What is poverty, and does it need to be redefined?
By Laura Simpson Reeves
Poverty is a loaded term. How it is defined and operationalised is critical to policy and academic debates, as this is intertwined with explanations, causes, and possible solutions.
In both policy and scholarly discourse, the term ‘poverty’ has been viewed through an economic lens and has referred almost solely to income level; the oft-referred-to poverty line is relatively easy to measure and is used to compare groups both within and across countries. These poverty lines were originally based on definitions of poverty as absolute poverty, where poverty is understood as lacking sufficient income to meet basic needs. Those with incomes below this line were thus considered to be poor.
The Henderson Poverty Line (HPL), first developed in 1973, is still used in Australia, which sets the benchmark level of disposable income necessary to support the basic needs of a so-called typical family – a household consisting of two adults, one of whom is working, with two dependent children. The Melbourne Institute reviews the HPL quarterly, and it is currently set at $974.14 per week.
Focusing solely on household income levels, however, does not accurately reflect the realities of disadvantage – those on low incomes may be able to access other resources, or those on higher incomes might experience other forms of disadvantage, such as poor health or social exclusion. Recognising these shortfalls, the term poverty has been relegated to the sidelines, trapped in its narrow income-driven definition, and concepts around multidimensional poverty, deprivation, disadvantage, and social exclusion have gained prominence in the poverty and social policy literatures.
However, is this terminology solely the purview of academics? How do those experiencing deprivation, disadvantage and social exclusion refer to their experiences? Do they use the term ‘poverty’, or something else entirely?
Poverty-related research in Australia has largely focused on the different factors that can affect whether, and how, an individual experiences poverty. This includes geography, educational attainment, employment opportunities, and housing availability. However, these studies have been focused – and necessarily so – towards specific manifestations of poverty, rather than exploring how people experience and make sense of poverty.
The need to understand the lived experiences of those experiencing poverty, in its many forms, is thus one that needs to be urgently addressed by poverty scholars in Australia.
Ms Laura Simpson Reeves is a Life Course Centre student at The University of Queensland’s Institute for Social Science Research. Her PhD explores cultural perceptions of poverty and inequality in Australia.