Defining poverty in the 21st century

The Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE:UK) project provides policy makers with impartial, accurate and reliable evidence with which to measure poverty.

"Poverty is not simply about living on low incomes, but being unable to have what we all consider the basic necessities of life. The Poverty and Social Exclusion research is best placed to help us understand this and the fine grain of what it means to be poor in this period of history" – Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland.

The Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK (PSE:UK) project, which ran from 2010 to 2014, is the largest ever study of poverty in the UK. Using a wide range of rigorous methods, both qualitative and quantitative, it examined the multi-dimensional nature of poverty and, in particular, identified those who fall below what the public agrees is a minimum standard of living.

The project was a major collaboration between six universities – GlasgowHeriot-WattThe Open UniversityQueens Belfast and York – led by Bristol. “We successfully produced accurate, reliable and socially realistic poverty measures and incorporated the views of the public into the definition of poverty”, said Professor David Gordon, Director of the project, based in the School for Policy Studies.

Using minimum necessary living standards

The core survey was the fourth in a series of nationally representative surveys in Britain (and the second in Northern Ireland). The series uses a consensual measure of minimum necessary living standards and direct measures of material and social deprivation. This contrasts with the traditional, limited, reliance on proxy income data.

The study found that, despite the UK becoming wealthier as a whole, key aspects of deprivation had risen.

Driving the public debate

The research has had a strong influence on the public debate concerning poverty; the findings generated extensive national and international coverage and discussion. David Walker, Head of Policy at the Academy of Social Sciences, said, "Their work on a minimum standard has been especially influential… here was strong evidence about what the public actually thinks is acceptable. This is reflexive social research at its best".

Influencing policy in Britain and Ireland

PSE:UK questions and methodology have been adopted in the main instruments used to measure poverty in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. The PSE team were consulted on ten pieces of draft UK legislation, while in Scotland they provided expert advice for the development of Scottish Government’s anti-poverty strategy and welfare reform work.

In Ireland, PSE:UK collaborated with the Department of Social and Family Affairs, Ireland, and the Central Statistics Office, looking at poverty measurement on an all-Ireland basis, and have been consulted on the Northern Ireland Child Poverty Strategy in 2011. PSE-UK findings were also directly referenced in the Evason Report, whose proposals were fully adopted as part of the Welfare Reforms for Northern Ireland announced in January 2016.

Adopted internationally

The project’s methods and conclusions have also had significant impact on both policy and practice at all levels. Internationally, the work has contributed to the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requirement for all countries to measure multidimensional poverty. PSE-based questions and methods are being adopted by the governments of Mexico, New Zealand, Somalia, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Uganda, and discussions are ongoing in Hong Kong, Japan, Nigeria and Taiwan.

In Europe, the European Commission is using PSE-based research to revise the official EU2020 poverty target measure, describing it as the “academic gold standard”. For its Child Deprivation Index, UNICEF adopted PSE-derived deprivation indicators collected in every country in the EU.

Generating books, TV programmes, and digital resources

There have been two major books, Breadline Britain - The Rise of Mass Poverty and Families and Poverty, and numerous journal articles. PSE:UK data has been used as a primary source in a number of influential reports by outside organisations, as well as shared through three major PSE conferences and over 150 presentations at other national and international conferences and debates.

The main survey findings formed the basis of a prime time ITV documentary in March 2013, Breadline Britain Tonight, which reached 3.3m viewers. 

In March 2016 the BBC Panorama programme, Too Poor To Stay Warm, drew on the PSE work on fuel poverty and reached 2.4 million viewers as well as generating 125,000 iPlayer views. It was covered by the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror as well as on social media. 

The project's website,, has become an important source of information on poverty, providing free access to all the PSE:UK research outputs as well further information on the predecessor studies.  It is widely used by the public, policy makers, local councils, educators, students, religious organisations and trade unions, from all over the world, including the USA and India.

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