Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Basic standard of living: what is poverty these days?

By Rebecca Leach
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have just published a new report which gives findings from their survey of the British population on which items are regarded as 'essential' for a basic standard of living. Some of the findings are surprising: a car is considered a 'luxury' item, but holidays and bottles of wine are considered 'essentials' by most people.

Much of the media debate this morning has focused on the hysterical response to this kind of contrast: partly fuelled (do you see what I did there?) by rising fuel prices, there are many indignant cries of 'How dare you call a car a luxury, when I must drive everywhere and there is no public transport!?', alongside equally indignant objections to the idea that people on low incomes ought to be entitled to live in reasonable comfort as opposed to abject misery: 'how dare single mothers feel they need a DVD player; why aren't they out scraping streets with their babies strapped to their backs in sackcloth and ashes...?'. And so on ad nauseum.

But what the JRF is doing is opening a really interesting debate about quality of life. In a wealthy country like ours, expectations should be higher. Beyond basic food, shelter and clothing (but let's not forget for many people, this is still the main issue), poverty is a relative concept. In the UK and the US for example, there is plenty of money to go around to provide people with relative comfort: the problem is that most of it is still in the hands of the wealthy. In fact, the government measure of poverty is already a relative one (usually measured at 60% of the median income - which means it changes all the time, and this is one reason why the government is finding it very hard to meet the target they set on child poverty).

If a 'minimum standard of living' can be established, then a 'minimum income standard' can be established which gives more precise guidance to policy makers about what people need. According to the JRF, this is about £13,000 per year for a single person and around £27000 for a couple with kids. Many on the BBC site (linked above) are screeching that this is far too low. That may be true for people with high consumer expectations. But for many people on really low incomes, or managing on benefits, £13k would be a lifeline.

This raises some interesting sociological questions too. How do we value stuff? Is it OK to include previously luxury items as essential? Who decides? One way to think about this is to get some perspective on how this boundary between luxury and necessity changes over time and space. 400 years ago, for some people, wearing purple silk was a necessity; for others, it was banned. In Papua New Guinea, string bags are essential for status and subsistence - they could count as both luxury and necessity at the same time. Tampons are taxed as a luxury in the UK. What this flexibility tells us is that the distinction between essential and luxury is a social distinction, used to define status boundaries, membership and identities (it performs a 'function' for society if you want a 'perspective' to label it with).

All this and more essential (!) discussion with your resident Keele experts on consumer culture, objects and taste: Lydia Martens and Rebecca Leach; and on policy issues relating to family life: Emma Head and Graham Allan: we teach a range of modules on similar topics on our programme...

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