How might this be reflected in recent debates about poverty

In order to highlight the actual meaning attached to living in poverty, for both individuals and families alike, this paper will steer the reader through the somewhat complicated arena of the poverty debate. It will offer various definitions of poverty and challenge the many assumptions of the actual levels of poverty currently seen in Britain. It will look at the cost of poverty, both public and private and, finally, it will review the issues raised through the ongoing poverty debate.

In our technology rich world of video conferencing, open government and the Internet can we continue to claim that there are those who fall by the wayside and somehow carry on living in poverty in Britain today? Have not recent government initiatives, targeted at reducing poverty (national minimum wage, working tax credits and children’s tax credits) reduced poverty and the effects of poverty? Should we not simply be in agreement with the then Secretary of State for Social Security (1989) Mr. John Moore; who stated in the House of Commons Debates (1988-89): Like Ministers in previous Governments, I reject the concept of a poverty line. I share the view of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Services that it is absurd to claim that a third of the population lives in poverty.

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The term “poverty” is deliberately being confused with income inequality and those who claim that the poor are getting poorer ignore improvements in living standards and real income growth for people at all levels since 1979. Perverse statistical definitions of poverty do not help to identify individuals and families in genuine need. (Commons Hansard 1989, col. 3). Or should we take on-board the statement made in Geneva to the United Nations Social Summit +5 by Tessa Jowell, Minister for Employment (1999-2001): ‘There is no single cause and there is no single answer to the problems of poverty and social exclusion. The solution can only be found through a combination of policies designed to tackle all the causes through integrated thinking and action both at the national level and at the international level. ‘ (United Nations, 2000)

If we adopt the line of John Moore, do we then accept that poverty holds no real meaning for the inhabitants of Britain, or does Tessa Jowell’s statement go some way to highlight the complex nature and relationship of poverty for both individuals and their wider nations? For, if it is acceptable that Governments use the income levels of countries to help define poverty the world over, surely then, and in direct contrast to John Moore’s account, inequalities of income must surely play some part in the measurement of poverty itself in Britain.

The central problem to the resolution of the poverty debate is the actual definition of poverty itself for there are several concepts in use today: absolute – the minimum standards required to physically maintain the basic human needs of nutrition, shelter and health. Although the term ‘absolute poverty’ continues to be referred to today: ‘Absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, helter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to social services. ‘ (United Nations, 1995. ) Absolute poverty is historically linked with Charles Booth (1840-1916) and Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954) at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. A second definition of poverty centres on the theme of ‘relative poverty’, within which, we find three different approaches: each having their own specific connotations and meanings, for both individuals and political institutions.

Firstly there is the budget standard, which takes its lead from Rowntree’s ‘no waste’ absolute budget and actually prescribes the amount of monies needed for individuals to maintain their minimum living standards based on received income (mainly government benefits to assess whether the payments are adequate to provide for people’s needs) and subsequent, prescribed, expenditure (Haralambos and Holborn, 1997 p. 128).

Until recently the most commonly used poverty level was 50 percent of mean disposable income adjusted for household size; thereby producing a line of poverty below which, individuals and families may be classed as being poor. More recently European studies have tended to use a standard of 60 percent of the contemporary median income level adjusted for household size and the British government have adopted this as their measurement of poverty from 1999 in their Opportunity for All yearly reports (Piachaud ; Sutherland, 2002).

We then arrive at a relative level of poverty set by ‘social consensus’: this being a participative measurement whereby the democratic majority are asked to identify those items deemed to be necessities of modern living. Once these necessities have been identified, the ‘cost’ of each item is calculated and a relative poverty line is thus reached. Having evolved from the Breadline Britain surveys of 1983 and 1990, this consensual measurement of poverty continues to be used: Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey of Britain – appendices one and two, (Gordon, D. et al, 2000).

A third definition of poverty, which has little to do with material and monetary deprivation, is that falling within a somewhat personal, ‘behavioural’ characterization whereby poverty cannot be measured by income alone: be it welfare benefits or earned. Poverty is seen to be a complex mix of social and psychological phenomena and follows Peter Townsend’s theory of relative deprivation (Haralambos and Holborn, 1997 pp. 129-131) whereby individuals are excluded from partaking in the customary norms of society and begin to feel they belong to a separate entity: The propriety of human existence is measured by the standards of decent life practiced by any given society, inability to abide by such standards is itself a cause for distress, agony and self-mortification. Poverty means being excluded from whatever passes for a ‘normal life’. It means being ‘not up to the mark’. This results in a fall of self-esteem, feelings of shame or feelings of guilt. Poverty also means being cut off from the chances of whatever passes in a given society for a ‘happy life’, not taking ‘what life has to offer’.

This results in resentment and aggravation, which spill out in the form of violent acts, self-deprecation, or both. (Bauman, 1998 p. 37). As we can see, a universally definitive expression of poverty remains a somewhat elusive, unquantifiable notion: the central problem appears to be obtaining a majority consensus about what should be included or excluded in any survey thus used to produce accurate figures for the levels of poverty in any nation.

Indeed, there has been many arguments put forward which challenge our above-mentioned definitions: as have there been challenges made against the many prominent theorists. The absolute subsistence levels laid down by Rowntree, whilst remaining in force for many, have been criticised for being too prescriptive a method. Absolute poverty is difficult to defend when it is a level set down for all peoples in all societies: it is inconceivable to undertake a legitimate comparison of absolute poverty between, for example, the African Nations with the obviously more wealthy Western World.

All three definitions of relative poverty have also been unable to escape criticism: many have questioned budget standards of poverty and have claimed that we should not use welfare payments to define minimum subsistence levels. Professor Jonathon Bradshaw (2001) argues, and many would find it difficult to reject his view that ‘Social assistance scales were established to prevent poverty, lift people above it. How can it [then] be justified to use them as a poverty threshold? The emotive feelings of those living in poverty have not been spared from criticism: the most famous, of which, Charles Murray (1943 -) in his development of the theory of an underclass, appears to pounce on the more negative attributes of the individuals living in poverty. In Losing Ground, published in 1984, Murray argues the increased welfare payments to American families during the welfare reforms of the 1960’s had created increasing numbers of Americans who were dependent on benefits then having become dependent, they saw no reason to obtain paid employment in order to repay society.

When he visited Britain in 1989, Murray continually defined the poor not as a certain level or standard of poverty, but as a certain type of poverty where blame could be apportioned to easily identifiable pockets of society: ‘They were defined by their behaviour. Their homes were littered and unkempt. The men in the family were unable to hold a job for more than a few weeks at a time. Drunkeness was common. The children grew up ill-schooled and ill-behaved and contributed a disproportionate share to the local juvenile delinquents. ‘