Sociology AS: Poverty and social exclusion: Unit #3.1


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.

  1. Absolute and relative poverty

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.


  1. Material and multiple deprivation and social exclusion

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.


  1. Inequality and poverty

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.



Absolute poverty

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:

  • Nutrition: measured by factors such as the intake of calories.
  • Shelter: measured by quality of housing and degree of overcrowding.
  • Health: measured by infant mortality rates and availability of medical facilities.

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.

  • Within a society :  The nutritional needs of a bank clerk sitting at a desk all day are very different from those of a babourer working on a building site.
  • Between societies : The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert have very different nutritional needs compared to office workers in London.


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 York using this approach (1901, 1941, 1951).


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

  • Rowntree’s selection of necessities was based on expert views and did not take into account the customs of ordinary people.
  • Rowntree’s view that poverty was declining was challenged by later writers who adopted a relative definition of poverty.



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 United Kingdom

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:

  • Not having had a week’s holiday in the last year.
  • Children not having had a friend over to play in the last month.
  • Not having a refrigerator.
  • Having gone through one or more days in the past fortnight without a cooked meal.
  • Not usually having a Sunday joint.

On the basis of these calculations Townsend found that 22.9% of the population (12.46 million people) were living in poverty in 1968-9).



Criticisms of Townsend’s research

  • Piachaud (1981, 1987) claims that the index on which Townsend’s statistics are based is inadequate. Going without a Sunday joint or eating salads may reflect cultural preferences rather than deprivation.
  • Townsend claims that he has identified a ‘poverty line’ – deprivation increase rapidly when income drops below a particular level. Piachaud rejects this view.
  • Piachaud argues that the implications of Townsend’s definition of poverty are that poverty will remain as long as people behave in different ways – choosing to be vegetarian or not going on holiday, for example.



The London Study

In 1985-6 Townsend used a new approach to defining poverty in a study based in London. He distinguished between:

  • Material deprivations, which included deprivation in terms of diet, housing, clothes, work and environment.
  • Social deprivation, which covered lack of employment rights, family and leisure activities, community participation and educational opportunities.

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 Britain

Mack and Lansley (1985) took note of many of the criticisms of Townsend’s work in their study of  poverty in Britain.

  • Their deprivation index included a question asking respondents whether they lacked a particular item through choices or necessity.
  • They selected the items in their deprivation index on the basis of asking respondents what they considered to be necessities in modern Britain. They found poverty to be widespread, although on a lesser scale than Townsend. However, in a follow-up study (1990) they found that the numbers in poverty had risen significantly. Mack and Lansley believed that this increase was due to changes in the benefits system.



Criticisms of Mack and Lansley

  • The inclusion of extra items in the 1990 index raises questions about the comparability of the two studies.
  • The deprivation index was constructed by the public but the list they chose from reflected the researchers’ values rather than a general consensus.
  • The researchers defined poverty as lacking three or more items from their list. A different definition would have produced very different results.
  • Walker (1987) points out that Mack and Lansley’s method does not take into account the quality of items, only whether or not they exist.



Social exclusion

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:

  • It looks beyond a simple lack of material resources and includes those excluded from key parts of society, such as the unemployed, those who do not register to vote, and isolated elderly individuals who live alone and lack a role in the social system.
  • It forces us to consider those who do the excluding (the comfortably-off majority) as well as those who are excluded.
  • Policies aimed at reducing social exclusion need to try to change wider social and economic structures; social exclusion cannot be tackled by simply increasing welfare payments.

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

  • It is difficult to define and measure with any accuracy.
  • There is a risk that using the term may distract policy-makers from dealing with the material disadvantages that often give rise to social exclusion.
  • There is a risk that the concept may be used to justify cutting welfare payments on the grounds that this will encourage the excluded to earn a living, which will in turn lead to their greater involvement in society.



Official statistics on poverty

Some countries, such as the USA, have an official poverty line, but Britain does not. Britain does, however, produce figures on how incomes.

  • Nearly all the of official figures suggest that there has been a rise in poverty over recent decades, particularly since 1979. The poorest 10% of the population have become worse off in real terms.
  • The amount of homelessness has increased, suggesting that absolute poverty has returned as a serious problem in Britain.



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

  • Being in paid employment on a full-time basis greatly reduces the risk pf poverty. Retirement and unemployment are both strongly associated with poverty.
  • Lone parenthood leads to a high risk of poverty.
  • Over a quarter of pensioner couples are poor, although some evidence suggests that the elderly are becoming less prone to poverty.



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.

  • Women are less likely than men to have occupational pensions and income from investments.
  • Married women are less likely than married men to be working.
  • Women who are working are less likely than married men to be working.
  • Women who are working are more likely than men to be low-paid.
  • More women than men work part-time.
  • More women than men rely on benefits as their main source of income.
  • Lone parents are vulnerable to poverty, and about 90% are women.
  • The majority of pensioners are women.



Ethnicity and poverty

Berthoud’s study (1997) concludes that:

  • Poverty is common among most ethnic minority groups. Their poverty usually stems from unemployment and low pay.
  • Pakistani and Bangladeshi household tend to be at high risk of poverty because of unemployment and the fact that relatively few women have paid employment.

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:

  • Most household containing a disabled person receive no income from employment.
  • Disabled people tend to have high spending costs.



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 Britain, because relative definitions of poverty have confused poverty with inequality. In fact, steadily rising living standards have largely eradicated poverty.


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

  • Marsland ignores some important evidence such as the fact that the real incomes of the poorest have been falling
  • Jordan (1989) claims that societies that rely on means-tested benefits (welfare benefits that only go to the most needy) tend to develop a large underclass. If members of the underclass take low-paid jobs they lose benefits and end up wore off.
  • Dean and Taylor-Gooby (1992) interviewed social security claimants and found that their attitudes and ambitions were little different from those of other members of society. They wanted to earn their own living and would prefer not to have to rely on benefits. The study found little evidence of a dependency culture.



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 Mexico led him to identify a particular design for living which had the following elements:

  • Individuals feel marginalized and helpless
  • There is a high rate of family breakdown.
  • There is lack of participation in social institutions.


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.



Murray – the underclass in Britain

Charles Murray (1989, 1993) is an American sociologist who visited Britain in 1989 and 1993. He claimed that, like the USA, Britain was developing an underclass.  This underclass did not just consist of the poorest members of society. It consisted of those whose lifestyles involve a ‘type of poverty’ characterized by what Murray calls ‘deplorable behaviour’, such as refusal to accept jobs, delinquency and having illegitimate children.


Murray puts forward evidence in three areas to support his claim:

  • Illegitimacy: Murray argues that illegitimacy is rapidly increasing, particularly among women from the lower social classes. The absence of a father means that illegitimate children will tend to ‘run wild’. According to Murray, cohabitation does not provide the same stability as marriage.


  • Crime :  Murray associates the development of an underclass with rising crime. He argues that crime is damaging because it fragments communities. People become suspicious of each other and, as crime becomes more common, young boys start to imitate older males and take up criminal activities themselves.


  • Unemployment : Murray does not see unemployment itself as a problem; instead it is the unwillingness of young men to take jobs that creates difficulties. Young men without jobs cannot support a family, so they are unlikely to get married when they father children, and the illegitimacy rate rises. In the absence of family responsibilities they find other, more damaging, ways to prove themselves-for example, through violent crime.



Causes and solutions

Murray argues that the benefits systems needs to be changed to get rid of disincentives to marriage and to discourage single parenthood. Single mothers can own afford to live on benefits and so males who father children are often isolated from the responsibilities of family life. To force pregnant women to marry, Murray advocates cutting benefits for unmarried women entirely.


Critics of Murray

Unsurprisingly Murray’s views have come under serious attack.

Walker – blaming the victims  Walker (1990) argues that:

  • Lone parenthood is often short-lived – most lone parents find a new partner in a relatively short time.
  • Most of the so-called underclass have conventional attitudes. They want stable relationships and paid employment. It is not their values that prevent them from achieving their aims, but lack of opportunities.


Brown – single motherhood

Brown (1990) points out that:

  • Where there is a concentration of single mothers in a particular neighbourhood, this is the result of council housing policy not values that undermine family life.
  • Divorce is common in all strata of society and is not confined to the lower classes.


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:

  • The long-term unemployed, particularly school-leavers who have never had a job and older workers who have been unemployed for long periods.
  • Single-parent families. This group is increasing but for many it is only a temporary stage. It is those who are dependent on benefits for long periods who are members of the underclass.
  • Elderly pensioners who depend on state benefits because they do not have an occupational pension. Unlike the first two groups the elderly make up a declining proportion of the very poor.

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:

  • Rising levels of unemployment.
  • Social changes and government policy have widened the gap between higher and lower classes.
  • Living standards as a whole have risen but the poorest members of society have been excluded from the benefits enjoyed by the increasingly affluent.
  • Successful members of the working class have cut themselves off from those who have had less success. They are now more likely to blame the poor for their plight.


Blackman – the homeless and the underclass

Shane Blackman (1997) conducted an ethnographic study of the young homeless in Brighton. He argues against Murray’s view that the underclass reject society’s values. What the young homeless needed was jobs and homes, not a different culture. Blackman sees members of the so-called ‘underclass’ as victims of society whose behaviour changes when they are given genuine opportunities to improve their situation.



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.

  • Some regard poverty as the result of the failings of the welfare state.
  • Others place more emphasis on the disadvantages faced by the poor in the labour market.
  • Marxists believe that poverty is an inevitable consequence of capitalism.



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.


  • Giles and Johnson (1994) show that tax changes between 1985 and 1995 made the richest better off and the poorest worse off.



  • Smith, Smith and Wright (1997) identify a range of ways in which the poor are disadvantaged by educational policy, for example by cuts in the provision of free school meals.



  • Ginsburg (1997) notes that recent housing policy has been aimed at encouraging home ownership, while spending on new council houses has been restricted.



  • Benzeval (1997) has found a growing health gap between the rich and poor in Britain.

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:

  • The primary labour market includes jobs that offer job security, promotion prospects, training opportunities and relatively high wages.
  • The secondary labour market offers the opposite. Women and ethnic minorities are particularly concentrated here.



Changes in the labour market

Dean and Taylor-Gooby (1992) argue that changes in the labour market have made people in Britain vulnerable to poverty.


  • Manufacturing industry has declined, and there has been an increase in service sector jobs.
  • A considerable number of service sector jobs do not provide security and are part-time – they form part of the secondary labour market.
  • Economic change has affected different parts of the country at different times, leading to regional unemployment and poverty.
  • The decline of trade unionism has reduced the ability of workers to defend their rights.



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:

  • Low wages help to reduce wage demands as workers tend to assess their income in terms of the baseline provided by the low-paid.
  • Since the state reflects the interests of the ruling class it can be expected to do little except reduce the harsher effects of poverty. Westergaard and Resler argue that the welfare state was created to ‘contain’ the demands of the labour movement.

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:

  • Reduce welfare expenditure so that a more dynamic economy could be created. As the economy grew and living standards rose, wealth and ‘trickle down’ to those on low incomes.
  • Move away from universal benefits in order to reduce the dependency culture which made people rely on state benefits.
  • Target resources to the poor so that benefits would  only go to those in genuine need.



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

  • Mack and Lansley (1985) claim that raising benefit levels could have a significant impact on poverty. Their research showed considerable public support for this
  • Peter Townsend (1997) argues for a national plan to eliminate poverty. The plan might ultimately require the development of a kind of international welfare state.
  • Walker and Walker (1994) argue for increased emphasis on universal benefits and for governments to do more to provide work for the unemployed, the disabled and lone parents.




Marxist solutions

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 in Britain in 1997 claimed it had policies that would reduce poverty and social exclusion – what the poor needed was a ‘hand up, not a hand-out’. In other words, they needed to be given the support they needed to help themselves rather than simply depending on state benefits.


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.






(Sociology AS: Poverty and social exclusion Unit #3.1)