Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain: Research and Resources

The Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) Survey is the most comprehensive source of information on the extent and nature of deprivation in contemporary Britain. At the turn of the millennium, there were more people living in or on the margins of poverty than at any time in British history. According to the most rigorous survey of poverty and social exclusion ever undertaken in Britain, by the end of 1999 approximately 14 milion people in Britain, or 25% of the population, were objectively living in poverty.

Poverty and Social Exclusion Gordon et al

In previous centuries, higher proportions of the British population have been poor and their poverty has often been more severe, but rapid population growth in the 20th century means that there are now more people experiencing poverty than at any previous time.

The growth in poverty is not only the result of population increase. In the 1980s, economic restructuring coupled with changes in the tax and benefit systems led to both widening inequality and rapid rises in poverty and social exclusion.

[Pantazis, C. And Gordon, D. (2000) Tackling inequalities: Where are we now and what can be done ? Bristol: The Policy Press]

In the preface (Page iv) to their book Pantazis and Gordon introduce Radical Statistics (www.radstats.org.uk) a group of statisticians and others who share a common concern about the political assumptions implicit in the process of compiling and using statistics and the misuse of statistics and its techniques. In particular, they are concerned about the:

  • mystifying use of technical language used to disguise social problems as technical problems;
  • lack of control by the community over the aims of statistical investigations, the way these are conducted and the use of the information produced;
  • power structures within which statistical workers are employed and which control their work and the uses to which it is put;
  • fragmentation of statistical questions into separate specialist fields in ways that can obscure common problems.

“Educational inequalities are pervasive and far-reaching and it would be ingenuous to suppose that they can be eradicated easily. The first step on the road to their eradication is to collect relevant data so that we know how large they are and, very importantly, how they are changing with time. Unfortunately, most official education statistics are not broken down by social groupings. Hence, we know less about educational inequalities, and how they are changing, than we do, for example, about inequalities in health.”

[Page 97, Pantazis, C. And Gordon, D. (2000) Tackling inequalities: Where are we now and what can be done ? Bristol: The Policy Press: Retrieved from;]


Between 1983 and 1990, the number of households who could scientifically be described as living in poverty increased by almost 50%. In 1983, 14% of households were living in poverty and, by 1990, this figure had risen to 21%. As there is a wide variation on the measurements of poverty, which was addressed by Gordon and Pantazis in their Breadline Britain study:

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

“The scientific ‘objective’ measurement of poverty is both possible and attainable. Deprivation studies, such as the Breadline Britain in the 1990s survey, provide objective and reliable criteria by which levels of poverty can be determined. These ‘objective’ measures generally correspond closely with the more ‘subjective’ individual’s perceptions of their own levels of poverty. The relative concept of poverty provides the theoretical framework that permits this measurement.”
[Page45, Measuring poverty: Breadline Britain, in the 1990s, David Gordon and Christina Pantazis, Extract from: Gordon, D. and Pantazis, C. (1997), Breadline Britain in the 1990s, Aldershot, Ashgate: Retrieved from: http://poverty.ac.uk/sites/default/files/chapt%201%20BB1990s.pdf]
Poverty continued to increase during the 1990s and, by 1999, the proportion of households living in poverty had reached almost one in four. The main results of the Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey were that:

  • Roughly nine million people in Britain cannot afford adequate housing. For example, their home is unheated or damp, or they cannot afford to keep it in a decent state of decoration.
  • Around 10.5 million adults cannot afford one or more essential household goods, such as carpets for living areas or a telephone, or to repair or replace electrical goods or furniture when they break or wear out.
  • A third of British children are forced to go without at least one of the things they need, such as three meals a day, toys, out-of-school activities or adequate clothing. Eighteen per cent of children go without two or more necessities.
  • Around five million adults and three quarters of a million children go without essential clothing, such as a warm waterproof coat or new, properly fitted shoes, because of lack of money
  • Around three million adults and 400,000 children are not properly fed by today’s standards. For example, they do not have enough fresh fruit and vegetables, or two meals a day for adults or three meals for children.
  • More than 12 million people are financially insecure. They cannot afford to save, insure their house contents or spend money on themselves

[These differ from those reported in Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, David Gordon et al, 2000, Joseph Rowntree Foundation http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/185935128x.pdf]

Besides the material deprivation revealed by the survey, many people also suffer the effects of different forms of social exclusion:

  • Almost 10 million adults and one million children are too poor to engage in common social activities such as visiting friends and family, having celebrations on special occasions or attending weddings and funerals
  • A third of the population does not have a week’s annual holiday away from home
  • Nine per cent of the population have no family member outside the household whom they see or speak to at least weekly. More than half a million people, mainly men, have neither a family member nor a friend with whom they are in contact at least weekly.
  • Nine per cent of the population, and 16% of those over 65, have poor support in times of practical or emotional need.

Since the foundation of the welfare state in 1948, successive governments have neither undertaken nor funded any nationally representative surveys on poverty. In 1948, the National Assistance Act began with deliberately dramatic words: “the existing Poor Law shall cease to have effect” [Briggs A, A Social History of England, London: Weidengield and Nicolson, 1994, p.309].

The welfare state was meant to end poverty. But, unlike other countries, Britain had never undertaken an official national survey, or even had an official definition, of poverty.

There have been only four nationally representative scientific surveys of poverty in the past 50 years, listed below – all were funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and two received additional funding from London Weekend Television; all were undertaken by academics:

Poverty in the United Kingdom Townsend

Poverty in the United Kingdom, 1967-69; 2052 households (Townsend, 1979):

In Poverty in the United Kingdom (1979) Peter Townsend examined relative deprivation covering a wide range of aspects of living standards, both material and social. He found that there were levels of income below which consumption and participation fell well below what might be seen as normal or acceptable in an increasingly affluent society and argued that this group should be seen to be in poverty. Here you can download this seminal book. Please cite ‘Townsend, P. (1979) Poverty in the United Kingdom, London, Allen Lane and Penguin Books’ if quoting from this book



Poor Britain Mack and Lansley

Living in Britain, 1983; 1174 households, published as Poor Britain (Mack and Lansley, 1985)

This book is based on the London Weekend Television series Breadline Britain, first broadcast in the summer of 1983. The series examined the lives of the poor in Britain in the 1980s. It was based on a major survey of people’s living standards, conducted by Market and Opinion Research International (MORI). The four programmes were illustrated through the eyes of seven families representative of the poor.



Breadline Britain 1990s Gordon and Pantazis

Breadline Britain, 1990; 1831 households (Gordon and Pantazis, 1997)

The Breadline Britain 1990 survey was a modified repeat of the pioneering Breadline Britain 1983 survey. The survey was again seeking to establish what the public thought were minimum standards to which everyone was entitled, and who fell below these standards. The survey formed the basis of the ITV series, Breadline Britain – 1990s, which was transmitted in April 1991. Domino Films, who produced the series for ITV, commissioned the survey organisation MORI to conduct the survey. A representative sample of 1,319 adults throughout Britain was asked about their views on what constituted an unacceptably low standard of living and their own standard of living.



Poverty and Social Exclusion Gordon et al

Poverty and Social Exclusion, 1999; 1534 households (Gordon et al, 2000a)

The Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey of Britain (PSE) was undertaken by the Office for National Statistics in 1999 as a follow-up survey of a sample of respondents to the 1998/99 General Household Survey. The questionnaire was derived from a review of the best social surveys from around the world. It builds on over one hundred years of experience inthe social sciences in Britain in the scientific study of poverty.



This article is a digest of the opening of the book ‘Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain; The Millenium Survey’ edited by Christina Pantazis, David Gordon and Ruth Levitas.  You can find many good materials on poverty and its effects at:

Reporting research, examining policy, stimulating debate