Definition and ways of measuring poverty

Absolute definition of poverty (Rowntree)


“Having the basic needs for a healthy life” Rowntree (1901)


Five basic needs that he outlined…


  • Shelter
  • Heat
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Water



Problems with the definition…

  • People’s view of what defines someone as poor changes over time.
  • The meaning of “ health” changes over time. Another argument the term ‘healthy’ is a social construct; different societies define the word differently.
  • Using the definition in 2014 very few people are poor, according to the definition no one lives in poverty in western societies, which is obviously not the case as people still feel poor (Subjective poverty).
  • One positive of the definition is that poverty can be compared at different points in history and also across societies.


Operationalization problems

  • Basic needs are food, shelter, heat, clothing and water but he doesn’t outline the quantity neither the quality of the products. Lower social classes can obviously only afford worse quality.
  • Presumes families live on a no waste budget. Assumes Families buy food just for its nutritional value, ignoring cultural norms such as tea (which holds very little nutritional value)
  • Presumes that everyone needs the same volume of food and water when in fact people working in labour intensive jobs need more energy and nutrients. The same argument can be used for heat; older people will need more heating due to poor their pore immune systems.


Relative definition of poverty (Townsend)


“Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities, and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong. Their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary patterns, customs and activities” (Townsend 1979)


Individuals can be said to be in relative poverty when they lack the recourses to obtain the amentias that are socially acceptable within society they live.


12 specifications that Townsend believed were normal in British society…


  • A week’s holiday away from home
  • For adults -having a friend or relative to home to eat in the last 4 weeks
  • For adults – going out or visiting a friend or relative in the last 4 weeks
  • For children – having a friend to play in the last 4 weeks
  • For children – not having a party on their last birthday
  • Not going out for entertainment in the last 2 week
  • Not having fresh meat at least 4 times a week
  • Not having a cooked meal one day in a fortnight
  • Not having a cooked breakfast most days of the week
  • Not having a house with a refrigerator
  • Where the household does not usually have a Sunday joint
  • Where the household lacks the sole use of four key amenities: flush w/c, sink/washbasin, fixed bath/shower, gas/electric cooker.


Problems with the definition…

  • Using the definition poverty will always exist as long as inequality exists. So isn’t this a measure of inequality rather than a measure of poverty?
  • Cannot be used to compare poverty over time or compare different societies.


Problems with operationalization

  • Drew up the 12 specifications himself, this means that his own opinion will effect the study. His opinion on what is ‘normal’ will be affected by him being a middle class white male.
  • With only 12 specifications made it is difficult to decide who is poor and who is not.
  • Cultural habits are not included in the study, so vegetarians are likely to be classes as poor due to them not eating fresh meat 4 times a week, there was no choice to state that the decisions was a choice rather than a money issue.



Relative definition of poverty (Mack and Lansley Breadline Brittan 1993+ Poverty and social exclusion studies in 1999 and 2012)


They improved on Townsends study in a number of ways….

  • Surveyed the public to identify what items the public thought were essential, removing the expert. Items and activities thought to be necessary by 50% of more people are classified as ’ Necessities’.
  • Respondents stated when they lacked something through choice for example not eating meat due to being a vegetarian.


Problems with operationalization

  • 50% of populations have to state it’s a necessity to make it onto list, however this isn’t a majority, wouldn’t 60% be a majority?
  • Why 3 items? Why is someone considered in poverty if they lack 3 items rather than 2?


Social exclusion= A situation where an individual or a group is denied access to an area of society or social activity.


Some of the necessities that made it onto the social exclusion and poverty specifications 2012…


The public chooses items essential for survival, such as adequate food and a warm, dry home. Top of the list for adults…

  • 96% Heating to warm living areas of the home
  • 94% Damp-free home
  • 91% Two meals a day for adults


And for children…

  • 97% Warm winter coat
  • 96% Fresh fruit and veg once a day
  • 93% New, properly fitting shoes


But the public choose a range of items beyond these basic needs. These include consumer goods, such as a washing machine and a telephone. They also include social activities:

  • 90% choose ‘visiting friends/family in hospital’
  • 79% choose ‘being able to afford to attend a wedding/funeral or other such occasions’


And people also give high priority to educational and social items for children:

  • 92% choose ‘books suitable to age’
  • 92% choose ‘garden or outdoor space to play safely’
  • 88% choose ‘hobby or leisure activity’


Government measurement


“Less than 60% of the medium wage of the UK”


  • Governments use this method due to the act that it is relatively easy to lift people out of poverty who are just below the 60^% line, so they can generate positive statistics for the next general election.


Past paper questions on the topic of “defining and measuring poverty”


Explain the difference between relative poverty and absolute poverty (4 marks) January 2010


Examine what is meant by a deprivation index (2 marks) June 2010


Identify two problems with using an ‘absolute definition of poverty’ (4 marks) June 2010


Explain what is meant by social exclusion (2 marks) January 2011


Using material from item 3B and elsewhere, assess different sociological approaches to measuring the level of poverty within society (24 marks) January 2011


Suggest two criticisms of the concept of relative poverty  (4 marks) January 2012


Explain what is meant by subjective poverty (2 marks) June 2012


Examine the problems of defining and measuring poverty (24 marks) June 2013