What is poverty?

When we think about poverty many of us recall TV images from the developing world: of famine, of shanty towns, or of children dying from preventable diseases. Yet this is clearly not what we observe in the UK.

So is there any poverty here?

Peter Townsend, the sociologist who did so much to advance our understanding of poverty and its relationship to wider society, and was also one of CPAG’s founders, certainly thought so. In 1979 Townsend defined poverty as follows:

Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack resources to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong.1

As this definition makes clear, in affluent societies such as the UK poverty can only properly be understood in relation to the typical living standards in society.

Townsend’s definition also highlights that poverty is about a lack of resources. Poor people lack capital (both income and wealth). But they can also be resource-poor in other ways: they may lack human capital (such as education or good health), or social capital (such as positive and trustful communities). Yet it is money that, to a large extent, determines whether people are able to compensate for other shortfalls in their lives. That is why a lack of adequate financial resources is the decisive characteristic of poverty.

And as the information on this section of our website shows, poverty is indeed a fact of life for many living in the UK today.

  • 1. P Townsend, Poverty in the United Kingdom, Allen Lane, 1979