Spotlight Exclusives

What It Means to Be Poor

Stewart Lansley, Bristol University and Joanna Mack, Open University Stewart Lansley, Bristol University and Joanna Mack, Open University, posted on

Debates over measuring poverty are often technical: What is the price of a meal? How do housing costs differ geographically? But the question of “what it means to be poor” is essentially philosophical.

Ultimately, where we draw the poverty line requires some basic assumptions about what resources or capabilities people deserve. Recognizing this fact, some researchers have looked to push beyond basic, technocratic poverty measurements and instead try to capture the wider public’s beliefs and intuitions on this issue.

The consensual method which we pioneered in Britain in 1983 measures poverty using the public۪s views on what is an acceptable standard of living in contemporary society. Respondents are asked which of a long list of items and social activities, from a basic diet and minimum housing decency to a number of household goods and social activities, they consider to be essential for living today.

The method establishes a minimum standard based on what the majority of people think are the necessities of life, which everyone should be able to afford and no one should have to do without. In the most recent 2012 survey, a majority of respondents identified 25 items and activities for adults and 24 for children as essential to meeting an acceptable standard of living.

Under the consensual method, the poverty threshold falls at the point at which adults lack three or more necessities and children lack two or more, a level of deprivation at which households are much more likely to experience a range of other significant disadvantages including poor health and serious financial difficulties.

This approach is the nearest we have to a publicly endorsed, democratic definition of poverty, one free of value judgements by experts, officials, or government. Significantly, it۪s a standard that has support from all social groups, across classes, gender, age and, importantly, political affiliation.

The method, based on large scale face-to-face surveys, has been applied in the U.K. in 1983, 1990, 1999, and 2012. According to this alternative measure, the poverty rate has risen sharply over the last three decades, from one in six to nearly one in three. Moreover, more people lack some of the most basic of these publicly defined necessities in recent surveys than they did in 1983.

This direct method has now been applied in a range of countries low-, middle-, and high-income from Japan, Australia, and the member nations of the European Union to South Africa, Vietnam, and Bangladesh.

One of the key findings of the U.K. and the other country surveys is that the public takes a relativist view of poverty. In the U.K., they choose items that reflect contemporary, and not past, styles of living. Not only do they give high scores to items essential to survival such as food and shelter, but a majority also views a long list of items beyond these basic physical needs as necessities, from a washing machine and a telephone to celebrations on special occasions.

The public endorses the idea that in a wealthy country such as Britain, no child should have to do without a decent minimum of essential clothing, or be prevented from going on a school trip because their parents can۪t afford it.

This is a rule that applies across nations. While there has been much debate about the absolute versus relative question, relativism in fact turns out to be a core, embedded principle, across time and across developed and developing economies alike. It is an idea that jells with public perceptions both nationally and globally of what it means to be poor.

Although the method has been widely applied internationally, it has yet to be tested in the United States. Despite the international evidence that the public endorses a relative view of poverty, the official definition of poverty in the U.S. continues to be based on a poverty threshold set as long ago as 1969.

Aside from minor technical adjustments and updating for inflation, it has stayed at that level ever since. Poverty in the U.S. is therefore still measured according to a four-decade-old standard of living, one which government officials at the time considered the minimum necessary to support families of different sizes.

It is not clear whether the American public would endorse such an essentially absolute standard, or if it would instead support a minimum standard which reflects contemporary norms and values. If it proves to be the latter, poverty levels would be much higher than shown by the current official measure.

As debates about the social safety net and the proper role of government in fighting poverty rage on in the U.K., U.S., and across the world, defining poverty based on societal values could refocus the discussion. A first step to achieving better policy outcomes may lie in redefining what it means to be poor.

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Stewart Lansley is a visiting fellow at Bristol University. Joanna Mack works at the Open University and is founder of the poverty resource page They are co-authors of the 2015 book Breadline Britain: The Rise of Mass Poverty.

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