A few years ago on the BBC’s Today programme, John Humphrys was interviewing a leading social policy expert on the question of the definition of poverty. But surely, asked Humphrys, if you define poverty as relative, it will never be abolished? That poverty must always be with us has long been a common misconception. A leader in The Scotsman on 14 June 2013 repeats the elementary error that 'Given this is a relative, as opposed to absolute, measure, then we can say with mathematical certainty that the poor will always be with us'.
For ordinary citizens, and it appears top broadcasters and leader writers, the debate conducted mostly by academics and politicians about the nature of poverty – and especially whether it is absolute or relative – must certainly seem pretty abstract. For most people, poverty is a matter of life experience and immediate material need. As the late Malcolm Wicks MP reported, 'When poor people come to see me about these issues, they’re not worried about academic measures, they’re worried about poverty and how to get out of it.' (Wicks, 2002). It is this that may help to explain the widespread ignorance about what the ‘relativity’ of poverty really means.
Just as we don’t think of Einstein’s relativity when we see light, so we don’t think about the relativity of ‘making ends meet’ when we are finding it difficult to get by. The idea of poverty for most people is rooted in the very real concept of a minimum acceptable standard, one which for most comes from our observations of decent living in our society. We use reference groups for comparison, and what we experience is understood relative to what they experience. When pensioners on the same income levels were surveyed in the 1960s, differences in response satisfaction related to whether they were implicitly referring to their own (poorer) working lives in the depressed past or to what they observed working people were enjoying in the affluent present (Runciman, 1966).
More recent evidence from successive PSE surveys (1983, 1990, 1999 and 2012) which asked the public to choose necessities, suggests that the public take contemporary living standards as their reference point. The same studies also show that, although they may not be aware of it, the public take a relativist and generous view of poverty – they include items as necessities that are integral to contemporary lifestyles.
In this sense they line up – implicitly if not explicitly - with the official and academic definitions of poverty that are most widely used today. Take, for example, the simple definition used by the World Bank , one very similar to the original idea of relative poverty pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s by Peter Townsend:
‘Poverty’ can be said to exist in a given society when one or more persons do not attain a level of material well-being deemed to constitute a reasonable minimum by the standards of that society.
What such a minimum is can of course have different interpretations across societies. In Russia in the 1990s, for example, people continued to refer to their society’s accepted minimum standards even though only a few of them had the resources needed to achieve them (Manning and Tikhonova 2004). This shows that poverty is not, on this type of definition, only ever a minority experience. It is also perfectly possible for poverty to be abolished in any society which ensured that, however unequal, no one had fewer resources than needed to achieve that society’s minimum standards. It’s not unthinkable even if uncommon. Some of the Nordic countries have come close to it in the past.
Some of the current confusion comes from misunderstandings about the use of income inequality statistics to measure poverty. In Britain the nearest we have to an official poverty line is the 60% of the national equivalised household median incomes used in the annual poverty count from the Households Below Average Income (HBAI) series. A similar standard has been applied across the individual nations of the European Union. While such a measure has been useful for comparing levels and the ‘risk of poverty' across countries and through time, the 60% figure is essentially arbitrary (it was merely a convenient statistical compromise). It is not and never has been rooted in research evidence on what constitutes a socially acceptable minimum standard.
The evidence itself – from successive PSE studies and the related Minimum Income studies - shows that the 60% figure is too low to meet publicly determined UK minimum standards. Moreover, as the median income changes over time, so does the cut-off and hence how many households counted as being in poverty. No wonder politicians want to change it, even if only for presentational not principled reasons.
Indeed, the present government appears keen to drop the relative approach altogether and get back to something more ‘absolute’. But just as all practicable poverty measures are relative, so none can be absolute. All attempts to discover absolute poverty measures fail when translating abstractions like food, clothing and shelter into the realities of living in the north or the tropics, in England or Japan. National or local diets vary enormously; nutritionists report needs for proteins, vitamins and calories, but can’t tell us what food is customary or locally available - or affordable. No one has ever been able to say what absolute clothing needs and shelter are without relating them to local custom and environment. Every necessity you can think of can only be concretely expressed by asking the standard four questions, for what, for how long, for whom, and who says?
Since every expression of poverty is relative to something, it makes more sense whenever you hear the word to be clear what it is relative to. The only serious issue about poverty (forget the government’s current laughable pseudo-consultation) is whether the ‘who says’ question is answered by governments or by people in society. Governments will always choose politically expedient minimum standards while the public, it appears, go for liveable relative ones. Ultimately, though, there is an absolute principle at work - that only the people in any society can say what its minimum standards are.
John Veit-Wilson is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy of Northumbria University and Visiting Professor in Sociology at Newcastle University. He is vice-chair of the Child Poverty Action Group.
Manning, N. and N. Tikhonova. (Eds.) (2004), ‘Poverty and Social Exclusion in the New Russia’ Aldershot: Ashgate.
Ravallion, M. (1992). ‘Poverty Comparison: A Guide to Concepts and Methods'. Washington DC: The World Bank.
Runciman, W.G. (1966). ‘Relative Deprivation and Social Justice’ London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Wicks, M. (2002). Interview on BBC Radio 4 ‘Inside Money’ broadcast 3 August 2002.