
Some countries, such as the
The social distribution of poverty
The chances of experiencing poverty are not equally distributed. Some groups are much more prone to poverty than others.
Economic and family status
Gender and poverty
The Child Poverty Action Group (Oppenheim and Harker, 1996) estimates that in 1992 there were about 5.2 million women but only 4.2 million men in poverty.
Ethnicity and poverty
Berthoud’s study (1997) concludes that:
Alcock (1997) argues that social exclusion resulting from racism is often as much a problem for ethnic minority groups as material deprivation.
Poverty and disability
It has been estimated that nearly half of all disabled people live in poverty. The figure is high because:
Individualistic and cultural theories of poverty
The earliest theories of poverty placed the blame for poverty on the poor themselves. Those who suffered from very low incomes were unable or unwilling to provide for their own well-being. Although most sociologists reject these views, they are still popular with a minority of the general public.
The New Right – the culture of dependency
The politics of the Conservative governments (1979-97) were influenced by the ideas of the New Right. A central plank of their policies was the claim that the welfare state was leading to a culture of dependency. Writers such as David Marsland have used this concept to help explain poverty.
Marsland – poverty and the generosity of the welfare state
Marsland (1996) claims that much research on poverty has exaggerated the
extent of poverty in
For most people, low income results from the generosity of the welfare state. Marsland believes that universal welfare provision (the provision of benefits such as education and health services to all members of society regardless of whether they are no low or high incomes) has created an expectation that the state will look after people’s problems – a culture of dependency.
Criticisms of Marsland
The culture of poverty
Many researchers have noted that the lifestyle of the poor differs from that of other members of society. This observation has led to the concept of a culture of poverty (or, more correctly, a subculture of poverty), with its own norms and values.
The idea of a culture of poverty
was first introduced by Oscar Lewis
(1959, 1961, 1966) in the late 1950s. His fieldwork in
These attitudes and behaviours are passed on to the next generation, making it very difficult to break out of poverty as members of the subculture are not able to take advantage of opportunities that may be offered.
Criticisms of the culture of poverty idea
A great deal of research in both the developed and developing worlds has failed to identify a clear culture of poverty.
Recent qualitative research conducted by the Rowntree Foundation and summarized by Kempson (1996) provides support for the argument that no more than a small proportion of those on low income are part of a culture of poverty.
The studies found that many people looked very hard for work but encountered considerable barriers in their search for a job. Age, lack of skills, poor health and disability, for example, were all problems.
These kinds of barriers (known as situational constraints) may well be a more significant factor in keeping individuals on low incomes than a ‘culture of poverty’.
The underclass and poverty
In recent years the concept of an underclass has become widely used and increasingly controversial.
Charles Murray (1989, 1993) is an American sociologist who visited
Causes and solutions
Brown – single motherhood
Brown (1990) points out that:
Health – underclass attitudes
Heath (1990) collected data to test the claim that the attitudes of the underclass are different. Most of the evidence suggests that the majority of the underclass have conventional aspirations. They want jobs and happy marriages, but they are slightly less likely than other members of society to believe that people should get married before having children.
Field – Losing Out
Frank Field is a Labour MP who has campaigned against poverty. He believes that there is an underclass but he sees it in a very different way from Murrary.
The composition of the underclass
According to Field the underclass consists of three main groups:
All the members of Field’s underclass rely on state benefits which are too low to give them an acceptable standard of living, and they have little chance of escaping this dependence.
The cause of the underclass
Field identifies four main causes for the development of the underclass:
Blackman – the homeless and the underclass
Shane Blackman (1997) conducted an ethnographic
study of the young homeless in
Conflict theories of poverty
The sociology of poverty has increasingly come to be studied within a conflict perspective. Conflict theorists argue that poverty continues to exist because society fails to allocate its resources fairly. To some extent conflict theorists disagree about the reasons why society has failed to eradicate poverty.
Poverty and the welfare state
Recent studies of relative poverty have found that those who rely on state benefits for their income are among the largest groups of the poor. However, it is widely assumed that the welfare state makes a major contribution to reducing poverty, and that it redistributes resources from the rich to the poor.
Many sociologists have challenged this view.
Overall there is little evidence that government policies redistribute resources to the poor.
Poverty, the labour market and power
Not all of those who experience poverty rely on state benefits for their income. A considerable proportion of the poor are employed but receive wages that are too low to meet their needs. Sociologists have put forward explanations to explain low pay.
The dual labour market
Some sociologists suggest that there are two labour markets:
Changes in the labour market
Dean and Taylor-Gooby (1992) argue that
changes in the labour market have made people in
Post-Fordism, globalization and poverty
Mingione (1996) argues that increases in international poverty are linked to a shift from Fordist to post-Fordist production in the world economy. This involves a decline in heavy industry and mass production and an increase in the service sector and more flexible production. This results in an increase in casual, insecure and temporary employment.
Globalization means that companies can move investment from country to country in search of cheap labour and freer trade. This makes more people vulnerable to poverty as jobs are less secure, and the increasing numbers of women in work mean that more families rely on two earners.
Poverty and the capitalist system
Marxists believe that the poor are not a separate group in society but simply the most disadvantaged section of the working class. Westergaard and Resler (1974) argue that concentrating on the poor diverts attention away from wider structures of inequality.
Marxists believe that poverty exists because it benefits the ruling class in the following ways:
With the increased emphasis on market forces, Westergaard (1994) argues that Marxist views are more relevant than ever. However, they are less successful than other conflict approaches in explaining why particular groups and individual become poor.
Poverty and social exclusion – solutions and values
New Right solutions
After 1979 the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and John Major were inspired by New Right ideas. They decided to:
Criticisms of New Right policies
Most of the evidence included earlier in this chapter suggests that poverty actually worsened during this period. Carey Oppenheim (1997) found no evidence of a ‘trickle-down’ effect, although the government claimed that its policies had increased the income of the poorest 20% of the population.
Welfare and redistribution as solutions to poverty
Some believe that the answer to poverty s to be found in improving welfare provision
Because Marxist see poverty as simply one aspect of inequality, eliminating it involves a radical change in the structure of society.
Westergaard and Resler (1976) maintain that no substantial redistribution of wealth can occur until capitalism is replaced by socialism.
However, there seems little prospect of a revolution occurring at the moment, and there is no evidence that the few remaining communist countries have eliminated poverty.
‘New Labour’ – ‘A hand up, not a hand-out’
The ‘New Labour’ government which took office
Some changes made by the Labour government, such as the creation of the creation of the Social Exclusion Unit, offered new opportunities, though some contained an element of compulsion because of the threat of lost benefits. The government also showed little willingness to increase benefits. Its policies contained a novel mix of contradictory ideologies, influenced by both leftwing sociologists such as Peter Townsend and New Right thinkers such as Charles Murray.