Poverty Persists in Britain Today

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  • Topic: Poverty, Poverty threshold, Welfare state
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  • Published : May 6, 2007
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Poverty persists in Britain today. Discuss

Sociologists disagree on the definitions, causes and solutions of poverty. This essay will discuss firstly the definitions of poverty, including Seebohm Rowntree and Peter Townsend, then the causes which will cover both left and right wing theories, and finally the solutions of poverty which will look at welfare reforms.

Sociologists have in the past defined poverty in three terms, absolute, relative and essential poverty. Many longitudinal studies have been carried out in the past 200 years to attempt to measure poverty. One of the first studies was conducted by Seebohm Rowntree in 1899. Rowntree was a rich industrialist who lived in York. He defined the poverty line in terms of the amount of money needed to purchase the minimum necessities. These were, according to Rowntree, food, shelter and clothing. Rowntree spent two years conducting his survey. He worked out a budget and gave a living allowance according to the size of each family. He divided the families into two types of households, those in primary poverty, and others in secondary poverty. Families in primary poverty were those ‘whose total earnings were insufficient to obtain the minimum necessities for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency' (Taylor, P et al, 2002) Families in secondary poverty were those ‘whose total earnings would not be sufficient of merely physical efficiency were it not for some of it were absorbed by other expenditure, either useful or wasteful' (Taylor, P et al, 2002) (Adcock, P, 1997)

In 1899, it was found through Rowntrees studies that 33% of York was living in poverty. Rowntree carried out further studies of York in 1936 and 1950 and in these studies he included allowances for items such as tobacco, holidays and presents. Research soon showed that even with the looser approach the percentage of people in York who were living in poverty fell to 18 % in 1936 and to just 1.5% in 1950. Rowntree based his findings on a working husband and a non working wife who had three children and an income of 43s 6d a week in 1936 and that of 100s 2d per week in 1950. Rowntree argued that the standard of living had improved considerably over half a century and that poverty was in decline. (Taylor, P et al, 2002)

There were positive and negative points to Rowntrees research. Other sociologists have argued that the monetary budget approach that Rowntree used had made unrealistic assumptions about the way that people spent their money. The first study in 1899 had not made allowances for the unemployed, sick or disabled. Individual circumstances were not taken into account. His poverty line only accounted for those who had an average income and that he had not accurately accounted for the wastage of families. His research was thought to be too restrictive. Rowntrees 1936 survey was affected by the depression of the 1930's. As taxes rose, millions were soon unemployed. It is argued that the percentage of people in York who were living in poverty in 1936 was more like 31%, and that the studies done in 1950 were later shown to prove that it was more like 10% of people in York were living in poverty than the earlier estimate of 1.5%.(http://www.jrf.org.uk/centenary) (Taylor, P et al, 2002)

Another sociologist who supported the relative poverty idea was Peter Townsend. Townsend played a leading role in the 50's, 60's and 70's in making the public aware of the continuing existence of poverty. He rejected the relative income standard of poverty which defined that poverty is an income of less than 50% the national average. Townsend defined poverty in terms of relative deprivation as follows; ‘Individuals, families and groups in the population 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 or approved within societies to which they...
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