No 21: 50 years of poverty studies: how our ideas of poverty have changed

How social scientists define and study poverty has changed greatly over the last 50 years.
(George Hodan/Creative Commons)

by Paul Spicker

There are times when social scientists simply get hold of the wrong end of things. When Charles Booth did his research on poverty, he was mainly interested in describing the things that people experienced; his references to the ‘poverty line’ and household budgets were a small part of a much wider study. The political criticisms of Booth’s work led to Rowntree trying to relate poverty and the standard of living to household budgets and that became the received wisdom of social policy.

The 1960s was a period when poverty was ‘rediscovered’. Like the heart of Africa, it seemed, no-one apparently knew what was there, unless of course, you counted the people who happened to live in it. The rediscovery of poverty in the UK was based on solid if pedestrian number crunching, comparing the amount of income that people had available to the level of benefits ― frequently described as “the state’s standard of poverty”, even if it wasn’t (See Abel-Smith and Townsend’s The poor and the poorest, 1965). In international circles, the most widely used ‘measure’ was the arbitrary $1 a day, since converted and updated with spurious precision into the $1.90 used in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Much of the work done in the first half of the next fifty years still focused on income, and successive researchers tried to establish a level of income that would encourage governments to be more generous to the poor. Various measures attempted to tie down poverty to an income threshold ― among them a range of economic indices, the test of “economic distance” used in the European Union (see ‘Poverty in the EC: 1975, 1980, 1985′, by O’Higgins, Jenkins and Teekens, in Analysing poverty in the European Community, 1990), Townsend’s attempt to identify relative deprivation, budget standards, or the “consensual” standard first used in Breadline Britain. Some others attempted to identify key assets. An international declaration in the 1990s (see page 17 of Breadline Europe), signed by many of the leading researchers in the field, argued that

European social scientists are critical of the unwillingness at international level to introduce a cross-country and therefore more scientific operational definition of poverty…. Poverty is primarily an income- or resource-driven concept.  It is more than having a relatively low income…. Scientific progress can be made if material deprivation is also distinguished from both social deprivation and social exclusion. In all societies, the satisfaction of individual material needs … [and] social obligations … depends predominantly on level of income and equivalent resources in kind and property…. All countries should introduce international measures of these basic concepts and take immediate steps to improve the accepted meanings, measurement and explanation of poverty, paving the way for more effective policies …

While this was going on, however, alternative approaches and understandings of poverty were being developed. There were two key influences. One was the development of alternative discourses: for example, the emphasis on entitlements and basic security emphasised in international organisations, the concept of exclusion developed in France and subsequently adopted by the EU and the UN, and forceful accounts of poverty in developing countries which emphasised the structure of power. The second was the development of a methodology for examining poverty most strongly advocated by Robert Chambers and subsequently adopted for the World Bank’s seminal studies on Voices of the Poor. Chambers was critical of accounts of poverty where “poverty becomes what has been measured”. The fundamental task, he argued, was to listen to people and to give them the authority to speak on their own behalf: he recommends that researchers sit, listen, watch, learn, unlearn, relax and ‘hand over the stick’. Those studies pointed to a range of issues such as precariousness, social isolation, gender and disempowering institutions, which conventional studies of poverty had hardly touched on.

Over the last 25 years, then, and particularly since the publication of Voices, there has been a seismic shift in the way that poverty is understood. For the best part of a century, academics working in social policy had gone off the track. Poverty is not primarily an income or resource-driven concept. It is complex and multi-dimensional; the pattern of indicators used to describe it has had to change to recognise that. Material deprivation cannot sensibly be distinguished from social deprivation. Poverty is relative to society, but it is not just relative; many of the issues the term is referring to are relational and need to be understood as a set of relationships with other people. Poverty is not being “measured”; it is being described by a wide-ranging and increasingly varied range of indicators, signposts rather than precise descriptors, along with a rich vein of qualitative recording and empowering social research. Conventional social scientists still have a little running to do to catch up with all this, but the change is well underway.

Paul Spicker is Emeritus Professor of Public Policy at Robert Gordon University. His career in research and publishing spans more than 30 years and is catalogued on his website.

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