Poverty, noun - what's the definition?

Children on swings

The government's determination to redefine the word poverty is likely to re-ignite the once red-hot political debate as to whether poverty actually exists in Britain.

There will be many people reading this now who instinctively believe that you cannot have a breadline if everyone can afford bread. It is obvious that the UK does not suffer from the levels of squalor and starvation associated with poverty in previous centuries or less developed countries.

But the deep trepidation felt by those who campaign on behalf of the most deprived and vulnerable citizens is that in challenging the notion of "relative" rather than "absolute poverty', we fatally undermine our commitment to the poorest in our society.

Political acceptance of the concept of "relative poverty" was hard won. An influential voice in the campaign to redefine the word for the 20th Century was Professor Peter Townsend, a left-wing academic who founded the Child Poverty Action Group in 1965.

Ministers want the measure to include parents' employment and not just income

He argued that "individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when… their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average family that they are in effect excluded from the ordinary living patterns, customs, and activities."

This idea was seen by conservatives, however, as a socialist ideological attack on their values.

On 11 May 1989, John Moore, the Secretary of State for Social Security stood up to make a speech:

"We reject their claims about poverty in the UK", he said of his government's critics, arguing that absolute poverty had been abolished and that relative poverty was no more than inequality. His sentiments echoed the words of a senior civil servant who had told a Parliamentary committee the previous year: "The word poor is one the government actually disputes."

The idea of relative poverty as a measure of social exclusion, however, had taken hold - not just in Britain but also at the Council of Europe, the United Nations and the OECD. It became the yardstick to measure the success of developed countries in dealing with deprivation.

Girl playing in an alley

The politics of poverty in the UK has moved markedly with both Labour and Conservative now considering it a real and debilitating consequence of social inequality. Tony Blair walked into No 10 in 1997 promising to "eliminate child poverty" by 2020. David Cameron walked into No 10 in 2010 promising his party was "best placed to fight poverty in our country".

Gone are the days when senior British politicians argue whether relative poverty exists.

There are, though, clearly weaknesses in a measure of poverty based on a proportion of middle income levels. Many find it perverse that if a country gets poorer, the number of people categorised as poor can go down.

Child playing football near shopping trolley

The figures published today show that the previous Labour government missed its target of halving the number of children living in poverty by 2010.

In 1998 there were 3.4 million children living in households with an income of less than 60% of the median in the UK. The 2010 figures show this has fallen to 2.3 million - 600,000 short of where ministers had promised to be.

There are those who argue that we should consider it a failure but celebrate the progress made towards an obligation under the Child Poverty Act for the total eradication of child poverty in the UK.

Others, though, question how many of the 1.1 million children apparently lifted out of poverty are the result of a welfare-based conjuring trick.

In a speech this morning, the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith makes the point that the focus on a poverty line based on relative incomes can skew welfare policy.

Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith

"By this narrow measure, if you have a family who sit one pound below the poverty line you can do a magical thing," he said. "Give them one pound more, say through increased benefit payments, and you can apparently change everything - you are said to have pulled them out of poverty."

Indeed, today's poverty figures would appear to make his point. Comparing 2010/11 with the previous year, median household income has fallen. The 60% line has dropped from £259 pw to £251 pw.

Families whose income is between those two lines have technically moved out of poverty - even though they may still be struggling on exactly the same income.

It is this perverse outcome that drives the government's determination to redefine poverty - including a basket of other measures such as worklessness and drug dependency that, it is argued, give a more nuanced understanding of deprivation.

Iain Duncan Smith: "Life change" important in measuring poverty

The Child Poverty Action Group, however, is not convinced. Accepting that there is more to poverty than money, they fear the headline income measure will be downgraded and the commitment to reducing relative deprivation and social exclusion enshrined in the Child Poverty Act will be lost.

"To let the ambition of eliminating child poverty in a generation be diluted would be a monumental failure, and breach the legal commitment all parties made under the terms of the Child Poverty Act 2010," they stated in a report earlier month.

The terror is that a debate on the meaning of poverty will see, in their words, "the gains of the last decade squandered". Questions about the very existence of poverty, once the centrepiece of political debate in this country, may be asked once more.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    Poverty should not be measured simply on income as such,it should be measured on what people can afford to do,those things that are taken for granted by so many others,simple things like a trip to the cinema,a day out at a local atraction,maby even a simple weeks holiday somewhere.
    When essentials cost so much that this is not possible ,then you have poverty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    Polish-British said:
    "I think that if you have c.£800 per person you are RELATIVELY better off, if you have less than £400 per person for me it's poverty line."

    So a household with 2 adults and 6 children, with less than £3,200 (per month?) is on the poverty line, huh? Is that before tax, or after??

    My point is, "per person" is a poor basis for any poverty calculation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    Its sad that Labour and Conservative governments who went to public schools lack skills in simple maths. The measure of child poverty against median income is incorrect. The poorest family in the uk could be earning 799999, middle class 2 million and the rich 3 million. Guess whose poor by the median measure? If government uses this as a measure they will never eliminate child poverty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    The torys are making this country poorer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    We have been on, or near to the 'bread line' for most of out lives, I have always been in manual work, retiring when I was 67,. Now at 72 years old we are having to sell or property and downsize due to the fact that where we live everything you touch is almost out of reach. We are eating into our small savings to survive. Bankers have ruined our lives with their greed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    I think one of the most telling things about this debate is how little interest it stirs up. It's been live for the better part of 24-hours now, but got only 250 odd comments. Other HYS topics can get 1,000 posts in the first hour.

    If you were a policy maker in Downing Street, what would this tell you? That few people, rich or poor, have a strong opinion about the child poverty label?

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    It's more based on equality? Poverty in other countires like India and pleaces like Africa have far more severe Poverty, if you were to compare it with the so called poverty in UK

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    248 Polish-British

    This a very good point.

    In a decent & wealthy society, home ownership should be a reasonable possibility for almost all. Perhaps, poverty should be defined in terms of the ratio of annual income to average house price.

    At least, we might realise that house price bubbles actually make us poorer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    Of course there is poverty in the UK. you need just much more money to buy a relatively decent property to live in with a family, so you need more money to avoid being labelled as one in poverty. You need less money in many developing countries to actually have even higher standard of living, that's why poverty border is relative as it's relative to one in other countries.< £400 is r. UKpoverty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    Whether you are poor or richer should be based on how much income per person in the household you have got. I think that if you have c.£800 per person you are RELATIVELY better off, if you have less than £400 per person for me it's poverty line. And comparing poverty in western world with poverty in the poorest countries in Africa or Asia doesn't make much sense.Poverty is part of capitalism

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    It is true in deprived areas there is poor money management. The Big TV, consumer goods you see are on the weekly payments that are affordable but they will never pay off.

    The real poor are the people caught in the grey area where they are just under the line of getting benefits but they are working. They are the ones that find it hard as they earn little, but no entitlement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    Poverty of mind is a scourge of this land.

    From tender years, tribal indoctrination, with prejudices, and mantras of untruth, replaces a raising in respect for reason and learning.

    Curiosity is extinguished and logic suspended.

    An infantile, cartoon version of reality, built of caricatures, is carried in the mind.

    The white British tribes are as afflicted by this as any other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    I have to agree with Guardian on this issue.

    The government want to redefine poverty because this is one of the few areas where labour made progress and can't accept this finding.

    The median is a crude measure but it doesn't mean people aren't poor and it highlights intrinsic problems when the rich get richer as a % when doing nothing over an industrious poor person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    I love the comments claiming no one dies of hunger in this country therefore we don't need a benefits system. This is a akin to claiming vaccination is pointless as no one gets TB.

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    IDS really is quite loathsome, a throw back to the Dickensian era when the response to poverty was "Are there no Workhouses".

    All these sneering far right tories looking down on people struggling to survive on low incomes don't have a clue about the real world.

    No doubt the Daily Mail will run some more distorted stories about scrounging asylum seekers though to make him seem almost moderate!

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    The Coalition succeed to divide the nation - turning one section of society against another. Millionaire 'suits' pontificate the misery of others and decide that poverty is an incorrect term, because there are no outside toilets any more, or because there are 'Pound Shops' to accommodate the ones on a very low income. If families can buy bread, milk and potatoes, they are not poor - priceless!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Now I am at the wrong side of 50. Finding employment has been really difficult, but I managed last year to find a part time temporary post, that has been extended. Sadly, the Coalition changed the tax credit rules and the help I was receiving came to an end in April. I thought Iain Duncan Smith wanted to 'make work pay'? We don't need Iain D. Smith to preach about work ethic - stop cutting jobs!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    Poverty means having to leave your home, when you owe two weeks rent (1970s). Poverty means having your electricity cut off because the bill is too high and the heating and water is powered by electricity (1970s). Poverty is when you have to count how many slices of bread is left to go round the family - factoring in tea time. School dinners were real nutritional meals back then, thankfully!

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    Not long ago an HYS article on tax levels brewed up a storm and one person said they found it difficult to live on an income of £150,000 p.a. He/she also threatened(?) to leave the country should the tax burden not swing his/her way.
    We all have differing opinions on poverty & living standards but unfortunately we are also too prepared to live in our own cocoons. Understanding plight is the key.

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    Since you like me a lot - is there any secret you want to know?


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