Putting poverty into perspective
by Matt Barnes
Poverty is in the spotlight again as one of the factors linked with the recent rioting in Britain's towns and cities. But what does poverty look like in the UK at the start of the 21st century? We're pleased to announce that in collaboration with Demos, we’ve recently won funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to conduct a significant and ambitious programme of work that will produce a new measure of poverty.
Over time, poverty in the UK has been defined and talked about differently by the various political traditions – but overwhelmingly the focus has been on using income to measure poverty. We know, from surveys such as the Family Resources Survey, that around a fifth of the UK population live in households below the 60 per cent median low-income threshold. This is the official 'poverty' measure and equates to about £250 per week for a couple with no children (before they’ve paid their housing costs).
This ‘relative’ approach to measuring poverty is useful for seeing how the poorest members of society are doing in relation to others. However, the criticisms of an income-based poverty measure are well established. Such a measure doesn't capture the lived experience of poverty in all its complexity, particularly the interactions between people’s debts, financial worries, housing problems and neighbourhood deprivation. Poverty is also linked to educational, health and social opportunities and for many it’s the cumulative experience of poverty which has the greatest impact on their quality of life.
A predominantly income-based definition of poverty has an additional weakness – it is poorly understood by the public and policy makers. As research by Demos demonstrates, a description of having “below 60 per cent of median income” cannot be translated into real life circumstances or visualised. In short, no one (not even those experiencing it) knows what having less than 60per cent of median income “looks like” in real life terms.
Our project is about understanding and identifying the different combinations of economic problems that people in poverty face - and creating measures that reflect these experiences. These new measures will be more recognisable to the public, including people living in poverty themselves, and enable better informed policy making.
The research that underpins this new poverty measure will combine statistical analysis of the new Understanding Society data set (led by myself), with extensive qualitative work with those in poverty and practitioners at a local level (led by my colleague Gareth Morrell). Demos will be evaluating the policy implications of our findings, and developing and piloting a toolkit which will enable our analysis to be used by front-line practitioners and policy makers in tackling poverty in a more nuanced way. As well as providing a national picture of multi-dimensional poverty in the UK, the research will be used to develop a toolkit for local authorities, MPs, and charities – which can be used to identify people living in poverty and help tackle the unique set of disadvantages they face.
This study will change the narrative around poverty as much as the policy and practice set up to tackle it. First findings will be available in the spring of 2012 and you can follow the progress of the project here, or contact myself or Claudia if you'd like any further information.