Classic Texts: Peter Townsend "Poverty in the United Kingdom" 1979
Last updated 23 Apr 2019
Via the use of questionnaires, Peter Townsend developed a new way to measure poverty in the UK which he argued was more appropriate and useful than the official measures.
Townsend was critical of the official state measurement of poverty. This was the sort of means-testing performed by government to determine that people were entitled to welfare support or benefits of various sorts. Townsend argued that the government of the day decided this measure based on their political views and how much money there was available to spend.
Another measure was relative income. It could be determined how a household's income compared with the average income in a given area. Again Townsend did not think this was as useful or informative as it should be. Household incomes are difficult to measure (there might be more coming in than salaries) and different households have different outgoings.
Townsend developed a new measure instead which he described as relative deprivation. He accessed a large sample with his questionnaires and developed a measure - an index - based on a great number of things such as food, clothes, fuel, leisure activities, etc. He argued that people were relatively deprived if they did not have access to those things that were widely available in society.
By this measure, far more people were relatively deprived than the state considered to be in poverty. He found that approximately 22% of the population was in poverty, compared with approximately 6% and 9% based on the other measures.
However, his research methods have been questioned. After all, people may choose not to purchase certain things rather than not be able to afford them. A lack of fresh meat for vegetarians is not an indication that vegetarians are poor! Also, to generalise to the whole population he needed to be very confident that his sample was representative - official measures are based on a lot more data.