In general, the term ‘poverty’ is seen to refer to a social and economic condition which is undesirable for any individual or group in society. The concept implies that people who are suffering from poverty need to be helped in order to enhance their social status, and that a solution to the problem must be found. By examining the population of a Third World country such as Ethiopia, we can see clearly that the levels of famine and disease are high and that people are living in impoverished conditions.
Alternatively, it is possible to suggest that a single mother who is living in an inner-city council estate and who is living off state benefits is suffering from poverty, even when living in a developed Western country such as England. Although there are existing explanations of poverty and why it exists, the main argument of the subject is based on what poverty should be defined as. The main way of defining poverty in Britain is by accepting the official poverty line.
It is constructed by the Department of Health and Social Security and is estimated by measuring “the number of people and families in Great Britain with incomes below the supplementary benefit (SB) level, a level which sets the ceiling for entitlement to means-tested assistance but which is frequently taken as a poverty standard” (p. 7). In 1981, the Department of Health and Social Security concluded that there were 2. million people who were living in families which were below the supplementary benefit level, which worked out to represent 5. 3 per cent of the entire population. Although the Department of Health and Social Security’s definition of poverty is one which is used the most frequently, one could argue that if many different people hold different definitions of poverty, an objective measure of poverty is near impossible. There are a few diverse ways in which poverty can be defined.
Firstly there is the argument over whether or not poverty should be measured in absolute or relative terms. Absolute poverty is a concept which is said to occur when “people fail to receive sufficient resources to support a minimum of physical health and efficiency, often expressed in terms of calories or nutritional levels” (p. 274). In other words, this concept claims that there are certain needs which are required to maintain human life and that one is in poverty when one does not have these basic needs.
On the other hand, from the perspective which supports the concept of relative poverty, “the poor are not defined as those who fall below a fixed subsistence level but as those whose incomes are considered too far removed from the rest of the society in which they live” (p. 14). Poverty is seen to be relative because not every society is identical- someone who is seen to be in poverty in a country such as England may not be in poverty in a Third World country such as Ethiopia due to the social and economical differences between the two countries.
Apart from the problems with choosing between the concepts of absolute or relative poverty, there is also the argument over whether or not poverty should be explained in material terms or whether or not it should be explained as a form of multiple deprivation. Given that poverty was first defined in absolute terms, it would be appropriate to examine the concept of absolute poverty first. Absolute poverty is based on the assessment of minimum subsistence requirements, since it is concerned with calculating the quality and standard of food, clothing and housing required to lead a healthy life.
People who measure poverty in absolute terms usually explain poverty in terms of material possessions. In his study of York in 1899, Seebohm Rowntree used an approach which was close to an absolute definition of poverty. Rowntree (1901) created a poverty line in relation to a weekly sum of money which was seen as the minimum amount required to maintain the necessities of everyday life. He calculated that 33 per cent of the population lived in poverty. Predictably, Rowntree’s 1899 study has faced criticisms from many commentators on the topic of poverty due to the fact that it mostly accepts the concept of absolute poverty.
Nowadays absolute definitions of poverty are difficult to defend and accept as a single objective definition of poverty, mainly because most people believe that poverty should be explained in relative terms and that poverty should not just be explained in material terms. One problem with Rowntree’s explanation of poverty is that it was dependent on what he thought poverty consisted of, and therefore the objectivity of his approach can be questioned: “the so-called objective measure depended upon subjective judgements” (p. 13)
More social commentators are likely to define poverty in relative terms and believe that poverty is linked to inequality. Those who use relative definitions define poverty according to the social and economic standards specific to a place at a particular time and space, and claim that definitions of poverty will change due to the development and growing complexity of society. If the absolute concept of poverty was taken as an objective fact, then poverty would no longer exist because incomes have risen considerably and more consumer goods are nowadays owned by almost everyone.
People nowadays are seen to evaluate themselves in terms of what is happening around them now, and not in comparison with the past. Now it has been established that poverty is best explained in relative terms, we can examine some of the approaches that have been used to explain poverty using the concept of relative poverty. One of the most prominent sociologists to analyse poverty in relative terms is Peter Townsend, who claimed that poverty should be explained in terms of relative deprivation. Townsend (1970) argued that poverty could be viewed objectively but only through the concept of relative deprivation.
He claimed that poverty should be viewed in terms of what resources are available to individuals and households, and that it should be defined in multiple terms- it is not only income which is important but also the accessibility to capital assets and fringe benefits, and also the inability to participate in social activities considered to be desirable in society e. g. going on holiday.
To explain his view of poverty, Townsend devised a deprivation index, selecting 60 different types of deprivation relating to aspects of life such as education, family life, housing conditions, etc. nd then choosing 12 items from the list which he thought were the most important to the population. By calculating the percentage of the population deprived of these aspects, he found out that 22. 9% of the population were in poverty in 1968-9. By looking at poverty in relative terms, Townsend’s intention was to create an objective explanation of poverty in contemporary Britain. However, Townsend’s analysis cannot be completely objective since the deprivation index can generally be seen as his own subjective opinion. In other words, Townsend has chosen what he believes is important.
Several years later two researchers, Joanna Mack and Stewert Lansley, conducted another study of poverty in relative terms, with the intention of being objective. Mack and Lansley (1985) intended on producing an analysis similar to Peter Townsend, except that they attempted to improve the objectivity of the study by asking the public what items they were lacking or deprived of. They excluded some items which the higher income groups were likely to say they were lacking so that a more realistic picture of poverty could be created.
Mack and Lansley concluded in their results that 13. 8 per cent of the population were in poverty in the United Kingdom. Although Mack and Lansley may have corrected some of the methodological problems associated with Townsend’s study, there are still several aspects of their research which suggest that their study of poverty is not objective. The answers of the respondents could be seen as subjective opinions on what is desirable and what is not, and they were influenced by their personal opinions on what items to ask the public about.
Despite the fact that many sociologists have been trying to create an objective and universal definition of poverty, it does not seem possible to achieve, mainly because individuals vary on their thoughts on what constitutes poverty. A universal concept of poverty is not possible, since that relative concepts of poverty are value judgements and subjective, influenced by personal opinion on what poverty is: “A value judgement is being made when it is said that the standards of life of life of the majority are acceptable and that those whose incomes exclude them from it should be enabled to enjoy the same” p. 18) Over the past century there have been different attempts to define poverty in a way which can be seen as objective. Whilst attempts to explain poverty in relative terms have been more successful in that most people tend to adopt this view, it appears that an objective and universal definition of poverty is not possible, given that people are influenced by their own subjective thoughts on what makes poverty, and that we now appear to be living in a society which is rapidly changing and is taking many twists and turns.