Social Inequality – Concepts and Measures of Poverty

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Social Inequality and Difference Emma Rudd
2A Concepts and Measures of Poverty
Poverty restricts your opportunities and life chances. It is bad in itself as well as leading to other
problems such as crime, poor health and family breakdown. Poverty has always been a
controversial matter, there a major disagreements over its definition, its measurement, its extent
and its causes. One of the major lines of division is the basic choice between `absolute' or
`relative' concepts of poverty.
Concepts of Poverty
Absolute Poverty
This can be defined as a level of income which is on or below what is necessary for bare
subsistence (necessary for survival).
The poverty line itself can be determined by identifying goods and services required to
subsistence and then calculating the amount of money required to buy them. This was the
basis of the `basket of goods' approach by Seebohm Rowntree, the `basket of goods'
included essentials such as food, clothes, fuel and rent.
The absolute concept treats poverty as an objective, technical matter.
It defined poverty mainly in terms of people's physical needs.
It takes little account of the lifestyles and income enjoyed by those who are not poor. Absolute
poverty is about minimum living standards.
Relative Poverty
This approach defines poverty in terms of where people stand relative to others in the same
If individuals or families fall below the average living standards in their society, then they can
be regarded as poor.
The relative approach draws attention to subjective views and value judgements. People feel
poor if their actual living standards fall below `reasonable' expectations. These expectations
include being able to indulge in normal social activities and lifestyles.
The relative approach is a more generous measure of poverty and allows for some non
essential goods and services.
It has the advantage of recognising peoples needs and expectations
It is criticised for blurring the distinction between genuine poverty and inequality.
It is unclear exactly where the relative poverty line should be drawn.
Absolute Poverty Relative Poverty
Poverty is a technical, scientific matter. It can Poverty always involves subjective judgements.
be defined objectively by experts It is not purely a technical matter since people's
values and politics affect their views on the
Poverty is about physical needs Poverty involves social needs as well as
physical needs.
Poverty is about minimum standards Poverty is about your relative position, where
you stand in relation to others.
Measuring Poverty
How many poor people are there in Britain? The answer to that depends to some extent on the
way poverty is defined. An absolute definition will lead towards a low estimate, while a relative
definition will arrive at a higher figure
As well as deciding on a definition, there are some other issues which researchers need to

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Social Inequality and Difference Emma Rudd
Which unit of assessment is appropriate? Researchers can choose to focus on
individuals or the benefit unit (e.g. couple or lone parent with dependent children) or
households (i.e. taking into account the pooled income of all members of the household,
including working children).
The poverty line has to be tailored to fit different circumstances. For example a couple
with 6 children will need a higher income than a childless couple. So researchers have to
work out income equivalents.…read more

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Social Inequality and Difference Emma Rudd
In order to find out what is socially acceptable, Mack and Lansley surveyed a sample of just under
12000 people. Data was gathered on their lifestyles, incomes and possessions. Also, the sample
were presented with a list of 35 items and asked whether they considered these as necessary or
not. This gives a consensus picture of public opinion.…read more

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Social Inequality and Difference Emma Rudd
The social exclusion approach differs from the traditional poverty perspective in the following
It is Multidimensional
It recognises that poverty or deprivation has many dimensions and takes many different
forms. For example people can be excluded from the labour market (unemployment),
from services (poor households may have their gas and electricity disconnected) and
from social relations (socialising often requires money).
The emphasis is on Processes.…read more

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Social Inequality and Difference Emma Rudd
while social exclusion is a much broader and more complex matter of social
Cause and Effect?
It seems to imply that social exclusion is the main cause of poverty. This may well be the
case. For example racial discrimination may create higher unemployment, and hence
poverty, among ethnic minorities. But it is equally possible that poverty leads to social
exclusion (e.g. poor people are more likely to drop out of school).…read more


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