Consensual method

Joanna Mack

The consensual or ‘perceived deprivation’ approach to measuring poverty follows the deprivation approach to measuring poverty by looking at direct measures of living standards rather than indirect income measures (see Deprivation and poverty). But in this approach, deprivation is seen in terms of an enforced lack of ‘necessities’ as determined by public opinion.

The 1983 Breadline Britain study pioneered this ‘consensual’ approach to measuring poverty by investigating, for the first time ever, the public’s perceptions of minimum needs:

This study tackles the question ‘how poor is too poor?’ by identifying the minimum acceptable way of life for Britain in the 1980s. Those who have no choice but to fall below this minimum level can be said to be ‘in poverty’. This concept is developed in terms of those who have an enforced lack of socially perceived necessities. This means that the ‘necessities’ of life are identified by public opinion and not by, on the one hand, the views of experts or, on the other hand, the norms of behaviour per se.

(Mack and Lansley, 1985)

The ‘consensual’ approach also introduced an allowance for choice, and only those who lack necessities through lack of income and resources are included among those seen as deprived. This approach provides direct measures of deprivation and enables the extent of deprivation among different groups in society to be examined. Poverty is where these deprivations impact on a person’s whole way of life and is measured in terms of:

The numbers of people whose enforced lack of necessities affects their way of living

(Mack and Lansley, 1985)

So in the consensual approach, the first step is to test various items from a wide range of aspects that make up our standard of living to see which items most people see to be ‘necessities’ – something which everyone should be able to afford and which no one should have to do without. The items tested cover both material and social aspects of life, including food, clothing, health, housing, household goods, personal possessions, relations with family and friends, social and leisure activities, savings and financial security. The current PSE research project is again based around a detailed survey to find out what items are seen as necessities in the UK today, looking both at items previously tested and at new items that reflect recent changes to our way of life. PSE: UK 2012 provides details on the development of the latest necessities survey and the results as they come in. And in the necessities survey on the website you can participate and give your views on what is a necessity.

Having identified publicly perceived necessities, the consensual method proceeds to find out who lacks these necessities through a large-scale survey of living standards. In this approach, individual lifestyle choices are allowed for by asking people whether they lack necessities because they can’t afford them or whether they lack the necessities from choice. Those who go without necessities because they can’t afford them are seen as having an ‘enforced lack of necessities’. From this you can examine the living standards for all groups in society in terms of their ‘enforced lack of necessities’. This provides a comprehensive measure of relative deprivation – the more necessities a household is forced to do without, the more they are deprived.

A ‘poverty threshold’ is then calculated. Using a range of sequential statistical procedures, the number of necessities lacking in a household (excluding those lacked through choice) is related to the incomes of households, adjusted to take into account household composition and size (household equivalised income). While only those who lack a necessity because they can’t afford it are included, there is, nevertheless, a drift up the income scale of those who have an ‘enforced lack of a necessity’. There are good reasons for this; people who have been on low incomes and are now on higher incomes will not have as high a standard of living as those who have been on similar incomes for a long period of time.

The procedure is designed to find the level of deprivation that maximises the differences between the ‘poor’ and the ‘not poor’, and minimise the differences within these groups. In the studies undertaken to date, a clear separation between ‘poor’ households and ‘not poor’ households has been found to fall at the lack of between two and three necessities for every type of household (see Past UK research).

There will still be a few households on higher incomes that lack this level of necessities. This could be because their income has only recently increased or it could be because of particular spending decisions. The final stage of the consensual method was developed by the PSE Britain 1999 survey: for each household size and type lacking the number of necessities identified through the procedures above, those with high incomes are identified and then deducted from the overall poverty count.

The consensual method uses therefore both a lack of consensually agreed necessities and a low income to identify a group who are living below acceptable standards. An examination of those within this ‘poor’ group finds that these households are suffering multiple deprivation, which affects their whole way of life – they can be seen to be living in ‘poverty’.

The consensual approach was developed through four major surveys:

  • 1983 Breadline Britain Survey
  • 1990 Breadline Britain Survey of Britain
  • 1999 Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey
  • 2002 Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland

The Poverty and Social Exclusion UK research further extends this work through two surveys: one on perceptions of necessities and one on living standards. These surveys will take place in the United Kingdom in 2012.

Theoretical underpinning

The development of the theoretical underpinning of this approach to poverty measurement through the Breadline Britain and PSE surveys can be found in:

  • How poor is too poor? Defining poverty’ by Joanna Mack (Poor Britain, Mack and Lansley, 1985). In this chapter, Mack sets out the ‘consensual’ approach to poverty and its academic underpinning. The 1983 Breadline Britain survey (reported in Poor Britain) pioneered the use of publicly perceived necessities to identify a ‘consensus’ on what minimum living standards should be. The indicators tested, following Townsend and others, included social as well as material aspects of living. But, unlike previous approaches, the items identified as necessities were chosen by majority public opinion and not by, on the one hand, the views of experts or, on the other hand, norms of behaviour. The survey also introduced the concept of choice: only those who were deprived of these necessities through lack of money rather than choice were included. Poverty was thus defined as ‘an enforced lack of socially perceived necessities’.

  • In ‘Measuring poverty’, Chapter 1 of Breadline Britain in the 1990s (Gordon and Pantazis, 1997). The authors set out a more rigorous approach to analysing the relationship between deprivation (as identified by an enforced lack of socially perceived necessities) and poverty thresholds. This extract examines first the reliability of the necessity questions tested as indicators of deprivation and then the requirements for the identification of a poverty threshold.

  • The concept and measurement of poverty’ by David Gordon (Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, Pantazis et al., 2006). Gordon uses the improved data collected on income and resources in the Poverty and Social Exclusion survey to develop new ways to compare income in different households (the PSE, budget standards based, equivalence scale). He explores the measurement of an ‘objective’ poverty threshold that identifies a level of income that would cause a household to suffer multiple deprivations if it was dependent on this income for an appreciable length of time.

  • Bare necessities: poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland’ by Paddy Hillyard et al. (2003). In Chapters 2 and 3 of this report, the authors outline the development of the consensual approach, how it relates to other approaches to measuring poverty, and how they implemented the approach in this study.

  • 'Breadline Britain - the rise of mass poverty' by Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack (2015). Lanslye and Mack set out a definition of 'deprivation poverty' using those who cannot afford three or more items and activities seen by a majority of people to be necessities.


Using the concept of necessities as ‘consensual’ deprivation indicators has been influential in both academic research and in setting government targets. In the UK, the Department of Work and Pensions has funded various studies that draw on the PSE studies to develop indicators of deprivation for inclusion in the Family Resources Survey (see Developing Deprivation Questions for the Family Resources Survey, Working Paper Number 13 and Measuring Material Deprivation Among Older People: Methodological Study to Revise the Family Resources Survey Questions, Working Paper Number 54, in attachments below).

Various deprivation indicators have also been incorporated into:

  • new official UK measurement of child poverty
  • the Families and Children Survey (FACS)
  • EU measurements, especially in the EU(SILC)
  • UN definitions and measurement of poverty (Rio Group, 2006).

Anti-poverty strategy in Ireland has also made use of information on necessities to measure progress.

This ‘consensual’ approach is now widely used in poverty research internationally, and poverty and social exclusion style surveys have been undertaken in a wide range of countries (see International research).

Critiques and adaptations

There have been a number of critiques of the consensual method.

Consensual Approaches to the Definition of Poverty: Towards an Alternative Methodology’ by Robert Walker (Journal of Social Policy, 16, 2, 213-225, 1987) critiques approaches to the consensual method that are primarily reliant on survey methodology. Walker argues for alternative methods baded on the use of qualitative techniques which would first explore consensus on the definition of poverty and then, if approriate, seek directly to determine a socially approved budget standard. This alternative approach was subsequently developed in the methodology currently used by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's Minimum Income Standards project (see Minimum budget standards).

Adapting the consensual definition of poverty’ by Bjørn Halleröd, Jonathan Bradshaw and Hilary Holmes (from Breadline Britain in the 1990s, Gordon and Pantazis, 1997) questions the decision to use a simple majority (over 50 per cent) as the basis for deciding which items are necessities. The authors examine the limitations of this majority approach; in particular, in relation to any lack of homogeneity of views among different groups in the population at large and in relation to any individual’s view of necessities and their consumption patterns. They proposed using a proportional deprivation index rather than the majority necessities index used by the Breadline Britain and PSE studies. See also: A New Approach to the Direct Consensual Measurement of Poverty (Halleröd, 1994).

Other critiques emphasise a concern that any method that identifies ‘the truly poor’ ends up reducing all their field of study to the consequences of a low level of current income and minimises the impact on deprivation of other sources of welfare, in particular publicly provided welfare. See, for example, A Typology of Poverty Measurement Methods by Julio Boltvinik.

The fundamental idea behind the consensual method – that what constitutes a minimum acceptable way of life should be established by reference to the views of members of that society – has been developed in a different direction by the ‘Consensual Budget Standard’ approach. 


Boltvinik, J. (undated) A Typology of Poverty Measurement Methods, Mexico.
Gordon, D. (2006) ‘The concept and measurement of poverty’ in Pantazis, C., Gordon, D. and Levitas, R. Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, Bristol, The Policy Press.
Gordon, D. and Pantazis, C. (1997) ‘Measuring poverty’ in Gordon, D. and Pantazis, C. Breadline Britain in the 1990s, Aldershot, Ashgate.
Halleröd, B. (1994) A New Approach to the Direct Consensual Measurement of Poverty, New South Wales, Social Policy Research Centre.
Halleröd, B., Bradshaw, J. and Holmes, H. (1997) ‘Adapting the consensual definition of poverty’ in Gordon, D. and Pantazis, C. Breadline Britain in the 1990s, Aldershot, Ashgate.
Hillyard P., Kelly, G., McLaughlin, E., Patsios, D. and Tomlinson, M. (2003) Bare Necessities: Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland, Belfast, Democratic Dialogue.
Mack, J. (1985) ‘How poor is too poor? Defining poverty’ in Mack, J. and Lansley, S. Poor Britain, London, George Allen & Unwin.
McKay, S. and Collard, S. (2003) Developing Deprivation Questions for the Family Resources, Working Paper Number 13, London, Department of Work and Pensions.
McKay, S. (2008) Measuring Material Deprivation among Older People: Methodological Study to Revise the Family Resources Survey Questions, Working Paper Number 54, London, Department of Work and Pensions.


Last updated: 21 January, 2016

Publication date: 
Nov 16 2011