A state in which resources, usually material but sometimes cultural, are lacking. It is common to distinguish between absolute and relative definitions of poverty. Poverty defined in absolute terms refers to a state in which the individual lacks the resources necessary for subsistence. Relative definitions, frequently favoured by sociologists (especially when studying poverty in advanced industrial societies), refer to the individual's or group's lack of resources when compared with that of other members of the society-in other words their relative standard of living. Since relative poverty is a matter of differences in levels of material resources-that is, of inequalities in their distribution across a society-measures of relative poverty are potentially no less objective than those of absolute poverty. They are not simply a matter of subjective feelings of poverty, though such feelings may be of importance when analysing the consequences of poverty.
Subsistence definitions of poverty are of considerable value in examining Third World poverty, and international studies show that the overall level of poverty measured in subsistence terms is very high, with some studies suggesting that almost half of those in low-income countries live in absolute poverty. The very high level of poverty is unquestionable even though very precise measures of poverty are hard to obtain in societies where income gives only an imprecise indication of access to the means of subsistence. Significantly, the classic studies of poverty in Britain by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree also used subsistence definitions and identified rather high levels of poverty, though not as high as those of present-day Third World societies. Booth, in his seventeen-volume study of The Life and Labour of the People in London (1889-1903), used income as a measure of poverty. Introducing the concept of a poverty line , a level below which families were unable to meet the necessities for subsistence, he provided evidence that somewhere near one-third of the whole population in London were in poverty. Rowntree's study of poverty in York at the turn of the century also used a subsistence definition. However, he introduced rather more precision by trying to determine the basic diets necessary for subsistence and then calculating the income needed to provide these subsistence diets, with an allowance for clothing and housing. His evidence showed some 15 per cent of York's population were in primary poverty, with earnings insufficient to meet basic needs. Adding in secondary poverty, where earnings were sufficient but were spent on other things, some 28 per cent were living in obvious want or squalor. His 1936 survey, using modified measures, yielded figures of just under 7 per cent and 18 per cent respectively. By 1950 poverty in Britain appeared almost to have disappeared following the introduction of the welfare state , and Rowntree concluded that fewer than 2 per cent were in poverty.
In the 1960s, however, poverty was ‘rediscovered’. In Britain, writers such as Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend argued that the measures of poverty used by researchers such as Rowntree had not been properly adjusted to take account of changes in the purchasing power of incomes over time, and so were underestimating subsistence poverty. (A parallel story can be told about the United States-for which see the references at the end of this entry.) They also contended that poverty was better defined in relative than in absolute terms. Families might have sufficient resources for survival, but this did not mean they had enough to keep themselves warm or to afford the new consumer durables (such as televisions or fridges) which were coming to seem increasingly necessary, or to participate in the social and leisure activities enjoyed by other families. They were consequently excluded from the ‘ordinary social life of the community’. Abel-Smith and Townsend used as a measure of relative poverty a family's position vis-à-vis social security (welfare payment) levels, finding nearly 15 per cent of the population in poverty. Subsequent studies, such as Townsend's monumental studyPoverty (1978), refined the measures of relative poverty and continued to show significant proportions in poverty-proportions that seemed to increase during the 1980s with growing inequality and reductions in welfare provision. Recent figures suggest that perhaps one in five of the British population are in poverty, although these are the subject of much controversy, as indeed are the poverty figures for almost all advanced industrial societies.
The immediate causes of poverty vary over time and over the life-cycle. Booth and Rowntree found low and irregular earnings were a major cause. (Rowntree showed that at least half of primary poverty in 1897-98 was due to low wages and over a fifth to large families.) However, Rowntree's 1936 study suggested that unemployment and old age were more significant causes than formerly. By the time of Townsend's study, the main immediate causes were low pay, loss of the breadwinner, ill-health, unemployment, and old-age, with the key groups in poverty being the elderly, single parents, the long-term sick and disabled, the low-paid, and the unemployed. Women are over-represented amongst the poor-a finding that has led some writers to talk of a feminization of poverty.
This mapping of change in the immediate causes of poverty indicates that it is economic and structural factors and social misfortune, not individual weakness in the form of idleness or imprudence, that are the major causes of poverty. Indeed, in order fully to understand poverty, it is necessary to examine the general distribution of wealth and of social inequality in society. A range of theories attempt to do this. Liberal neo-classical accounts stress the role of the market in distributing resources in relation to talents, skills, and motivations, arguing that poverty is necessary to provide a system of incentives to individual effort, and that those who end up in poverty lack the appropriate talents and skills. Subsidizing the poor can interfere with the smooth functioning of the market. However, such accounts, though they refer to structural features, are non the less often associated with assumptions that individuals are themselves to blame for their poverty: it is their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour that are at fault. This argument has been applied to the family and the social group, not just the individual, via concepts such as the ‘culture of poverty’: that is, a cultural milieu characterized by fatalism, resignation, and idleness, which is antithetical to achievement, hard work, and self-reliance, and tends to be passed on between generations. Such views have, however, been challenged by a range of empirical studies of the lives of the poor.
In contrast, Marxist accounts emphasize the role of capitalism and capitalist interests in generating poverty, both nationally and internationally. The argument here is that capitalism is based on the exploitation of labour and this applies both nationally and globally. Depending on the state of capitalist development and the particular requirements of capitalists, there may be a need for cheap labour and pressures to keep wages down, for a high level of unemployment, and for a minimization of welfare benefits, so that profits are maximized. Stripped of its Marxist gloss, the argument is that the level of poverty is a function of the nature of economic organization, and of processes concerning both the distribution of wealth and of welfare benefits. It is less that poverty is necessary to the smooth-running of the market, but that it may be politically and economically advantageous for those with power to pursue policies that increase rather than diminish inequality and poverty.
The extensive sociological literature on poverty overlaps with that on race , ethnicity , subcultures , the underclass , and stratification generally-more so in the United States than in Britain (see, Poverty Policy and Poverty Research, 1987). On the ‘rediscovery’ of poverty in the United States during the 1960s see the Appendix by, ‘Urban Poverty: A State-of-the-Art Review of the Literature’, in , The Truly Disadvantaged (1987).

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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