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Outline And Critically Discuss Two Different Definitions Of Poverty

The concept of poverty in the UK is now recognized by the government as a ‘pressing social concern’. ‘Poverty is multi-dimensional. It is not only about money. It is also about jobs, access to public services, the environment and ambition. It is about education, housing, the local environment, training, jobs, and your home and family life, being free from crime and drug abuse. So our vision for addressing child poverty is an all-encompassing one. One, which straddles income, public services and jobs ‘. (Tony Blair, Prime Minister 18 Sept 2002). Tony Blair made the above statement in the opening few sentences of a speech that he made when he spoke of the publication of the government’s 4th annual Poverty Report. This political statement shows just how complex the notion of poverty is and how many variables can be used to define it.

Poverty, its definition and status within the United Kingdom and globally has been seen as a pawn in the political minefields of the world’s governments. The main problem with defining the term poverty is what does it relate to? Is it materialistic or economic, does it rely on subsistence or is it socially constructed? There are many questions that could be posed in trying to narrow the definition of poverty but depending on your position on the globe one countries defining rules will not necessarily apply to another’s. It is unfortunate that there is no single, universally accepted standard definition of poverty. The European Community formulated a working definition, it is defined as: ‘Persons, families and groups of persons whose resources (material, cultural and social) are so limited as to exclude them from the minimum acceptable way of life in the Member State to which they belong.’

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This definition, which has been adopted for use within the United Kingdom, is based on the notion of relative poverty, but may also incorporate aspects of absolute poverty. It is these terms that are widely used by groups political and social to define the realms of poverty but what are they? The use of the term poverty in any form has negative connotations and brings forward the use of words such as hardship, deprivation and struggle. With this in mind, poverty and the issues surrounding it however defined within a society can be used emotively to raise awareness of plight or political standing. Poverty however well or poorly defined is a concept that is a socially constructed notion of unacceptable hardship. Because of the difficulty in defining poverty universally, it is easier to focus on one society, for the purposes of this essay that society will be the United Kingdom.

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The European Community definition that is accepted within the UK relates poverty within the realms of being relative or absolute but what are the differences? The notion of absolute poverty was developed two centuries ago, to draw attention to the plight of the poor (Mack J, Lansley S, 1985). Absolute poverty is defined according to an absolute minimum standard and is based around the idea of subsistence – the basic conditions that must be met in order to sustain a physically healthy lifestyle (Giddens 4th Edition 2002: p311). This term identifies a set of basic resources, which all individuals are said to require for sustaining life; shelter, food, drinking water and clothing. This notion of poverty is universally accepted by most sociologists as being applicable anywhere in the world as without the basics for survival life becomes extinct and it is a common notion that all human existence requires these basic materials.

Therefore people who lack these vital materials for survival can be classed as living within absolute poverty. But, a key factor associated with absolute poverty is that although most people universally accept it, what is required to sustain life within a society is subject to change with time and place. So, even a basic definition such as this does not fully encompass all cultures and societies. It is therefore may be more apt to define poverty within the realms of the society to which it refers to. This is where many would prefer to use the notion of relative poverty. Relative poverty is deemed to be socially constructed within societies and is subject to change with time and culture but fundamentally it refers to people who are living below a pre-defined standard of living. This pre-defined standard is in many countries related to the economics of the individual and the living standard that they are accustomed to and living within.

Relative poverty is a definition based upon comparisons between the standards of living of the poor and the standard of living of other members of society who have not been classed as poor. It usually involves a measure of the average standard of the society in which poverty is being studied (Alcock, P, 1993) Many see that this form of definition is not relevant due to many materialistic things not being deemed as being necessary for other societies. Within Britain, the main means of defining relative poverty is through the use of welfare benefits. Many noted sociologists have debated the terms of poverty. Karl Marx and Adam Smith recognized that relative poverty was a notion that prevented people from participating fully within the constraints of the society in which they lived. This was also a view that Townsend supported.

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By necessaries, I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without. A linen shirt, for example, is strictly speaking not a necessity of life…but in the present time…a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt. (Adam Smith) There are within both definitions of poverty absolute or relative notable similarities. Both forms refer to the basic needs of people to survive. Absolute definitions of poverty necessarily involve relative judgements to apply to any particular society. Time and culture change and it is these two factors that are not taken into account within the realms of absolute poverty.

The definition of relative poverty requires so it can distinguish from inequalities an absolute core. Both have major disadvantages and in pure terms neither is acceptable or workable as the definition of poverty (Alcock et al) In his speech, Tony Blair recognizes the wide variety of factors that go into determining the level of poverty a person or sub culture of society lives within. He recognizes that poverty no longer is purely related to economics but is also about social standards and acceptance within society. In Townsend’s deprivation index two of the sixty items included referring to people who don’t have a cooked breakfast most mornings or a joint of meat most Sundays as being in poverty. Through time the notion of eating a cooked breakfast every morning is seen by many as a health risk on its own and through choice decide not to. In modern Britain it is more apt to look at the basic materials that society has decided are now necessities such as a fridge, cooker and carpets.

To do without a fridge, toys for the children, being unable to give a birthday present is to experience real poverty and that people should look at the poverty debate from the angle of dependency, the underclass and social exclusion and state that “Poverty is on the increase and is not an outcome of inadequacy but of broader social and economic factors” (Oppenheim et al) Poverty today is politically derived and for many is a subject too sensitive to broach within the political arena. The job of monitoring poverty has been left to policymakers who through their own wisdom decide not to use the term poverty at all but prefer to define it as ‘the lowest ten percent’ or the ‘minority of society ‘. Poverty is a real issue and although it can be defined through set definitions of absolute or relative, it has begun to evolve into more politically acceptable definitions such as dependant or socially excluded.

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These terms do not carry the negativity of single-term poverty. Both absolute and relative poverty try to encompass the defining factors of human existence in their definition of poverty but neither alone seems to define it. A combination of both terms moves us closer but universally this combined definition is not appropriate for use within a society outside the United Kingdom or any other country in which it is developed. The Joseph Rowntree inquiry probably defined a more apt method of defining poverty that does not look at the absolute aspect but focuses on the relative. It reflects a relative view of living standards and opportunities and provokes debate as to whether people should be able to participate fully within society and that social policy will not be overcome unless policymakers listen to those who are living in poverty (Oppenheim et al).


  • Alcock, P (1993) Defining Poverty in Alcock, P, Understanding Poverty. London:
  • Macmillan pps 57-74
  • Giddens, A (2001) Sociology 4th Edition. London: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
  • Mack, J Lansley, S, (1985) How poor is too poor? Defining Poverty in Mack, J, Lansley, S. Poor Britain. London: Allen & Unwin PPS 15-48
  • May, M, Page, R, Brunsdon, E, (Eds) (2002). Understanding Social Problems. Blackwell: Oxford Uk.
  • Oppenheim, C, Harker, L. Poverty: The Facts. London CPAG Ltd
  • 1117083 Page 1 of 8 Sociology 4712

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Outline And Critically Discuss Two Different Definitions Of Poverty. (2021, Apr 12). Retrieved August 11, 2022, from