Poverty is widespread in the affluent countries. In the 1980s and 1990s Britain gained one of the worst poverty records in the developed world. Inequalities between the rich and poor widened dramatically as a result of governmental policies, changes in the occupational structure and unemployment. (Giddens 2006 : 378)
In 1886, Charles Booth investigated the extent of poverty in London. His was the first systematic sociological study of poverty in the UK. The results, presented in 1902-3, documented the living and working condition of the London poor. Adopting a relative approach to poverty — which was defined as the inability to meet the usual standard of life — Booth estimated that the level at which poverty set in for a family of two adults and three children was 21 shillings per week (? 1.05 today). Booth estimated that 30.7 per cent of London’s total population were in poverty. Around the same time, adopting an absolute perspective on poverty, Seebohm Rowntree investigated the state of the poor in the city of York in 1899. He highlighted the minimum standard of living which fulfilled people’s biological needs for food, water, clothing and shelter. This is also referred to as the subsistence level. Rowntree subsequently drew up a list of those minimum personal and household necessities required for survival and established two categories of poverty. Primary poverty is when the person is unable to acquire the minimum necessitates, secondary poverty is when a portion of the person’s total earnings is absorbed by other useful or wasteful expenditure such that it is not possible to maintain the minimum standard.
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Poverty can be defined in several ways, Booth took a relative approach and Rowntree took an absolute approach. In the post-war era, there has been a more pronounced shift from viewing poverty as predominantly a monetary and economic phenomenon to regarding and acknowledging its more qualitative and subjective aspects. By the end of the 1950s, the period of rationing and shortages was over and, with almost full employment, the UK seemed ‘never to have had it so good’. Yet, by the 1960s, a number of social policy academics close to the Labour Party (such as Tawney and Townsend) raised the issue of the continuing existence of poverty in a period of greater prosperity. Townsend questioned absolute definitions of poverty (such as those of Rowntree) which were outdated and failed to take account of the problems some people had in fully participating in society. Townsend’s definitive work on poverty in the UK in 1979 (Townsend 1992) went beyond an absolute definition based on physical needs, to view poverty in relation to a generally accepted standard of living, in a specific society, at a particular time.
Individuals can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies which they belong. (p.31)
Townsend suggested a definition that was closer in tune to the concept of citizenship — poverty constituted a lack of resources that would enable a person to able to participate in the normal expectations and customs of a society. This kind of definition also would imply that the indicators of poverty can change over time in order to embrace changes in society. In the 1960’s, Townsend used the example of not being able to afford a proper Sunday lunch as an indicator of poverty. The idea of a Sunday roast meal might not be so relevant today because of changes in family life and the way people gather together, and therefore is not so much an integral aspect of what people can be expected to do normally. On the other hand, Townsend’s indicator of giving presents to near members of the family for birthdays or Christmas still holds. In his 1979 work, Townsend identified twelve items he believed were be relevant to the whole population, and gave each household surveyed a score on a deprivation index. The higher the score, the more deprived was the household. Townsend calculated that 22.9 per cent of the population fell under the threshold of deprivation (Giddens 2006).
When talking about poverty, researchers usually base their work on measures of deprivation rather than the identification of poverty by itself. The existence of deprivation is taken as a surrogate for the existence of poverty. People are said to be deprived materially and socially if they lack the material standards (diet, housing ad clothing) and the services and amenities (recreational, educational, environmental, social) which would allow them to participate in commonly accepted roles and relationship within society. The compass of poverty is complex, embracing the unemployed, those on low pay or in insecure work, the sick, the elderly, and the unskilled. Some minority ethnic groups also come into the picture, for example, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the UK have, in general, high rates of poverty compared to other groups (Giddens 2006). Absolute poverty assumes that it is possible to define a minimum standard of living based on a person’s biological needs for food, water, clothing and shelter. The emphasis is on basic physical needs and not on broader social and cultural needs. Rowntree’s studies of poverty in York in 1901, 1936, and 1951 used such an approach to poverty. But another way of viewing poverty is of relative poverty, which goes beyond biological needs, and is not simply about a lack of money but also about exclusion form the customs of society. Relative poverty is about social exclusion imposed by an inadequate income. Social exclusion is a broader concept than poverty encompassing not only low material means but the inability to participate effectively in economic, social, political and cultural life, implying alienation and distance from the mainstream society (Giddens 2006). Social exclusion may both be a precursor to poverty and an important consequence of it. In 1984, Mack and Lansley study established that the poverty threshold covered not only the basic essentials for survival (such as food and shelter) but also the ability to participate in society and play a social role:
for the first time ever, a majority of people see the necessities of life in Britain in the 1980s as covering a wide range of goods and activities, and… people judge a minimum standard of living on socially established criteria and not just the criteria of survival or subsistence. (Mack & Lansley 1985 : 55)
In the 1980s, the discussion of poverty turned increasingly to the notion of polarisation and to the shrinking portion of the UK cake held by the poorest. Poverty and wealth are not simply the ‘bottom’ and ‘top’ of the income distribution, they are polarised social conditions (Scott 1994). Income polarisation was also compounded by a number of policy measure introduced in the 1980s, such as a reduction in the level of income tax for high earners and increasing use of indirect taxes. Academics showed that polarisation and social disparities were growing between those who had benefited from the measures of the successive Thatcher administrations and those who had lost out, while the Thatcher government as the time tried to deny the excesses of Thatcherism. According to an analysis of the Child Poverty Action Group, in the regime of Margaret Thatcher, more than 63 billion has been transferred in subsidies from the poor to the rich (Oppenheim and Harker 1996)
Research in the 1990’s on the distribution of wealth and poverty in the UK has been produced under a Joseph Rowntree Foundation research initiative. This research highlighted that the number of people living in households with under half the national average income fell between the early 1960s and 1970s from five million to three million, but then rose to eleven million in 1991, to a point where one in five households were living on under half the national average income. The number of individuals under 60 living in households without paid work has more than doubled – from 4.1. million, or 8 per cent, in 1979, to 9.4 million, or 19 per cent by the mid 1990s. This has been accompanied by a widening gap in the incomes of households in paid work and those out of paid work. In 1997, 12 million people in the UK (almost 25% of the population) lived below the poverty line, defined as under half the average wage, and two out of five children were born poor. Today, according to OECD (Organisation for Economic cooperation and Development), Britain has one of the worst poverty records in the developed world (Giddens 2006). According to the latest available statistics, nearly 1 in 4 people in the UK – amounting to 13 million people – live in poverty. This includes nearly 4 million children – signifying a shocking 1 in 3 ratio (Oxfam GB 2003).
The explanations that have been offered as causes of poverty fall under two categories, individualistic theories and structural theories. Here we will focus on the former. Individualistic theories identify the main causes of poverty within individuals themselves. Social and cultural factors are not entirely discounted, but more emphasis is place on inappropirated individual behaviours. There are three main types of individualistic theories.
Orthodox economic theory: This theory proposes that poverty can be explained by the economic deficiency of the individual . Harold Lydall argues that the general abilities of men in the labour force determine the distribution of incomes. These abilities are assumed to be created by genetic, environmental and educational factors. To reduce poverty, policies need to target individuals’ own value systems, to develop their own personal qualities in a manner that makes them more capable and efficient. The individual is poor because he has not maximised his true potential in the labour market.
Minority group theory: Minority group theory originate from the earliest studies of poverty based on the findings of Booth and Rowntree. These pioneering social scientists did not attempt to discover the causes of poverty, merely the characteristics of certain groups of poor people. Minority group theory has largely constructed its explanation for poverty through examining the characteristics of the poor – for example, being old, being married with dependent children. Going beyond such demographic indicators, the theory implicates alleged ‘faulty’ characteristics. The classification of ‘ar-risk’ groups has prompted policy makers to implement a benefit system to ensure that the most basic of needs are met, without encouraging idleness or apathy. The poverty policies of successive governments have often informed by minority group theory.
Subculture of poverty theory: Subculture of poverty theory is derived form a number of anthropological and sociological studies, particularly, the work of Oscar Lewis. It was Lewis who in 1959 introduced the term ‘the culture of poverty’ in an effort to draw an analogy between the Mexican lower class families and those in other parts of the world. He attempted to explain the phenomenon of the persistence of poverty in different countries. The basic idea has its roots in the Chicago School of Sociology and the work of Robert E. Park. According to Park the patterns of the neighbourhood, and the slum in particular, once they come into being, take on a life of their own and are to a great extent self-generating and self-perpetuating. A sociological process known as labeling also underpins this phenomenon. Labelling somebody negatively may also lead to increased surveillance or segregation from the wider community which further increases (and even creates) the predicted behaviour (Fulcher and Scott 2001). These processes, whereby people tend to live up to the expectation of others are known to be self-fulfilling.
Oscar Lewis implies a similar understanding in his formulation of the notion of the culture of poverty. Lewis claimed that poverty affected the very personality of slum dwellers. The poor tend to be at once apathetic yet alienated, happy-go-lucky yet miserable. Other negative characteristics that mark the psychological orientation of poor people include laziness, being unambitious, being disorganised, and fatalistic. To fight poverty at its roots, such psychological tendencies need to be gradually eroded, with more positive attitudes taking their place. Much work also needs to be done on making the destitute people more attractive to their potential employers, in terms of skills and educational qualifications.
Substantial and sustained reductions in poverty depend on raising the level of qualifications among older teenagers and young adults in the bottom quarter of educational achievement. Lack of progress here is a major concern for longer term progress on reducing poverty. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2006)
Giddens, A. (2006). Sociology. Cambridge : Polity Press
Fulcher, J. & Scott J. (2001). Sociology. Oxford : Oxford University Press
Joseph Rowntree Foundation. (2006). Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in the UK 2006. Retrieved 20 March 2007 from http://www.poverty.org.uk/reports/mpse%202006%20findings.pdf
Mack, J. & Lansley, S. (1985). Poor Britain. London : Unwin Hyman
Oppenheim,C. & Harker, L. (1996). Poverty: the Facts, 3rd ed. London : Child Poverty Action
Oxfam GB. (2003). The facts about poverty in the UK. Retrieved 20 March 2007 from http://www.oxfamgb.org/ukpp/poverty/thefacts.htm
Scott, J. (1994). Poverty and Wealth: Citizenship, Deprivation and Privilege (Longman Sociology Series). London : Longman Group United Kingdom
Townsend, P. (1992). Poverty in the UK. Berkeley : University of California Press
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What Is Poverty and Social Exclusion. (2019, Apr 02). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/what-is-meant-by-poverty-and-social-exclusion-critical-discussion-and-recent-attempts-to-alleviate-it/
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