Breadline Britain: A New Look At Poverty

This series on the book ‘Breadline Britain: The Rise of Mass Poverty’ will look at how poverty in the UK is measured, how Government policies are addressing poverty and the report’s suggestions for tackling the poverty epidemic. To refer to the research on which the book was based, you can go to

How do you define poverty? Is it having nothing, or not enough to live on, or not enough to live well? It’s unclear from the start. Some might say they know poverty when they see it, but like homelessness poverty can be hidden from view. An uncomfortable secret that many don’t really want to acknowledge, people can structure their lives so it looks like they’re getting by, when actually they’re living hand to mouth without any security for the future.

Part of the problem is that poverty can be seen in absolute or relative terms. Absolute poverty is characterised by a lack of access to basic necessities: food and safe drinking water, education, sanitation, shelter. It means living on less than $1.25 or 80p a day, according to estimates by the World Bank. By this measure, 96% of those in extreme poverty live in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and the Asia-Pacific.

On the other hand, relative poverty compares levels of deprivation within a particular society. While most people in the UK have higher living standards than those facing absolute poverty, there is pervasive relative inequality of income and living standards: what some people can afford, many can’t. The importance of relative poverty has been contested and debated. Why should we worry about relative poverty, some would say, if the standard of living for most people in the UK is substantially higher than the world’s poorest?

But our ideas of ‘need’ and ‘scarcity’ are in part socially influenced. We would readily acknowledge that clean water, shelter and medication are basic necessities for survival everywhere. But most people in the UK would also admit that other things with social and personal value are necessities in our society. This is because living in the UK without these things would exclude you from our customary way of life. People without access to socially accepted living standards can often feel shame or the need to ‘keep up appearances’. Economic thinkers from Adam Smith to Karl Marx have argued that society plays a part in creating our needs and desires, so we have to measure those needs by the society we live in.

Whether we are considering relative or absolute poverty, there are broadly two ways of measuring it: based on income or actual living standards. Based on income, few people in the UK would meet the absolute standard of poverty, which is living on less than 80p a day (Unless they’ve had their benefits sanctioned). Using income to measure relative poverty has limitations: if the measure is based on net household incomes, it doesn’t take into account other financial resources, changing costs of living or debt repayments. Also, if income is measured before the deduction of housing costs, then the soaring level of house prices will mean that levels of poverty will be underestimated.

Income based measures of poverty are indirect, and the cut off point for poverty can be arbitrary. Just how far does your income have to be from the average to be considered poor? But more direct measures of living standards could also be criticised as arbitrary. What is the basis on which needs or living standards are determined? ‘Breadline Britain’, a thirty year study spanning from 1983 to 2013 and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council sought to answer this question in a way never before attempted. Instead of picking and choosing living standards based on what was common or typical of the public, a nationally representative sample of the UK was asked to consider thirty five measures of living standards and decide which were ‘necessary and which all people should be able to afford and should not have to do without’ and which were ‘desirable but not necessary’. Twenty six of the thirty five items were defined as necessities by the majority of respondents. These items included the need for adequate heating and a home free from damp, two meals a day, the ability to visit family and friends in hospital, and a washing machine. A survey was then conducted to find out how many people are able to afford these necessities. The study was first conducted in 1983, then replicated in 1990, 1999 and 2012. Items on the list of necessities changed based on changing public perceptions and priorities. For example, the need to afford fresh fruit and vegetables was added to the list in 1990, while the need to repair or replace electrical goods was added to the 1999 list. Other items have dropped out of the list in recent times, for example the need to replace old or worn out clothes with new clothes. Also, in 1999 and 2012 a specific list for children was created, which included items such as the need for a warm winter coat, new, properly fitting shoes, and a place to play outside safely.

The study found a strong consensus across social and income groups, gender, education levels and ethnicity groups. Whatever background or walk of life you come from, you will most likely agree with the items that appear on the list. Also, importantly, people across the political spectrum agree. Whether you support the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, you will agree that what is on the list counts as a necessity. This consensual method of determining poverty is an improvement over other methods because it grounds the definition of poverty in the actual public perceptions of need and deprivation. For this reason, the study carries social and political weight. Those who dispute that these items really are indicators of poverty are at odds with public opinion. This is the closest we have to a democratic account of poverty, which is attuned to the time and place in which we live.

A telling fact about these studies is the way in which items tend to cluster. Homes that are not properly heated tend to contain damp. Inadequate housing is linked to poor health, which is both a cause and consequence of poverty. For those who cannot afford three or more of the necessities listed, 45% have their health affected by lack of money, 40% have three or more financial problems, and 25% say they feel poor all the time. This suggests that being unable to afford three or more items on the list is the difference between ‘deprivation’ and poverty. If we look at how many people qualify as experiencing poverty given this measure, the percentage has steadily increased from 15% in 1983 to 30% in 2012. Over 50% of people in the UK are unable to afford at least one of the items on the list.

In the UK, poverty is a hidden epidemic. Despite rising living standards over time, too many people don’t meet what we, here and now, consider an adequate standard of living. As housing and living costs rise and the gap between the highest and lowest incomes widens, more and more people find that they cannot afford to put aside even a small amount for the future. More and more people find themselves spending what they have on survival rather than social pursuits or personal improvement. The number of people relying on pawnbrokers, moneylenders and payday loans has increased dramatically since the 1990s. This is the reality of people living in the UK today.

In the next blog of this series, we will be looking at the theories behind poverty that influence policymaking.

Alex Charlton