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In what ways do definitions of poverty affect conclusions about the extent of poverty in society?

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In what ways do definitions of poverty affect conclusions about the extent of poverty in society? Definitions of poverty affect conclusions about how much poverty exists in society. When individuals think of poverty they visualise poor countries like Africa, communities with no food, clean water, clothes, shelter and health needs. Two main definitions of poverty: absolute and relative, have both individually affected conclusions of the extent of poverty in society. Research shows that there are many factors for poverty and not just lack of food, shelter ect. Absolute poverty emerged through pioneering research by Charles Booth's London study and Seebohm Rowntree's York study. Poverty was determined by an income level through a 'poverty line' - set by subsistence level and an objective measure. Although much criticism from sociologists resulted in Rowntrees poverty line being modified by 1930s. Absolute poverty is basically defined as not having the bare basics to live and physical needs which are usually seen as the most important as each individual needs food, clothing and shelter in order to survive and live healthy life. One of the first studies of poverty was conducted by sociologist Seebohm Rowntree in York (1899). He defined absolute poverty in subsistence terms, 'nothing must be bought but that which is absolutely necessary for the maintenances of physical health and what is bought must be of the plainest and most economical description'. Rowntree worked out an allowance for a basic diet, clothing, rent, family size; this was called his poverty line.


He concluded that 22.9% of population lived in poverty whereas the state figures set the level of those in poverty at 6.1%. These items off the list would certainly effect the conclusion of poverty in society, as it appears everyone is in poverty. This would lead to a rise in unreliable poverty statistics due to individuals relaying on this list. Criticism of this is that the list does not take into account individual preferences. For example, every vegetarian is poor, as they would not have meat at least four times a week, which would conclude that poverty on this level is far from accurate. Furthermore, Townsend's definition of relative poverty has come under criticisms from David Piachaud(81) who argued that the index on the Townsend Statistics were based was inadequate. (This might reflect cultural and social differences rather than deprivation). As with Sen (1985), he argued that his research measures inequality rather than poverty. Moreover, Wedderburn(1974), argued that his choice of indicators is arbitrary and subjective, reflecting Townsend's values. J.Mack and S. Lansley (1983) Breadline Britain, their research attempted to address the above criticisms of relative definitions. They wanted to distinguish between: lifestyles people could not afford, e.g. Lack of money to go dancing and lifestyles they chose to follow, e.g. Those who have the money, although they choose and prefer to sit in and watch telly. The aim of their survey was to determine what the general public considered a necessity, and by 'doing without' reflected choice or necessity.


Although overall world poverty is decreasing and between 1970-2006, the global poverty rate has been cut by nearly three quarters. World population living on $1 a day went from 26.8% in 1970 to 5.4 in 2006. It seen a fall of 86% in South Asia, 73% in Latin America, 39% of the middle east and 20% in Africa. This proves the decrease in absolute poverty in developed countries, and mainly only exists in undeveloped one like Africa. Looking at the overall picture this essay suggests that both definitions to poverty have played a big role in society and helped it find ways to reduce poverty. Although both definitions may have their faults that certainly change your conclusion to poverty and play big role in society. For instance, poverty must include some element of absolute poverty, especially when discussing poverty in the third world. Also comparing relative poverty levels between different countries does not sufficiently take into account the differences in standards of living. In reality it is more a measure of inequality. For example, an individual who is relatively poor in a rich country usually suffers less material deprivation than those living in a country which has low overall living standards. These countries poverty would be concluded as more extreme, with lack of basic necessities and survival can be more of a struggle, although because the general living standards are lower in these countries, there may be less relative poverty i.e. minimal differences between poor and the living standards of everyone else. This can lead to confusion around how the extent of poverty and run the risk of underplaying the severity of the poverty suffered by some groups.

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