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Problems in Defining Poverty

Title: Relief of poverty “is widely perceived to be the central aim of the social security system. With poverty itself being such a complex phenomenon, it is hardly surprising that differing approaches have been adopted to its definition and measurement”.

(Neville Harris: “Social Security and Society” in Harris: “Social Security Law in Context” p.41)



Poverty is indeed a complex concept and phenomenon, and its definition is the subject of considerable academic and social polemic. It is certainly true that there is no single, universally accepted definition of poverty. In point of fact multifarious definitions of poverty are available in the United Kingdom and from many multilateral and international organisations. One relatively uncontroversial observation that can be made is that modern definitions of poverty have evolved away from conceptions grounded on a paucity of the physical necessities of life and concentrate more on relative and social notions of the state.

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The Definition of Measurement of Poverty: Competing Perspectives

Given the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union and the sovereignty of EU law among its 25 Member States comprising around 460 million citizens it is submitted that as good a place as any to start is the EU definition of poverty. Throughout the 1990s the definition endorsed by the EU was:

“an income of less than half the EU average”[1]

This figure was £150 a week in 1993, and by this objective definition, around 50 million citizens were deemed to be living in poverty in the EU in 1993. However, in recent years the EU has expanded to embrace a number of central and eastern European states which are significantly poorer than its more established western European Member States and partly as a consequence the EU definition of poverty has changed to the following:

‘Persons, families and groups of persons whose resources (material, cultural and social) are so limited as to exclude them from the minimum acceptable way of life in the Member State to which they belong’.[2]

This is clearly a more relative measure of poverty, acknowledging that poverty should not merely be measured on financial criteria but that the practical exclusion of those individuals and groups living in poverty from normal patterns of living, activities and customs should also be taken into account.

There is therefore an important distinction between absolute and relative concepts of poverty. Absolute poverty relates to a state in which individuals do not possess the items necessary for the sustenance of life, including shelter, clothing and food. In work published at the turn of the last century Rowntree stipulated that a so-called “poverty line” should be set on the basis of minimum needs.[3] Whereas in 1995 the United Nations Copenhagen Declaration[4] defined absolute poverty in the following terms:

“a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to social services.”

On the other hand, relative poverty is typically defined as the inability of an individual to engage and participate fully in cultural social and economic terms in the society in which they live. In simple terms relative poverty is therefore based on a comparison between poor individuals and other more fortunate members of society. Townsend has adopted this definition of poverty, stating that it constitutes:

“the absence or inadequacy of those diets, amenities, standards, services and activities which are common or customary in society.”[5]

In the United Kingdom poverty is measured in a variety of different ways and by different programmes.. These include: the National Plan on Social Exclusion[6], which was implemented after agreement at the 2000 Lisbon summit of the European Council to address poverty and social exclusion; the Households Below Average Income[7] statistical analysis, which applies a threshold of 60% of median income as a proxy to draw the poverty line; and the Opportunity For All[8] monitoring and review programme, which concentrates on assessing progress towards a fairer and more inclusive society.

The United Kingdom Department of Work and Pensions[9] is engaged in an ongoing review of the formula and strategy it employs to measure income poverty. The current thinking is that the best approach would be a tripartite assessment centred on absolute low income, relative low income and material deprivation and low income combined.[10]

A great many commentators in the field of sociology have criticised the notion of an absolute definition of poverty.[11] It has been argued that to adopt a general or global definition would be to fail to take account of the crucial socio-economic differentials that distinguish local communities, regions, and nation states. It is submitted that there is little doubt that relative definitions of poverty are now supported by the majority of sociologists.. Two arguments are typically invoked to support this line.

First, it is contended that poverty is not a fixed concept but one that can only be properly comprehended and defined in the general socio-economic environment of the particular society in which individuals live. This means that an individual will be classed as in poverty by reference only to the living standards of those around him or her. However, this may be a pregnable position, given that by implication the “poor” in any given society may be defined by the “rich” and this may result in anomalies. It may be incongruous or inappropriate (in particular in the context of global poverty) to contend that a family that does not possess two cars, a DVD player, satellite TV and a computer with internet access should necessarily be defined as “in poverty” merely because those possessions are norms within the favoured society in question.

Second, relative poverty is deemed an appropriate measure because individual societies possess a distinct and unique set of cultural norms and values. Arguably this contention is stronger because it seems appropriate that any definition poverty should take account of the sets of expectations, freedoms and choices that individuals have in the society of which they are a member. Cultural aspects of relative poverty focus on the ideal that all members of a society should be capable of sharing in the goods and services available and fundamental to that society and both engaging with and fully participating in the salient institutions of that society. On this basis, whereas the lack of a telephone might not be seen as putting an Ethiopian family into poverty, an old age pensioner living by herself in the United Kingdom might be deemed to be living in poverty if she does not possess such an instrument which is fundamental to life in our society.

In the influential and authoritative study Poverty in the United Kingdom, Townsend argued:

“Poverty can be defined objectively and applied consistently only in terms of the concept of relative deprivation… Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the type 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 living patterns, customs or activities.”[12]

It appears therefore that the relativist approach is in the ascendancy, although this means that there can be no such thing as a clear poverty line, but rather a series of lines drawn in different contexts for different reasons.

Concluding Comments

In conclusion it is submitted that poverty, however it is ultimately defined or measured, is an inevitable by-product of the capitalist society in which we live, and which now proliferates in the Western World. Capitalism depends on a division between “haves” and “have nots” and however poverty is measured or defined it is most unlikely that it will ever be eradicated, given that the profit-motive which drives the commercial motor of society is dependent on its existence as a baseline for endeavour. In particular, if a relative concept of poverty because entrenched and sovereign, we will never rid ourselves of the state, because some faction of society will always be disadvantaged in comparison to the most favoured.

The first part of the title to this work states that: “Relief of poverty “is widely perceived to be the central aim of the social security system…”. This is probably true but the relief offered is largely analgesic only, providing basic painkilling for the symptoms of poverty but not directly addressing the root causes of poverty itself. The second part of the title to this work states: “With poverty itself being such a complex phenomenon, it is hardly surprising that differing approaches have been adopted to its definition and measurement”. This is also true and can be explained by the fact that so many different agencies and policies, regional, national and international, are directed at tackling poverty for different reasons, from different perspectives and with different objectives..[13] Given the vast disparity that exists within society on a global but even on the national stage, it is hard to envisage a workable all-encompassing definition of poverty that would do justice to every context and every disadvantaged individual.. Consequently, it is likely and probably desirable that multiple definitions of poverty will continue to co-exist for the foreseeable future.



Tiscali Reference Encyclopaediahttp://www.tiscali.co.uk/reference/encyclopaedia/hutchinson/m0021818.html

Rowntree BS, “Poverty: A Study of Town Life”, (1901) Longman.

United Nations, 1995, The Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action, UN.

Townsend P., Poverty in the United Kingdom, (1979) Penguin.

Department of Work and Pensions, National Plan on Social Exclusionhttp://www.dwp..gov.uk/publications/dwp/2003/nap/

Department of Work and Pensions, Households Below Average Incomehttp://www.dwp..gov.uk/asd/hbai.asp

Department of Work and Pensions, Opportunity For Allhttp://www.dwp.gov.uk/ofa/

Veit-Wilson, J (1987), Consensual Approaches to Poverty Lines and Social SecurityJournal of Social Policy, 16(2), pp.183-211

Muffels, R, Berghman J and Dirven, H (1992), A Multi-Method Approach to Monitor the Evolution of PovertyJournal of European Social Policy, 2(3), pp.193-213.


[1] http://www.tiscali.co.uk/reference/encyclopaedia/hutchinson/m0021818.html.

[2] See: http://www.childreninwales.org.uk/2157.html.

[3] Rowntree BS, “Poverty: A Study of Town Life”, (1901) Longman.

[4] United Nations, 1995, The Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action, UN.

[5] Townsend P., Poverty in the United Kingdom, (1979) Penguin.

[6] See: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/publications/dwp/2003/nap/

[7] See: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/asd/hbai.asp.

[8] See: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/ofa/.

[9] See: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/.

[10] It is proposed that each of the measurements should be on a before housing cost basis.

[11] See inter alia: Veit-Wilson, J (1987), Consensual Approaches to Poverty Lines and Social Security. Journal of Social Policy, 16(2), pp.183-211.

[12] Townsend P., Poverty in the United Kingdom, 1979, p31

[13] See for an insightful commentary and analysis: Muffels, R, Berghman J and Dirven, H (1992), A Multi-Method Approach to Monitor the Evolution of PovertyJournal of European Social Policy, 2(3), pp.193-213.


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