Core poverty

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Social Policy Research Unit


Jonathan Bradshaw and Naomi Finch

Paper for a seminar at

Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion

LSE, London

7 March 2001

Social Policy Research Unit+University of York+Heslington+York+YO10 5DD+UK

phone ++441904433480; fax ++441904433477;

30 years ago, as a graduate student in the (new) Department of Social Administration and Social Work at the University of York, I (jb) wrote a section of an MPhil thesis on the Needs of the over 80s in York entitled A Taxonomy of Social Need. Kathleen Jones (supervisor) sent it to Richard Barker who published it in New Society (Bradshaw 1972) and Gordon McLaughlin also published a version in a Nuffield collection (Bradshaw 1972). As a result it got into the text books and as an external examiner I am still forced to read it fed back in undergraduate scripts. I never subsequently developed those ideas (but see Bradshaw 1994), partly because of the flaws that I recognised in the thinking and partly because the taxonomy was developed in the context of community care policies which have not since been a particular interest.
The heart of the argument in The Taxonomy was that there was a thing called Real Need. Real need was some combination of four types of need - normative need, felt need, demand and comparative need - each of which were different types of need and could be measured in different ways. These four elements of need overlapped and perhaps somewhere in the overlap real need could be found. It was suggested that policy makers allocating scarce resources should perhaps focus on real need - rather than (just) normative need or felt need or demand or comparative need.
Poverty is a real need and one that policy makers are now seeking to tackle. Poverty (if it means anything) is a categorical need - one that must be met for human beings to function. Poverty is also associated with all the major problems in Britain. Indeed there are strong reasons for suggesting (in the language of Beveridge’s Giants) that we need to deal with want if we are to be successful in tackling ignorance, squalor, disease and possibly idleness.
But how do we define real need or core poverty?
In poverty research we have used a variety of measures, all of which have established traditions, well rehearsed rationales and a solid empirical basis. Appendix 1 to Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain (Gordon et al 2000) reviewed them under the following headings

In this paper we will draw on these traditions (except budget standards) to explore the notion of Core Poverty. Part of the motivation for this is that those of us who do research on poverty and social security, until recently anyway, have found it difficult (impossible during the Tory years) to convince the policy community of the urgency of the problem of poverty. The finding that 35 per cent of children are living in families with equivalent income less than 50 per cent of the contemporary average after housing costs and including the self employed in 1998/99 - somehow has lacked moral force, persuasive power, credibility or even understanding! Though we have been critical of the detail (Bradshaw 2001) I applaud the efforts now being made by DSS to establish a set of indicators (in the Opportunity for All reports (2000)). This paper is a contribution to that activity. It is an exploration of a concept of real poverty based on ideas first outlined in Taxonomy of Need. It has been made possible by the Survey of Poverty and Social Exclusions in Britain (Gordon et al 2000). A brief summary of the PSE survey is given in the first three charts (in the PowerPoint version). A Rowntree report has been published (Gordon et al 2000). The data is now available at the Essex ESRC Survey Archive. The research team have written a host of working papers (available on the project web site ( and it is hoped that they will be collected together in an edited book (by Levitas and Pantazis and published by Policy Press).


Real need exists when people are in some combination ( to be decided) of

Normative need

Represented here by a lack of socially perceived necessities. This is based on the social indicator methodology pioneered by Townsend (1979) and developed especially by Mack and Lansley (1993) and Gordon and Pantazis (1998). For the PSE survey we developed a new and more elaborate index than previously (including a separate index for children). We established the proportion of the general population who considered an item was a necessity in a survey that preceded the PSE survey. Only items that 50 per cent or more of the general population considered were necessities were included in the index. For the PSE survey Dave Gordon did some work on the validity of the index (and excluded some items, which did not contribute significantly). He also identified a threshold of lacking two or more items and having a low income as the PSE poverty threshold. In this paper we are covering low income in other ways so we merely count the proportion of households lacking 4 or more adult necessities. In the PSE survey 17.2 per cent lacked four or more necessities.

Felt need

Felt need is represented here by those who say that they feel poor. In the PSE survey we used three sets of questions to measure subjective poverty, including an attempt to operationalise the Absolute and Overall notions of poverty adopted by the UN World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995 (UN 1995). But this paper uses the results obtained from the following questions.

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