Why how we measure poverty matters

Tessa Coombes: @policytessa

Tessa Coombes, PhD student in the School for Policy Studies, former councillor, ex-policy director at Business West, and part-time blogger considers the latest debates in poverty measurement as illustrated in an event organised by the Centre for Poverty and Social Justice

There’s an interesting debate that’s been going on for some time now about measuring poverty and getting the issue onto the agenda so people sit up and take notice in the right way. It’s an area of academia that I haven’t really engaged in before, but one where I have a personal interest in seeking to see the debate move in the right kind of direction. A direction that takes us away from the concept of demonising the poor and those living in poverty and instead acknowledges the levels of inequality and seeks to do something about it in a way that benefits those most in need. The recent Policy & Politics conference in Bristol had inequality and poverty as one of its main themes and at the time I wrote a couple of blogs on the plenary sessions – the human cost of inequality (Kate Pickett) and why social inequality persists (Danny Dorling). Both these presentations provided plenty of evidence to illustrate just how significant a problem we have in the UK and how it is getting worse.

Last week I went to a seminar on this very issue run by the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at the University of Bristol, where the subject of debate was about how to gain traction and create change from academic research and evidence. The focus of the discussion was about using living standards rather than poverty indicators and the difference this can make when trying to attract the attention of politicians and policy makers. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate which gave some pointers on how we can translate measures and indicators into policy and action, as well as why it’s helpful to look at living standards for everyone rather than just looking at those in poverty.

The first speaker, Bryan Perry from the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand, talked about how by using evidence in the ‘right’ way, that was responsive to the needs of politicians, using the Material Wellbeing Index, they had managed to gain traction and make an impact on policy. The key was talking about trends rather than absolute numbers, providing simple statistics that tell the ‘right’ story and making the most of the opportunities as they arise. The focus of their work on living standards has served to highlight the differences, to show how life at the bottom is radically different, and to emphasise the point, in simple terms, about what people don’t have rather than about what they need. This has resulted in a centre-right government actually implementing increases in benefit payments as part of their policy, rather than seeking to reduce them at every opportunity.

The discussion then turned to the UK with a presentation from Demi Patsios, on the development of a UK Living Standards Index (UKLSI), where the point was made that in order to understand the poor we need to understand the rich, therefore just looking at those in poverty is only a small part of the story we need to capture. The ability to understand poverty in the general context of society provides that broader picture and story, which serves to highlight the extent and levels of inequality, rather than just the hardships at one end of the spectrum and enables us to develop policies that are directed at the full spectrum of society. The UKLSI aims to measure what matters most to people under three main themes: what we have, what we do and where we live. Whilst it is much more complicated that this and brings together both objective and subjective data into 10 domains and 275 different measures, the overall concept and themes are simple to understand and highlight some important differences and issues. The Index helps us to understand ‘what we have’ by looking at essential v desirables and luxuries v wants. It looks at ‘what we do’ through political, social and community engagement and ‘where we live’ by satisfaction with our accommodation and neighbourhood. It brings together the types of measures that appear in things like the Living Wage calculations and local authority Quality of Life indicators, and it does it in a comprehensive and compelling fashion.

But what does all this add to the debate and will our politicians take any notice? How do we make this type of discussion gain traction in the UK, in the face of current media and government interest in individualising the problem and stigmatising the poor, whilst ensuring the poverty discourse is firmly focused away from the rich and powerful?

The current government’s approach, as outlined by Dave Gordon in his presentation, is to repeal the only legislation we had with real targets to reduce poverty (the Child Poverty Act) and to replace this with measures on educational attainment and workless households. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this approach can work with the recent commitment under the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and to “reduce inequality within and among countries”.

From my own experience, as an ex-politician and someone who has worked with politicians and policy makers over many years, the key for me is making the messages simple. Yes, providing the evidence to support the simple statements, but only after you’ve sold them the message to begin with. Overcomplicating things with lots of measures and targets just serves to mask the message and hide the key points. Something that combines simple messages with supporting evidence; that illustrates disparities in living standards; and provides for micro level analysis would seem to be the right kind of approach.

This blog was first posted on Tessa’s own blog

Deprivation of necessities has become more widespread in Britain since 1999

134179Deprivation of necessities has become more widespread in Britain since 1999

The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures have seen the most sustained decline in household incomes since the 1930s. In this post, Eldin Fahmy examines their impacts on public perceptions of minimally adequate living standards, and on the extent of deprivation. Based upon analysis of survey data for 1999 and 2012, it seems that as households have been forced to ‘tighten their belts’, perceptions of minimum living standards have become less generous. At the same time the extent of deprivation has increased dramatically.

The 2012 UK Poverty and Social Exclusion survey (2012-PSE) is the latest and most comprehensive in a series of household surveys conducted since the early 1980s adopting a ‘consensual’ approach to poverty which reflect public views on minimally adequate living standards. Since our last survey in Britain in 1999, public perceptions of what constitute the ‘necessities of life’ have become less generous.  Nevertheless, the proportion of adults in Britain deprived of these necessities has increased substantially since 1999.

Poverty in Britain today is widely understood in relative terms as an inability to take part in lifestyles and activities which are customary or widely approved in contemporary society due to insufficient resources.  This requires direct observation of living standards and cannot be established simply be using arbitrary income thresholds. Since Mack and Lansley’s ground-breaking 1983 survey, surveys on poverty in 1990, 1999 and 2012 have therefore examined public views on minimally acceptable living standards and have incorporated these views within the definition and measurement of poverty itself.

One consistent finding emerging from these surveys has been the striking degree of public consensus across social groups (e.g. by gender, age, social class, income level, etc.) concerning the relative importance of different items and activities.  Nevertheless, as deprivation is here understood to be relative to prevailing societal standards we should expect that perceptions of necessities will vary across time to reflect changing living standards, tastes and customs. What, then, do the British public view as necessities of life today and in what ways has this changed since our last survey in 1999?

Table 1 (below) shows the percentage of adults in 2012 and 1999 describing a comparable set of items and activities as ‘necessities’. In both 1999 and 2012 there is widespread agreement on many items, and perceptions of necessities extend far beyond what might be described as ‘basic’ needs to encompass a range of ‘social’ necessities.  As predicted by relative deprivation theory, perceptions of necessities also reflect changes in prevailing living standards and consumption norms, for example, in relation to technological items which have become more widely available (and widely encouraged) over the 1999-2012 period.

Table 1: Percentage of people viewing items as necessities for adults in 1999 and 2012 in Britain



However, one implication of a relative approach is that during periods of declining living standards public perceptions of necessities may also become less generous.  Given the sustained decline in household incomes and living standards arising from the 2008 financial crisis, it would be astonishing if this was not also reflected in public attitudes to the necessities of life.  Table 1 suggests that this is indeed the case.

Many items record a substantial fall in the proportion of respondents who view them as necessities in 2012 compared with 1999, with those items where public support was more equivocal in 1999 witnessing an especially dramatic decline in approval. As household incomes have become more constrained, more basic necessities (towards the top of Table 1) are increasingly prioritised over more discretionary items.  As we argue in our preliminary report, it seems that the public have scaled back their expectations regarding minimum living standards in ways which reflect the prevailing climate of austerity and pessimism.  One consequence of recession and austerity program may be that the British public have ‘tightened their belts’ and now consider many things which in the past were viewed as essential to no longer be necessities.

However, even though public perceptions of minimum living standards became less generous, the extent of deprivation of necessities has nevertheless increased for adults in Britain over this period.  Table 2 (below) shows the percentage of adults in Britain who lack different necessities in 1999 and 2012 because they cannot afford them.  The proportion of adults unable to afford items and activities considered by the British public to be ‘necessities of life’ in 2012 has increased dramatically compared with 1999.  For example, the percentage of adults unable to adequately heat their home has increased seven-fold, and the percentage unable to afford a damp-free home, or to replace broken electrical goods, or to afford appropriate clothes for job interviews has at least doubled over this period.

Table 2: Percentage of adults lacking items because they cannot afford them in 1999 and 2012 in Britain

 table 2 Eldins blog

There is now widespread agreement on what constitutes a minimally acceptable diet for adults, including two meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables daily, and meat and fish every other day.  However, an increasing number of adults are unable to afford to eat properly, with the percentage of British adults who are unable to afford at least one of these dietary essentials increasing from 5% in 1999 to 8% in 2012.  Since Table 2 focuses on the same items measured in comparable ways in 1999 and 2012, there has been an absolute increase in social and material deprivation over this period amongst the British adult population.

Underpinning the growth in deprivation over this period has been a rising tide of income inequality over the 1999-2008 period which ensured that despite a period of sustained economic growth until 2008, the benefits of growth were for the most part not enjoyed by poorer households whose incomes and wages fell further and further behind those of the better-off in relative terms.

Following the 2008 recession there has been a modest decline in income inequality and relative income poverty, but this reflects an overall decline in societal standards rather than any absolute improvement in the circumstances of poorer households.  Although this decline in living standards is also reflected in more restrictive public perceptions of necessities, the extent of social and material deprivation amongst adults in Britain has clearly increased substantially since 1999.  Indeed, these findings reflect the situation in 2012 before the majority of proposed changes to welfare benefits came into effect.  Since these measures are set to hit the poor hard, our findings almost certainly underestimate the true extent of social and material deprivation in Britain today.

Note: A longer version of this article was published in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice (Vol 22, Issue 2) in October 2014.

This post was first published on the British Politics and Policy blog

About the Author

Dr Eldin Fahmyis Senior Lecturer in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. He is a member of the ESRC-funded 2012 UK Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey research team (Ref: RES-060–25–688 0052).


Poverty in paradise

Shailen NandyResearch Fellow in the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at  the School for Policy Studies discusses poverty in the PacifShailenic Islands

I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes” (Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener)

What images come to mind when you think of the islands of the Pacific? Sun-kissed beaches, turquoise seas, balmy climes? Amazing rugby players? How about poverty? No? Well, you might be surprised.  Poverty, however it is measured, is a very real problem among the Pacific Islands, Countries and Territories (PICTS).  It has also been frequently overlooked.  Data from Oxfam New Zealand spells out in grim detail just how bad things are.  Around one third of the region’s population, about 2.7 million people, lack sufficient income to meet their basic human needs. Rates of child and maternal mortality are high, and large proportions of the region’s children either never enter school or do not complete primary education.  Adult literacy is low, at only 65% in the Solomon Islands.  Basic service and housing provision is poor, with 15% of the population of Papua New Guinea (around 120,000 people) living in informal urban squatter settlements.  These overcrowded households lack access to improved sources of water and forms of sanitation, and are subjected to the spread and effects of debilitating and deadly diseases, which drive child malnutrition and mortality.  These, and other, conditions contribute to a climate with high levels of gender violence, with over half of women in Samoa and the Solomon Islands reporting experiencing physical and/or sexual violence.  Paradise for many maybe, but certainly not for all.

The United Nations identifies 57 countries as Small Island Developing States (SIDS).  Located around the world, they share similar development challenges, including having small populations, limited resources, vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change, and being geographically remote.

The lack of attention and research on poverty in SIDS, like the PICTS, has impeded some governments from developing the strong and effective anti-poverty policies that are needed.  Conventional monetary poverty assessments cannot give a true picture of the extent of the problem, especially in countries where people may use bartering or reciprocal exchange instead of cash purchasing, and where families live together in extended households, pooling and sharing material and social resources.  In addition, in some PICTS, many households receive remittances in cash and as durable goods from relatives living and working abroad and these can be very difficult to measure accurately.  In such instances, assessing poverty needs a more sophisticated approach, with less reliance placed on traditional measures like an individual’s or household’s income.

Bristol’s Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research has an international reputation for poverty research, analysis and anti-poverty policy development.  Members of the Centre have advised governments, the United Nations and many international organisations around the world on how best to identify, assess and ameliorate poverty.  Recently its work, through the ERSC-funded Poverty and Social Exclusion in the United Kingdom project, informed the public, national media, and policy makers about the true extent of poverty in the UK at the height of the recession.  What made the project so important were its use of methods and techniques which are recognised as being State of the Art for poverty research.  The project used the Consensual Approach, which has been developed over 30 years.  It takes into consideration the opinions of the general public about what items and activities they consider to be necessary for an acceptable standard of living, from which no one should be excluded due to a lack of resources.  Importantly the approach introduces a democratic element into the definition and measurement of poverty enabling populations, rather than just academics or politicians, to determine what constitutes poverty and thus how it should be tackled.  The approach is increasingly being used in a growing number of countries, including many in the European Union, South Africa, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and even low income African countries, like Benin.  Bristol researchers have been involved with most of these studies, and there are now plans to expand use of the method more widely, across the twenty-two Pacific Islands Countries and Territories (PICTS).

In November 2014, Bristol PhD student Viliami Konifelenisi Fifita demonstrated to representatives of regional statistical offices the potential of the Consensual Approach for assessing poverty in the PICTs.  This trip was funded by a travel grant from the Alumni Foundation and the School for Policy Studies.  He showed how, as part of his PhD looking at poverty in Tonga, the method was well suited for use in a Pacific Islands context.  As Government Statistician for the Kingdom of Tonga, Viliami developed a survey module for Tonga’s national Demographic and Health Survey, which he is using to make the first scientific assessments of poverty in Tonga.  His presentation so impressed delegates, that by the end of the meeting a draft module had been drawn up and was being considered for inclusion in other national surveys.  At least four PICTS will run surveys containing the module in 2015, with other countries set to follow in 2016 and 2017.  The data generated will change, and improve, the measurement of poverty in the region, providing researchers and policy makers with new data with which to develop better anti-poverty policies.

Viliami’s efforts to enthuse his colleagues to adopt and apply the Consensual Approach, has begun a process of collaboration between Bristol academics and PICTs statisticians and governments.  One aspect of the SIDS – their small size and close-knit communities – holds considerable potential for policy development and implementation, in that policy changes can be made relatively swiftly, with benefits and improvements to people’s lives following quickly.  Of particular interest in the region is the fact that the Consensual Approach captures important non-monetary aspects of poverty, which until recently have not formed part of regional poverty assessments.  In March 2015 Viliami travelled to the Solomon Islands, to begin training survey enumerators in the method.  Funding for this important work was provided at very short notice by an ESRC Impact Travel Award, the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice, and the School for Policy Studies.  The use and application of methods and techniques developed at Bristol, and provision of training and assistance to PICTS statistical offices and governments by Bristol researchers will, in the years to come, make a meaningful impact to the lives of people living across the entire Pacific region.