You can tell this is the good Peter Saunders because he looks like Santa Claus …
Somewhat by accident, (happy accident though it is) Troppo seems to have become a place for really excellent policy discussions about welfare, the labour market, inequality and poverty with contributions from around the world from experts. Fred Argy mentioned how good some of the contributions were and what a pity they risked being lost in the comments. As a consequence I emailed some of the contributors inviting them to post here should they wish.Within hours . . . Backroom Girl’s first post. Thanks BG.
It’s a tricky thing, this poverty business
In today’s papers, Ross Gittins reports on recent research (pdf) by the SPRC Peter Saunders (in conjunction with various well-known welfare agencies) that attempts to redefine poverty by reference to whether people can afford a variety of items commonly regarded as ‘essential’.
The researchers think (and Ross seems to agree) that this is a more fool and argument-proof method of working out whether people are poor than just looking at how much income they have. It is also supposed to get away from sterile academic arguments about how poverty should be defined and measured, topics on which consensus is apparently impossible.
Saunders and his fellow researchers first asked a random selection of the population what they regarded as essentials of life. The same survey was then given to a group of welfare agency clients, who by and large agreed with the general population on which items were most essential. To quote the SPRC directly:
Results for both surveys show that the basics of life secure housing, warm clothes, a substantial meal and being able to buy prescribed medicines rank at the top of the list of essentials “¦. above owning things like a telephone, washing machine, TV or even a car.
The welfare clients who were surveyed were also asked which of the items on the list they missed out on because of lack of money. This gave some results that I don’t find surprising (half couldn’t afford dental treatment and 60 per cent didn’t have $500 in savings), but others that are more concerning. For example, about a quarter said they couldn’t afford prescribed medicines, while one in eight couldn’t afford a substantial meal each day and a similar proportion couldn’t afford heating.
It is one thing to agree that conceptually poverty is about whether people are able to afford what we as a society believe are the essentials of life. However, it is quite another to determine whether the reason somebody doesn’t have such an essential is because they don’t have enough money. (See it still comes back to money.)
You would think that if people believe that eating a proper meal every day, having a roof over their heads and buying essential medicines are the most important ‘essentials of life’, then they would give those things priority and miss out on something else. What are we to make of the fact that many people apparently prefer to spend their money on things they regard as less than essential? Is it another case of so-called first order preferences trumping second order preferences (or have I got that the wrong way around?)
From what I’ve seen of this research so far, I’m not sure that its findings will be any less contestable than those from the traditional income-based poverty research. At least with income it is possible to agree that there is some level below which normal human functioning is difficult to sustain no matter how frugal you are. But I don’t see how you can go down this relative deprivation route without having to address the thorny old issues of behavioural poverty (such as the fact that, according to the ABS, income support recipient households spend on average 10 per cent of their money on alcohol and tobacco, more than half what they spend on food).
There will be lots of other things for academics and others to argue about in this research, including whether it is at all appropriate to label something as essential if only 50 per cent of the population thinks it is. But perhaps that is a topic for another day.