What is poverty?

Professionals often think about specific types of poverty, or dimensions of poverty, and understand these very well but have trouble thinking about the common themes that tie them all together. For example, professionals will talk about food poverty, transport poverty, poverty of opportunity, and poverty of health, both physical and mental. However, the holistic nature of poverty is lost when just one experience of poverty is the focus. Peter Townsend’s (1979: 31) definition from Poverty in the United Kingdom may help:

"People are relatively deprived if they cannot obtain, at all, or sufficiently, the conditions of life – that is, the diets, amenities, standards and services which allow them to play the roles, participate in the relatonships and follow the customary behaviour which is expected of them by virtue of their membership of society. If they lack or are denied the incomes, or more exactly the resources… to obtain access to these conditions of life they can be defined to be in poverty."

It’s hard to overstress how much more helpful a good definition of poverty is compared to a more ‘operational’ definition of poverty, or a purely statistical definition. We could (and it has been done before) easily instead choose a nutrition-based definition of poverty, such as poverty being when a person cannot afford to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables per day or a portion of meat every other day. Although this is easier to measure, there is no nuance around how it shapes our participation in society and, most importantly, it neglects the feelings and experiences that people who live or have lived in poverty associate with it.

The crucial part is that Townsend’s definition includes the important fact that our lives are social, cultural, and relational. What we are able to accomplish relative to other people matters to us. What other people think about us matters to us. How much we’re able to take part in our society and culture matters to us and, by virtue of being a human being, we are entitled to some level of participation in the human world and some minimum level of respect and recognition from our cohabitants.

Even if we take a very ‘objectively’ reducible need like hunger, the amount and types of food we require depends on the kind of work we need to do. Further, we have many cultural events that are linked to food. If we do not have the resources required for the types of food needed to throw a modest celebration say, for a family member’s birthday, we are not able to fully participate in our customary roles. When we are not able to participate in life life in this way, it manifests in feelings of shame within ourselves (Walker 2014) and stigma from others (Lister 2004; Shildrick 2016, 2018). These are feelings that are directly related to our lack of resources and therefore poverty.

We are social beings who, for the most part, want to be seen as productive, valuable and valued members of society. When our resources – economic, social, or cultural – prevent us from achieving this, it has an impact. It places a large amount of stress on us – physically and mentally - to try and manage limited resources and participate as fully as we can. Our behaviours and actions can become constrained and we may make sacrifices to balance our investment of limited resources across many psychological, social, and cultural needs.

People can respond to poverty by becoming anxious, withdrawn, depressed, angry, or hopeless. But we also see responses of resoluteness, pride, resilience and resourcefulness at the level of the individual and community. These are often forgotten about. As practitioners, but more importantly as fellow human beings, when trying to understand the impact poverty has on someone’s life and how it affects their actions, we need to consider not only their ‘failures’ to participate and the risks these might entail, but their successes in organising limited resources to maximise balanced participation. A shared conceptual understanding of poverty enables us to do both.

The crucial part is that Townsend’s definition includes the important fact that our lives are social, cultural, and relational. What we are able to accomplish relative to other people matters to us. What other people think about us matters to us. How much we’re able to take part in our society and culture matters to us and, by virtue of being a human being, we are entitled to some level of participation in the human world and some minimum level of respect and recognition from our cohabitants.

As this discussion implies, poverty is multidimensional and not solely about money. Sociologists have tried to identify these dimensions by speaking to experts, practitioners, and people with lived experience, with earlier ideas proposed by Bob Baulch (1996) and later developed by Ruth Lister (2004) and Paul Spicker (2007).

More recently, a participatory approach across six countries led by ATD Fourth World and the University of Oxford has developed a report with more evidence for what they identify as the key dimensions of poverty, including: disempowerment; suffering in mind, body, and heart; struggle and resistance; institutional maltreatment; social maltreatment; unrecognised contributions; lack of decent work; insufficient and insecure income; and material and social deprivation. The OECD have published the full report here: https://www.oecd.org/statistics/addressing-the-hidden-dimensions-of-poverty.htm

This participatory approach shows that there are multiple modifying factors that can change the experiences and presentations of poverty. For example, gender inequalities mean women may experience different kinds of poverty than men or are expected to respond in different ways. In particular, there is a greater societal expectation on women to take up caring roles and emotional work which is often an unrecognised contribution (Duncombe and Marsden, 1993; 1995).

Similarly, people from ethnic minority groups have been less likely to be employed than white people, even though, in employment, they were usually overqualified for positions but passed up for promotion and underemployed in the roles that they are in (The McGregor-Smith Review, 2018). Populations of Caribbean ethnic minority groups also have overall higher rates of children being taken into care than White British children, which may reflect institutional maltreatment (Bywaters, et al. 2019).

Why social workers need to be concerned about poverty

Poverty affects people adversely in multiple ways and can be compounded or caused by the actions of the state and state representatives. In the UK, social workers have legal duties, powers, and training to intervene and rectify some of these injustices and prevent risk.

As can be seen below, alleviating poverty is also highly effective for improving adults’ and children’s outcomes: poverty leads to a spiral of problems, anti-poverty can lead to an updraft of mutually reinforcing positives. But addressing poverty is not purely about it being an effective or efficient form of reducing risk. Social workers should engage with issues of poverty because it is consistent with their professional values. There are ethical justifications embedded in social work practice that need to be considered.

Social work values and poverty

The Anti-Poverty Practice Guide draws on the ‘Values and ethical principles’ and ‘Social Justice’ domains of the BASW Code of Ethics, namely:

  1. Upholding and promoting human dignity and well-being: BASW believes social workers should understand that poverty is a violation of peoples’ dignity. It leads to denial of resources required for a decent life. Poverty causes shame and affects peoples’ sense of their worth.
  2. Respecting the right to self-determination: Poverty causes social exclusion, thereby disempowering people from involvement in issues affecting them.
  3. Promoting the right to participation: Similar to the principle above, poverty implies a lack of participation, either voluntarily, or because peoples’ involvement is denied by powerful actors and institutions.
  4. Distributing resources: Social workers believe that poverty is not a character flaw. Instead, it is the denial of resources and opportunities to others and, consequently, social workers have a role to play in fair redistribution. In practice this can be achieved through welfare advocacy and a rights-based approach to anti-poverty practice.
  5. Challenging unjust policies and practices: The  ongoing period of austerity exemplifies this point – unjust welfare benefit cuts, cuts to services (Webb and Bywaters, 2019), and restrictions of eligibility to welfare has led to increases in poverty across the UK. Anti-poverty practice entails the profession’s collective opposition and intervention in this political decision to reduce benefits for people.

What causes poverty?

It is critical we should also understand a little about what causes poverty, there is a temptation, one that social workers are not immune from, to place the blame for people’s poverty completely or almost completely on their own personal choices and characters (Shildrick 2018, Morris et al. 2018).

The idea that people are primarily responsible for their own poverty is false. The reasons people believe this to be true most commonly include ideas of ‘cultures’ of worklessness, or work shyness, and that, by extension, people in are poverty because they are either lazy, feckless or both. Characterisations of people as having undesirable traits with regards to how they dress (‘dyed hair’, ‘grey joggers’), talk, and spend their time (‘chatting, drinking, smoking on the street’) carry the implication that poverty is an inevitable feature of certain class cultures (Morris et al. 2018).

Tracy Shildrick, Robert MacDonald, and their colleagues (2010, 2012) have studied these claims in detail, largely in the context of the reasons why people are distanced from the labour market. Many would argue that not being employed is the main cause of poverty as this also supports the idea that individualised characteristics and failings are responsible for poverty via the mediator of employment. However, what matters and prevents this are structural factors, not individual factors. Shildrick et al. (2010, 2012) found no evidence of cultures of worklessness and that many people out of work wanted and were actively seeking employment, but factors outside their control such as the health of the local labour market or the lack of adequate child- and adult-care services prevented them.

Even this assumes that the labour market is an effective route out of poverty, but this is not so. In 2017/18, 72 per cent of children in poverty lived in families where at least one adult was in work
(Goulden 2019). If poverty is due to character and personal choices, and the majority of people have the personal characteristics that enable them to work and then make the choice to work, how can they still be in poverty? The reasons are structural, not personal: low-pay, poor quality work, and job insecurity.

How poverty impacts on...

Cognitive, social, and behavioural development

  • Numerous high-quality experimental studies in the US (reviewed by Cooper and Stewart, 2013; 2017) found that an increase of $1,000 in annual income caused an increase of between 5 and 27 per cent of a standard deviation in cognitive development and between 9 and 24 per cent of a standard deviation in social and behavioural outcomes.
  • In their review, Does money affect children’s outcomes?, Cooper and Stewart (2013) estimate that increasing the annual household income for children in receipt of free school meals by£7,000 would be enough to close the attainment gap between children on free school meals and children not on free school meals at Key Stage 2.

Healthy diet

  • The latest statistics from the Trussell Trust (2019) highlights that the number of food parcels given out has risen by 73 per cent since 2013/14. The number of parcels has increased from around 913,000 to nearly 1.6 million. In comparison, in 2010-11 the number of food parcels provided was 61,468.
  • Research from the Food Foundation’s (2019) Broken Plate Report found that the poorest 10 per cent of households would have to spend 74 per cent of their “disposable” income (income after rent) on food to meet the government’s EatWell guidelines. This leads to poorer families choosing less nutritious, but more filling food.
  • Pioneering research by Kayleigh Garthwaite in Hunger Pains (2016) explores the stigma and shame of people forced to use food banks because of insecure work and low income, as well as their resourcefulness and resilience.


  • Ferragina et al. (2017) found that material deprivation, social deprivation, and trust hit a low-level floor once income dropped below the bottom third of all incomes.
  • There is little research on cultural participation but work by Mark Taylor (2016) found that those with high levels of engagement in state-supported culture (museums, galleries, opera houses, libraries) tended to be wealthy, well-educated, and white.

Parental conflict

  • Fahmy, et al. (2016) report that in households with both low incomes and high levels of social and material deprivation nearly 6 per cent report recent physical abuse from a partner, compared to 1 per cent in non-poor households.

Stress and parental mental health

  • High quality experimental research (also reviewed by Cooper and Stewart, 2013; 2017) found an increase in income of US$1000 was associated with better maternal mental health.

Poverty, shame, stigma and how people respond

People who live in poverty have been stigmatised as ‘skivers’ (Shildrick et al. 2010, 2012; Shildrick 2018; Valentine and Harris 2014) who not only are unemployed but do not want to take up job opportunities. Although most people in poverty living in the UK are employed (Goulden 2019), stigmatisation, particularly through (social) media, results in the creation of ‘them’ versus ‘us’, or as people ‘undeserving’ of social support.

It is important to remember that this practice of stigmatisation is something that takes active reflection to avoid. There is cultural and psychological pressure to participate in the kind of stigmatisation and othering that people do, largely because we live in a society that believes wealth and consumption is an indicator of merit and achievement. More visibly, we see forms of media that paint one biased picture of people living in poverty (‘Benefits Street’ or the long-running and recently cancelled ‘Jeremy Kyle Show’). More subtly, many systems are designed to reinforce negative judgements about people in poverty, such as the high scrutiny of effort that JSA claimants are placed under by the processes of the Jobcentre, perpetuating an idea that they cannot be trusted.

Social workers need to reflect on the chains of events and types of disadvantage that might result in a ‘cycle of poverty’. To do this, time for reflexive practice, supervision, and training from experts with lived experience is necessary, a striking example being The Roles We Play, a book where people with experience of poverty tell their own stories about their place in the community (www.atd-uk.org/projects-campaigns/the-roles-we-play).

It has been noted that these patterns of belief lead to people in poverty developing an internalised sense of shame (Brown 2006; Walker 2014). This shame can have a psychological impact on people that social workers should be aware of: 

  • It negatively affects peoples’ sense of their identity and worth – and their relations with others (Gibson 2016). In social work this may manifest itself in mental illness or people’s lack of confidence in their ability to offer appropriate parenting to their children.
  • For people living in poverty, to escape shame, they may not claim the benefits that they are entitled to or seek support from professionals and their relatives (Shildrick et al. 2010).
  • Research has also found that to escape shame, people may limit or stop social interaction because this costs money (Chase and Walker 2014). In social work practice, this is an example of how poverty may lead to increased social isolation.
  • Finally, Shildrick and MacDonald (2013) use the phrase ‘the normalisation of everyday hardship’ to explain how in an attempt to cope with shame people will deny that they are facing hardship because of poverty. This can be difficult issue for social workers because people may obscure their difficulties, thereby making it hard to assess their level of need and hence the effect of poverty on them. The practitioner’s response may be to consider the person as ‘difficult’ or ‘lying’ when this is a rational response of emotional and psychological self-preservation.