The first results have just been published from the largest survey ever undertaken of poverty and social exclusion in the UK – the PSE-UK survey. They make for shocking reading – or viewing for those who saw the ITV documentary ‘Tonight: Breadline Britain’.
Unlike most Government statistics on poverty which use a measure of income, this approach measures people’s actual living standards directly. And unlike the Government statistics, the survey uses a consensual or democratic approach to defining minimum standards or the ‘poverty line’.
The PSE-UK study uses two surveys. The first survey measures public opinion on which items people think that everyone should have and which activities they think everyone should be able to afford to do – the ‘necessities’. Separate lists cover adults and children. For adults, for example, the majority of the population thinks that necessities include a damp-free home and two meals a day. For children, the majority thinks that necessities include three meals a day and a holiday away from home for one week a year.
The survey shows that one effect of the recession has been to make people slightly less generous in their views about the minimum standard. Some items which had been regarded as necessities in the 1999 survey were no longer regarded as such in 2012. In other words, the public see poverty in ‘relative’ terms – their sense of the minimum standard rising and falling with living standards in general.
The second survey examines living standards, and identifies how many people are unable to afford each necessity due to lack of money. One striking feature of the minimum standard which the public defines in this survey is how far above current levels of welfare benefits or minimum wages it is. For Scotland, for example:
- Over 1-in-5 people (21%) suffers from a damp, inadequately heated or poorly decorated home. The majority of Scots (over 50%) think that everyone no one should have to suffer any of these things.
- The great majority of Scots (over 75%) think that all children should have: three meals a day; fresh fruit and vegetables daily; and meat/fish or vegetarian equivalent every day. 3% of Scottish families contain children who lack at least one food item.
- 1-in-12 working-age adults cannot afford appropriate clothes for a job interview (8%). Among unemployed adults, the figure is more than 2-in-5 (41%).
For Britain as a whole, we can also compare the results for 2012 with those for similar surveys in 1983, 1990, and 1999. These show that the situation today is worse than it has been for the past thirty years. In 1983, 14% of the British population suffered from multiple deprivation by the standards set by the public. Today, it is 33%.
Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant RES-060-25-0052), the project involves teams from the Universities of Bristol, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, Queens Belfast and York, as well as the Open University. For more details, please visit the project website (www.poverty.ac.uk).
Nick Bailey is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Glasgow. He is also a member of the Board of the Poverty Alliance. he can be contacted at email@example.com .