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. But here, 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)
This approach, first developed in the 1983 Breadline Britain survey, has been subsequently used and further developed in the 1990 Breadline Britain, the 1999 Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, the 2002/3 Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland surveys and in the latest 2012 Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK research (PSE:UK 2012).
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. Only those items seen as a necessity by a majority of the population are classed as a 'necessity'.
The latest 2012 Poverty and Social Exclusion research project includes 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. The PSE reports analysing the results of the 2012 necessities survey can be found here and tables 1.1 to 1.6 in Explore the Data provide details on the 2012 survey results and on trends in attitudes to necessities in Britain and the UK. 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. Only those who go without necessities because they can’t afford them are seen as having an ‘enforced lack of necessities’. This provides a measure of relative deprivation that combines the concept of consensually agreed necessities with lack of income. The more necessities a household is forced to do without, the more they are deprived.
Tables 2.1 to 2.7 in Explore the Data provide details of the 2012 survey findings on those who cannot afford the 2012 necessities and comparisons with earlier surveys. The PSE report on the 2012 findings on deprivation can be found in The Impoverishment of the UK and an overview can be found under Key Findings.
To identify the level of multiple deprivation that can be seen as being in overall deprivation poverty, a ‘poverty threshold’ is calculated. Using a range of sequential statistical procedures, the number of necessities a a household lacks because they cannot afford the item (that is the level of deprivation) is related to the incomes of households, adjusted to take into account household composition and size (household equivalised income). 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. For comparisons of multiple deprivation over time, an enforced lack of three or more necessities is taken as a measure of 'deprivation poverty'. Further analysis of this group lacking three or more necessities finds that they are much more likely than others to suffer from other disadvantages associated with poverty, such as poor health, financial problems and poor mental health and much more likely to see themselves as poor (see table 2.4 in Explore the Data). This level of deprivation has an all-pervasive impact on people's lives. Taking an enforced lack of three or more necessities (as defined at the time of the survey), there has been a rise in 'deprivation poverty' over the last thirty years: from 14% in 1983, 21% in 1990, 24% in 1999 to 33% in 2012 (see Past UK research for further details). This is a measure of relative deprivation with the necessities being defined at the time of each survey and therefore changing over time.
For each necessity, those who lack that item because they cannot afford it (as opposed to choosing not to have that item) are, not surprisingly, heavily concentrated among those on lower incomes. Nevertheless, for some of the necessities there there is a drift up the income scale with some on higher incomes suffering an ‘enforced lack' of that necessity. This results in there bing some who have an enforced lack three or more necessities who are in households on higher incomes. There are good reasons why those on similar incomes levels have different standards of living; some of those on higher incomes will have been in the recent past on low incomes and will not have built up as high a standard of living as those who have been on higher incomes for a long period of time and may be therefore struggling to make ends meet. Others may have higher levels of debt, based on past spending decisions.
The PSE Britain 1999 survey developed a measure of those in poverty (the 'PSE poor') that combined high deprivation and low income: in effect, those with high incomes are identified and then deducted from the overall poverty count. To do this, for each household size and type, an optimal threshold for both deprivation and income is identified and four groups are seperated out: those 'in poverty', those 'rising out of poverty', those 'vulnerable to poverty' and the 'not poor'. The 2012 PSE research has developed this further and on this combined deprivation/income basis, in 2012, 22% of people were living in 'PSE poverty' (that is they had high deprivation and low income) while 11% were either 'rising' out of poverty or 'vulnerable' to poverty. Details on how the PSE poverty line is produced can be found here and full details of the 2012 research project an be found under PSE research.
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 World).
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: 5 April, 2017