What is poverty?


Definitions of poverty really matter. They set the standards by which we determine whether the incomes and living conditions of the poorest in society are acceptable or not. From this follow all actions to help the poorest.

What is poverty? provides resources that will help you understand different ways of measuring poverty and key developments in recent years. You can access these from the menu on the right. Below you can hear from key speakers at the second International Townsend Memorial conference on how they define poverty.

Video transcript

The PSE research uses the 'consensual', or 'perceived deprivation', method for measuring poverty. This approach sets out to determine whether there are some people who fall below the minimum acceptable standards for the society in which they live and the time at which they live. As such, it is a relative measure of poverty, though none the less distressing for those experiencing such hardships.
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)

Having established these necessities, the next step is to find out who goes without. The 'consensual' approach 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. So in the consensual approach poverty is measured in terms of:
The numbers of people whose enforced lack of necessities affects their way of living
(Mack and Lansley, 1985)

More details on how this approach is developed can be found in Consensual method.

Further reading

The Policy Press has further books and publications on this topic.


Mack, J. and Lansley, S. (1985) 'How poor is too poor? Defining poverty' in Mack, J. and Lansley, S. Poor Britain, London, George Allen & Unwin.