Social Exclusion: New Concept or New Name for Poverty?

A perennial problem for policymakers and social policy researchers is that of how to define and measure poverty. A distinction is generally made between concepts of absolute and relative poverty, both of which seek to identify a universal line below which poverty is said to exist. This essay will examine why neither concept has been successful in doing this and how in recent years government has shifted the debate towards the new language of Social Exclusion. There are two means of defining poverty.

There are absolute definitions that derive from a belief that all humans share the same basic needs and therefore can be measured against a universal and fixed poverty line. There are also relative definitions that advocate a poverty line that fluctuates in accordance with changing living standards. Absolute poverty involves a lack of resources to meet such needs as food, clothing and shelter. If one cannot afford the quantity of these items deemed necessary for survival then one is poor in absolute terms.

Seebohm Rowntree carried out the first systematic study of poverty in Britain in 1899. Rowntree devised a family budget based on the cost of the cheapest items that would meet the basic requirements of food and clothing. He also used expert medical advice on nutritional requirements people needed to merely subsist. Then he included allowances for rent and fuel and worked out an allowance based on the size of the family. This was Rowntree’s poverty line. Any household whose income was less than this line were defined as being in poverty.

He also made a distinction between primary and secondary poverty; those who spent every penny on basic essentials but still could not afford some necessities were in primary poverty, those who had just enough to cover the basic essentials but lacked some because of spending on non-essentials were in secondary poverty. Rowntree’s surveys were influential and by introducing the concept of a poverty line he went some way to shaping the government’s approach to the issue in the post war years. Beveridge used a poverty line to determine who was eligible for National Assistance Benefit (an early incarnation of Income Support).

Indeed in Britain today the government still uses income support levels as a convenient measure of the numbers in poverty, as opposed to many other countries such as the United States where an official poverty line is used. Supporters of absolute or subsistence measures would argue that such measures have the merit of providing a fixed definition that can be applied to poverty in all societies and all countries. They would also argue that a fixed line best illustrates changes in living standards over time. However, inherent and fundamental limitations exist in such measures, and sociologists who prefer the relative approach point these out.

Supporters of relative definitions believe what counts as poverty varies with time and place. By this logic absolute definitions are meaningless. They feel human needs cannot be objectively measured. The question of diet is a case in point; scientists have attempted to quantify nutritional needs but different research produces different conclusions as to what constitutes an adequate diet. When you consider that there is disparity even between scientific experts on such an issue, it is not surprising that some social researchers dislike the use of absolute definitions. In addition, physical needs are affected by age, sex and occupation.

It is obvious to anyone for example that a manual labourer will require more food than a white-collar worker. Nutritional requirements are directly related to an individual’s situation and environment, hence the term relative poverty. Also, and perhaps most significantly from the relativist’s point of view, necessities themselves change from time to time and place to place. The concept of necessity may be fixed but the physical items it can be attributed to are bound to change as society does. ‘Poverty means exclusion from the living standards, the lifestyles and the fellowship of one’s fellow citizens’ (Donnison, 1982).

In short, human needs are culturally defined. To see poverty in this way is to believe that through the very act of advancing living standards we are creating poverty. Though this may appear contradictory at first glance to most people it is entirely logical. After all, when somebody complains that they are poor because they cannot afford a television few would argue, yet within the living memory of some people this would once have been a ridiculous statement. Even Rowntree to some extent recognised the effect of social changes when he included radio and books as essentials in his 1936 survey.

Peter Townsend conducted a survey entitled ‘Poverty in the United Kingdom’ (1979). In it he developed what he called a deprivation standard, the main aim of which was to find a measure of poverty that accounted for people’s cultural expectations as well as physical needs. He asked people about sixty indicators and from the responses he chose twelve as indicators of lifestyle. This formed his deprivation index. Included in the twelve were having a Sunday roast and a child having a birthday party. According to Townsend if a household was deprived of any of these indicators then it was poor.

To support his theory he showed that there was a correlation between his measure of relative deprivation and income. Below a particular income level, deprivation (as measured by Townsend) increased rapidly. The level at which the increase occurred was identified as the ‘deprivation threshold’. Many researchers have agreed with Townsend that the deprivation threshold represents an objective poverty line and it has been widely used. Others however feel it is overstated and cite the fact that in 1968-9 Townsend’s measure would put almost 23% of the population in poverty.

Those on the right criticise Townsend’s study for measuring inequality rather than poverty. Some are more convinced of its relevance but fault his methodology. The main criticism is that he did not ask people what they felt was an acceptable lifestyle. Mack and Lansley aimed to solve this problem when carrying out their survey in 1983. Like Townsend they drew up a list of items, but in an effort to make their indicators of poverty more consensual they asked respondents whether they lacked items due to financial constraints or choice.

Also, the items included were determined by what the public considered to be essentials, unlike Townsend’s index which many argue was skewed by his personal view of lifestyle. Those items regarded as essential by at least 50% of the sample formed the index of necessities, and those who lacked any three of these were regarded as poor. A second survey, carried out seven years later, included new indicators considered by those asked to have become essential in the intervening period. Mack and Lansley reasoned that an updated index was necessary to reflect changing social expectations. The rise from 7. million people being in poverty in 1983 to 11 million in 1990 was consistent with the general sociological view that poverty had risen during the 1980’s.

Therefore the ‘Breadline Britain’ survey methods of Mack and Lansley could claim to have solved the inadequacies of previous relative approaches and found an accurate consensus definition of poverty. However, there were critics such as Paul Ashton (1984) who doubted whether the Breadline Britain poverty standard could really be ‘society approved’ as Mack and Lansley claimed since it was they who decided on three items as the cut off point.

The index was undoubtedly chosen with total public consent but the actual definition of poverty derived from it was constructed without public consultation. Just as Townsend had failed to ask people why they went without particular items, Mack and Lansley had failed to ask people what they believed was a genuine measure of poverty. This criticism is countered by the researchers who say the correlation between low incomes and a lack of three indexed items was the determinant factor in formulating the working definition.

Irrespective of its critics, it probably represents the most reliable consensus definition to date. There are some sociologists who argue that both absolute and relative approaches neglect the patterns and variations of poverty. Ashworth et al (1995) identified six differentials of poverty that ranged from occasional poverty to permanent poverty. Occasional is repeated yearly but for a short period, and permanent is a state of constant poverty with no respite. In between were transient, recurrent, persistent and chronic poverty.

Policymakers have traditionally been most comfortable with absolute definitions for the obvious reason that it avoids highlighting broader problems. Absolutism makes tackling the issue seem simple. However, in light of such studies as Ashworth et al highlighting the less static reality of poverty, a shift in emphasis has occurred. Poverty is now talked of in government circles as part of the vocabulary of social exclusion. Social exclusion comes from the idea that society is bound by rights and obligations. The state of detachment from such a moral order constitutes social exclusion.

The Government defines it as ‘a shorthand term for what can happen when people or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems’ (social exclusion unit). These include unemployment, low skills, low incomes, poor housing, crime, sickness and family breakdown. This is a purposefully loose definition, emphasising once more the recognised complexity of the issue and the need for a broader approach to tackle it. Tackling social exclusion has been a stated priority of government since Labour came to power in 1997. The lasting terminology of joined up government is testament to it’s continued presence in the Government’s main focus.

One of the main steps was the setting up the Social Exclusion Unit and this task force has played a part in creating The New Deal for communities, Welfare to Work, the National Childcare Strategy and the Low Pay Commission. All of these initiatives have been implemented with the aim of addressing certain aspects of social exclusion. Policy emphasis has shifted away from merely compensating for the deficiencies of deprived communities to encouraging those communities to become involved in solutions to their own problems.

New initiatives are designed to mobilise communities where action is needed. Whether in time such strategies will be seen as useful tools for self-help or simply a more sophisticated means by which to get people ‘on their bikes’ remains to be seen. The Government would argue that falls in child poverty, teenage pregnancies and school exclusions as well as reported success of its numeracy and literacy strategies all vindicate the direction in which it has moved the poverty debate. This essay has analysed the problems associated with trying to define poverty.

It has looked at the contrasting concepts of absolute and relative poverty and discussed their respective shortcomings. Both also fail to recognise the more fluid reality of poverty in all societies, instead hanging their definitions on the notion of a static underclass. All of the major studies discussed also make the mistake of imposing abstract notions of what poverty actually is. Since poverty means different things to different people it could be said that poverty is indefinable strictly speaking.

Therefore the transition to the vocabulary of social exclusion is a practical step for both government and social researchers too long occupied with trying to find an objective poverty line, which it could be argued, does not exist. Rather than trying to define measures by which people can be told whether or not they are poor, the aim must be to highlight areas of social difficulty and tackle the multitude of problems that are present within them. Government must continue to recognise the importance of tackling ‘neighbourhoods that have become no go areas for some and no exit areas for others’ (Blair).

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