Perceived necessities of life ‘strikingly consistent’

'Striking' consistency is found in the things that different groups of people perceive to be the 'necessities of life' in the UK today, according to a new study. The working paper – part of the Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK project – used focus groups to examine people's perceptions of poverty, social exclusion and living standards.

Key findings

  • There was general or widespread agreement (consensus) on the necessities of life in the UK today: the consistency of responses across different groups of people (defined by income, household type and ethnicity) was 'striking'.
  • Some established indicators of deprivation – for example, those associated with adequate diet, clothing and family life – may be becoming less important in shaping people’s perceptions of necessities.
  • In identifying an optimal poverty threshold, it is important to consider items close to the threshold between those viewed as ‘necessities’ and ‘desirable’. Items identified as ‘necessities’ on the basis of a majority verdict, and those identified as ‘desirable but non-essential’, are likely to prove useful discriminators of poverty status.
  • People's own suggestions concerning necessities often indicated a strong consensus in favour of consumer electronics and mobile communication technologies, reflecting wider technological and social changes. They also often focused in various ways on: security (including financial security); housing quality; and child well-being.
  • For many participants the concept of social exclusion remained an abstract idea rather than being experienced as a ‘lived reality’ in the same way as poverty.
  • Views differed quite widely on how social exclusion is best understood and measured. Notions of belonging and being ‘left out’ or ‘shut out’ were important themes. These were accompanied by narratives focusing on injustices arising from class-based inequalities and discrimination based on age, gender, ethnicity and disability. As such, they did not accord with dominant constructions of ‘the socially excluded’ in terms of worklessness and benefit dependency within contemporary policy debates.
  • The following factors were agreed to be desirable in avoiding social exclusion: home ownership, access to information and good-quality local services, social contact and support, personal confidence and inter-personal skills, good educational provision, good career opportunities, rewarding or socially valued work, full citizenship, an ability to influence local decisions, good physical and mental health, good environmental quality, and freedom from violence, harassment and discrimination.
  • There were some important general issues relating to definitions and methodology. For some people the term ‘necessity’ was itself problematic, insofar as they frequently understood this to refer to items and activities that households cannot do without, rather than things they should not have to do without. People's ability to make confident decisions on these items depended partly on contextual information. There were also questions about the extent to which the availability of public goods and services was important in shaping participants’ perceptions.

The research informed the design of a survey module on public perceptions of necessities delivered as part of the Office for National Statistics Opinions survey. It also informed the design of the main-stage Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey conducted separately in Britain and Northern Ireland in summer 2012.

Source: Eldin Fahmy, Simon Pemberton and Eileen Sutton, Public Perceptions of Poverty and Social Exclusion: Final Report on Focus Group Findings, Working Paper (Analysis Series) 3, Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK
Link: Paper

Category: