Sociologists have defined poverty in two different ways, the first being absolute poverty and the second being relative poverty.Seebohm Rowntree, a pioneering researcher of poverty, devised the absolute definition of poverty in the early 19th century in England.
In the 1890s, he conducted a scientific survey to discover the real extent of poverty in Britain. Part of this survey involved constructing a clear definition that distinguished the poor from the non-poor.The definition was based on deciding what resources were needed for a person to be able to live healthily and work efficiently.
The ‘poverty line’ was the amount needed to cover these three costs-1) The cost of a very basic diet.2) How much it would cost to purchase a minimum amount of clothing of minimum quality.3) Cost of rent for a basic level of housing.Rowntrees scale was an absolute measure of poverty because it defined the absolute minimum a person needed to survive, ‘the basic conditions that must be met in order to sustain a physically healthy lifestyle’, (Giddens, 5th edition, 2006. p341).The relative definition of poverty, stresses not so much the necessities, but exclusion from the normal patterns of life in society, due to lack of income.
This approach was designed in its fullest by the famous poverty researcher Peter Townsend in his 1979 study ‘Poverty in the UK.’Townsend believed that poverty should be measured in terms of what the expectations of any society were.Townsend outlined the condition of relative poverty as follows:o ‘Poverty can be defined objectively and applied consistently only in terms of the concept of relative deprivation…
Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack these resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary… in the societies to which they belong.
* (Townsend, 1979, P.31)Townsend believed that as societies change and become more (or less) affluent, then the meaning of poverty would change too.There are two ways that the concept of relative poverty has been operationalised.o The relative income measureo The consensual measureThe relative income measure ‘is increasingly being used by the government and is also known as HBAI (Households Below Average Income) (Moore 2002).The way this is measured is on the average household income.
If the families’ income is 50% below the average British income, then the family is said to be in poverty. The idea behind this is you cannot afford a decent standard of living if you are below this level. It has been suggested that an 80% level would be more appropriate.
The consensual approach measures poverty in terms of what possessions and services the general public think are necessary in society. A survey is carried out and the public place what services and possessions they deem as a necessity in an appropriate order. The results are used to decide what the majority of people would say is deprivation. Townsend called this the ‘deprivation index’ (Kirby 2000).
If you could not afford certain items on this index you were termed as being in povertyBoth the absolute measure of poverty and the relative measure of poverty have advantages and disadvantages.The absolute measure of poverty provides an easy to understand and universal notion of poverty. It also provides a definition that fits in with many peoples everyday conception of poverty.An absolute definition gives us a clear measure of who is in poverty at any one time and it also allows us to compare the same societies, or different societies over a period of time.However the absolute definition fails to take into account the fact that what is regarded as poverty changes over time, which makes it difficult to decide exactly what constitutes a minimum standard of clothing or an acceptable diet.
Critics have argued that the absolute measure of poverty is actually a measure of destitution and should not be used in society today. Destitution is the failure to obtain the bare necessities to keep life going, but poverty is not destitution because someone can still be really struggling but still manage to fight onIt also does not treat poverty as an isolated phenomenon because it links it to other areas of social life.The relative definition is as much a measure of equality as poverty. It says no matter how rich people become, there will always be poverty, as long as not everybody is equally rich.
The relative definition also has the difficulty of deciding what is or is not a normal standard of living.A new term that has emerged during poverty discussions is ‘social exclusion.’Social exclusion is in many ways similar to the relative definition of poverty, but instead of just taking into account a families income, it also looks at other ‘factors which shape life chances, such as health, education, security and general participation in society.’ (Moore, 2002)The term poverty is viewed as static as it just covers the inability to purchase a socially accepted standard of living.When we talk of the poor, it gives an impression that there is a fixed body of people who are in poverty all of their lives. This may be true for some individuals, but the majority of the poor are people who live on the margins of poverty. They are more likely to be in poverty during certain periods of their lives, and to climb out of it during other periods.For example, people on a low wage with young children might experience poverty because of the financial burden of having young children, but as the children grow independent and find employment, the parents may move out of poverty.
In Britain, certain groups are more likely to be consistently at risk of poverty than others. These include pensioners, single parents, the sick and disabled, and the unemployed.The explanations for the causes of poverty have stayed the same even though the terminology has changed over time. These explanations can be broken down into two main groups-1) Dependency based explanations argue that poverty is the result of the individual or cultural deficiency.2) Exclusion based explanations focus on the idea of exclusion, meaning that the poor are in that situation because they are forced out of a decent standard of living by the actions of the more powerful in society. This explanation relates to the concepts of social exclusion, which were discussed earlier.One example of a dependency based explanation is the ‘underclass’ approach which was developed by an American writer named Charles Murray who states-o ‘The underclass does not refer to a degree of poverty, but to a type of poverty.
It is not a new concept…
these poor didn’t lack money. They were defined by their behaviour. Their homes were littered and unkempt. The men in the family were unable to hold down a job for more than a few weeks at a time. Drunkenness was common.
The children grew up ill-schooled and ill-behaved and contributed a disproportionate share of the local juvenile delinquents.'(C.Murray.1990.
P.1)Murray believed that the underclass, that survive on benefits, were lazy and had no desire to work.I do personally believe that an underclass exists today, but that it makes up only a small minority of the poor. I have lived on council estates and know from first hand account that these families exist. They do not work and depend solely on government benefits. They worked illegally for cash and also were involved in crime, drugs, illegitimacy, and drunkenness.I believe the majority of unemployed would like to go back to work and help themselves out of poverty but are held back by economic and political systems.
Kirby (2000) states ‘Heath (1992) collected data on those defined as being the underclass and found no evidence to support the idea that they held distinct cultural values. In fact, they seemed more likely to want to work than those households where someone already had a job.’Exclusion based explanations basically say that the poor are blameless, and that they are the victims of industrial and social change.Field (1989) developed an argument based on citizenship and exclusion, stating ‘ three groups in society have been excluded from the rights citizens should enjoy.’ These three groups were-i. Long term unemployedii. Single parent familiesiii.
People who rely on state benefitsField argues that these groups ‘have been particularly hit by government policies, which have increased the gap between rich and poor; by increases in the core number of long-term unemployed; and finally by an increasing tendency to stigmatise and blame the poor for their poverty rather than looking at wider economic and social factors.’ (Moore, 2006)When it comes to solving the problem of poverty, different governments have adopted different approaches. These approaches are-I.
The New Right approachII. The Social Democratic approachIII. The Third WayIV. The Marxist approachThe Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major that were in power through the 1980s and 1990s followed the New Right approach, which saw the welfare state as one of the main causes of poverty.It believed that the high taxation caused by the government spending on welfare provision discouraged entrepreneurs and businessmen from investing in British industry. This then leads to a lack of job opportunities for the unemployed and increases the amount of spending on welfare.
The result is a vicious, unending circle of indirect poverty,New Right theorists believe that the welfare state removes an individual’s incentive to go out and find work because it provides the poor with money for doing nothing.It believed the welfare state was wasteful and inefficient because it placed a huge burden on the population in the form of increased taxes and lost productivity.The Conservative governments answer to the problem of poverty was a single pronged attack on the benefits system. They believed by cutting benefit spending and making benefit availability more selective, it would reduce the dependency culture by forcing the unemployed to find work.The New Rights’ argument for the cause of poverty is consistent with the thoughts of Charles Murray (1990) that the welfare state produces a dependency culture amongst individuals who lose the will to work and support their families because they know their benefit payments will support them.The New Right Theorists also believe it is important for the wealthier to succeed because this success will then filter down to the poorer in society, therefore reducing poverty by generating more employment opportunities. This is known as the ‘trickle down’ thesis.
Most of the New Rights ideas come from Right Wing Economy theories. Milton Friedman, a Right Wing Economist, believed the answer to developing the welfare state was ‘marketisation’ and privatisation; key examples of this were the Conservatives ‘Right to buy’ council house buying scheme and the privatisation of the NHS.This approach was tried in America during the presidencies of George Bush Senior (1980-1982) and George Bush Junior (2000-) and there is little evidence to support the theory actually works.According to Giddens (2006) the trickle down thesis actually ‘expands the differentials between the poor and the wealthy, and increases the numbers living in poverty.’The more recent Labour government have implemented the Third Way approach which took into consideration all of the criticisms and valid points of the other approaches to create their own solution. It is based much more around tackling the structures that cause social exclusion and poverty.Where as the previous Conservative government implemented a single pronged attack on the welfare state, the Labour government under Tony Blair took a much more multi pronged approach to tackling poverty which echoes the argument by Field based on citizenship and exclusion.
It believes poverty is linked to the idea of social exclusion, and that a number of disadvantages must be overcome in order to eliminate poverty. These include poor health, bad housing, school failure, anti-social behaviour, family breakdown, unemployment, poor skills and crime. One of the main aims of the Third Way was to reduce child poverty. Tony Blair said at the government’s 4th annual poverty report-o ‘Poverty is multi-dimensional. It is not only about money. It is also about jobs, access to public services, environment and ambition. It is about education, housing, the local environment, training, jobs, and your home and family life, being free from crime and drug abuse.
So our vision for addressing child poverty is an all encompassing one. One which straddles income, public services and jobs.'(Tony Blair, Prime Minister, 18th September 2002)Since 1997 the Labour government has introduced a series of welfare to work reforms, with a particular emphasis on the low wage labour market. These include-1) New Deal Programme – aimed at getting certain groups such as the disabled, long term unemployed, young people and those over 50 back into paid employment and off welfare benefits2) Minimum Wage – introduced in 1999 to limit extreme exploitation and raise the income of those in low paid employment.
3) Sure Start – a range of community based ideas and policies including setting up nurseries to care for under 5s so parents can work.4) Educational Maintenance Allowance (E.M.A) – Support for poor families to encourage children to stay in full time education.5) Working Families Tax Credit / Child Tax Credit – introduced to make employment more attractive than benefits, especially for lone parents. Cash support for families with low paid jobs. Also helped with nursery costs and health care.
The Third Way basically sees the welfare system as good but believes it is inefficient and too expensive to maintain. Even though the proposals made by the Third Way to change the welfare system are only extensions of the social democrats values, the social democrats saw benefits as a right, where as Labour believe people must accept work or training, or lose the their rights to benefits. Another criticism of the Third Way is that the minimum wage is simply too low.According to the Department of Works and Pensions, between 1996 and 2002 the number of people of working age who are neither in work nor looking for it but who report that they would like to work has remained stable at 2.5 million.
It seems that although the Labour government has taken a different approach to tackling poverty, it has not been a great success. According to Moore (2002) ‘less than 1 in 10 single mothers contacted had gone on to find a job’ after taking part in the New Deal for Lone Parents scheme.