Absolute and relative poverty

A boarded up housing estate with piles of dumped rubbish

Absolute poverty refers to a level of poverty where people struggle to meet daily needs, such as food, shelter, sanitation and healthcare.

In the UK, according to Department for Work and Pensions statistics for 2019-2020, 2.4 million children were living in absolute poverty (before housing costs).

In the UK, poverty is more often defined as relative rather than absolute. Those people who are described as living in poverty have (in the main) the basics such as an adequate diet or somewhere to live.

What these people lack is sufficient income to be able to participate fully in society. People in poverty are said to be ‘socially excluded’.

Official poverty

There is no one single definition of poverty. Most official definitions use relative income to measure the extent of poverty.

The key UK government measures take 60 per cent of median income as the poverty line. A family earning less than 60% of the median household income is said to be in relative poverty.

In the 2019-20 period, the amount of earnings before a household (adjusted for family size and after housing costs deducted) was said to be in poverty was:

  • £166 a week for a single adult
  • £285 for a couple or a pensioner
  • £399 for a couple with two children
  • £279 for a lone parent with two children a couple with two children (Source: Parliament Briefing Paper, March 2021).