Popular representations of poverty have included references to ‘scroungers’ on the ‘Costa del Dole’, ‘aggressive beggars’, the ‘dependency culture’ and the ‘underclass’. Although closer to home, the impact of images of ‘cardboard city’ has paled in comparison with depictions of the abject poverty of overseas refugee camps.
   ‘Poverty’ is a contested concept. Proponents of definitions of ‘absolute poverty’ which stress biological needs have vied with supporters of the notion of ‘relative deprivation’, which emphasizes cultural needs. Using the former conception, Lord Joseph claimed in 1976 that, since starvation is the essential characteristic of the condition, poverty was almost non-existent in Britain. Employing the latter notion, whereby people are poor if they cannot afford to engage in customary social behaviour (buying one’s grandchild a Christmas present without thereby suffering hypothermia through scrimping on fuel, for instance), researchers such as Townsend have repudiated the myth that poverty had been abolished in an affluent, postwar British society. While no official ‘poverty line’ exists in Britain, the unofficial benchmark of half the national average income is often cited. From 1979, depressed lower wages, more regressive taxation and welfare cuts led to massive increases in those beneath this line. Those most vulnerable to poverty include the long-term unemployed, the low-waged, the elderly dependent on state pensions, the disabled and chronically sick, the welfare-dependent one-parent families and, more generally, children and ethnic minorities.
   Homelessness has received much media attention. The charity Shelter has observed that the ‘official homeless’ (those accepted as such by local authorities) nearly trebled between 1978 and 1991. In addition, it estimated that there were some 1.7 million ‘unofficial homeless’ in 1991.
   Increasingly, the term ‘underclass’ has been used in both journalistic and academic discussion of poverty. The notion has been profitably peddled by Charles Murray. In 1989, he claimed to discern a nascent, British underclass. Characteristics of this putative stratum include high rates of illegitimacy, criminality and self-chosen unemployment. Murray’s view that the underclass is marked not so much by its deprivation as by the ‘deplorable behaviour’ of its members has been widely castigated as crass and victim-blaming. Versions of the underclass thesis which emphasize structural inequality rather than cultural aberration have been more acceptable to most British academics, but for many the term is seen as so confused and stigmatic as to warrant erasure from social scientific vocabulary.
   See also: single parents
   Further reading
    Oppenheim, C. (1993) Poverty: The Facts, London: CPAG (a comprehensive, accessible analysis).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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