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Expanding our understanding of poverty

Posted on 19 September 2011 by Claudia Wood, Deputy Director at Demos .
Tags: Demos, Multidimensional Poverty Project, inequality, poverty

Demos and NatCen, with the support of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, have joined forces for a major new research project – one which aims to radically expand the way we think about poverty as a multi-dimensional phenomenon.

Of course, many measures of multi-dimensional poverty already exist. But none have yet captured politicians’ imaginations or resonated with the public. For the most part, we still think about poverty as an income-based phenomenon – the policy response has been influenced accordingly and limited to income-based solutions, usually through work. But with rates of in-work poverty rising, and not all people having equal capacity to work, policy makers are rapidly realising there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for lifting people out of poverty.

That's where the Multidimensional Poverty Project comes in. We will take poverty measurement one step further, by defining poverty in a multi-dimensional way and then clustering indicators together to show how they interact in discrete groups. These will be the most common ‘types’ of poverty in the UK today. Each type will each be made up of a unique cluster of factors – not just low income or unemployment, but also poor housing and health, access to services, material deprivation and skills and capabilities.

We hope, by doing this, we will create a measure based on the lived experiences of those in poverty.

The project involves complementary qualitative and quantitative research carried out by Demos and NatCen. At its core will be analysis of the Understanding Society dataset to identify common poverty ‘types’, and interviews with people experiencing these different types of poverty to ensure they resonate with real life. To find out more about how we've approached the set up of this study, Matt Barnes' blog makes interesting reading.

But the ultimate aim of this project is to create a measure of poverty which can also be used as a practical tool to help combat it. The toolkit accompanying the measure – which we will pilot next year – will include ways in which local authorities, practitioners in the third sector and national policy makers can identify the different poverty types in an area, and use local resources to develop strategies to tackle that specific type of poverty.

Those fighting poverty every day know that a family in poor health and poor housing needs a different set of interventions to a family with an unstable job and poor literacy. We hope to give these practitioners a valuable new tool – one which recognises the differences in the lived experience of modern poverty, and, better still, provide guidance on how to reach them and develop the most effective interventions.

It is an ambitious project – but in the current economic and political climate, with high unemployment, welfare reforms and service cuts, there has never been a better time to expand our horizons and look beyond the blunt instrument of income-related poverty.

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