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“The poor will always be with you”, is a much quoted phrase from Jesus that was popularised by the rebuke of Judas in John’s Gospel and later in the rock musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”

Its origin is in the Torah, or for Christians in the Old Testament book of Deutronomy “The poor will always be with you in the land, and for that reason I command you to be open-handed with your countryman, both poor and distressed, in your home land.” Both Jesus and the earlier commandment disclose a truism that is confirmed when you look at statistical conventions for measuring poverty.

I have identified statistical measures that have been used by the UK government since 1979 and possibly before. These look at household income as a primary measure as follows:

“Low income” – a household is defined as having a low income if its income is less than 60% of the median income for the year in question.

“Absolute low income” or sometimes referred to in press releases as “absolute poverty” are households with an income below 60% of the median income, adjusted for inflation, in a base year after housing costs. The base year is usually ten years previous. In 2021 the base year was 2010/11.

Note a median is basically putting all the households incomes in a row and placing a mark in the middle of that number to get the median figure. At the median figure there are an equal number of households above and below. This figure is 60% of that half point. This is frequently misunderstood and thought of as too high a value.

The “absolute low income” measure sounds a reasonable starting point for measuring poverty by income. Of particular importance is the recognition of housing costs. In 2019/20 this accounted for 11.7million people (18% of the population). We should take note that before housing costs the number is much lower at 9.2million people (14% of the population). This is important to note as I write this in April 2022 as rising housing costs are out-stripping increases in income, the inevitable result is that statistically those in “absolute low income” are going to increase and any fall from prior years will be wiped out.

However, is household income the best measure of poverty? Looking at my own life experience throughout my working life since 1985 to date I have only experienced three years out of 35 when my household income was in the “absolute low income “ range and have never experienced poverty. The simple fact is that income alone, even after housing costs, does not measure poverty. By itself it is too blunt a tool. Different people in different circumstances need a different minimum income to get by.

Perhaps a better measure of poverty should be the ability to access key needs and services. There can be much discussion about what these are with various lists created by different experts. The Joseph Rowntree Trust has come up with:



Keeping up with bills

Ability to redecorate

Ability to have contents insurance

Ability to replace or repair electrical goods or furniture

Ability to save

One week’s holiday a year away from home not staying with relatives.

I would add to this list:

Ability to access a usable internet with a functioning usable device.

Ability to travel to services, work and recreation.

These last two items are particularly pertinent to rural poverty, but not irrelevant to cities especially with the introduction of congestion charges and reduction in “out of hours” public transport.

The cost of those key services and needs will vary according to circumstance and location. You need to understand that poverty is an individual and variable experience. What is necessary to one is not necessary to another. For example, in a well connected city location a car may be an unnecessary luxury, whereas in a less well connected or rural location two or more cars per household may be a necessity to enable full employment and access to basic services such as education, healthcare and recreation.

It is ironic that the only advantage of being poor is that it does not take much to improve your situation. However, it is equally true that it does not take much for your situation to deteriorate. I feel this is especially true (but not exclusively so) in rural areas as the baseline of accessing services and infrastructure is much poorer to start with.

Graph showing average and  median income (source ONS)
Graph showing average and median income

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