Debates about poverty and disadvantage in the UK are hamstrung by a lack of a well defined consensus about what is an adequate standard of living for today's society.
We are instinctively outraged if we see a child going to school with holes in their shoes, a pensioner going without a meal in order to pay the gas bill or a single parent who has never been able to take her child on holiday or to the cinema. But we have not drawn clear lines about what level of deprivation should trigger public concern and action.
With all the current debates about ending child poverty and about inequality in society, are we any closer to coming to a common understanding about what is a socially acceptable standard of living?
The most frequently used threshold of poverty is a measure of relative income – 60 per cent of the current median. (The person with the median income in Britain has an income greater than exactly half the population).
Most people accept that poverty has a relative element – that a basic living standard acceptable in Dickens’ time may be unacceptable today. But the decision to draw the line at 60 per cent is arbitrary. So when a progressive government redistributes income to bring families above this abstract poverty line, there are always those who challenge whether being in relative poverty really constitutes a hardship.
A new report, A minimum income for Britain, from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation takes a big step forward by describing a threshold of a socially acceptable income according to judgements made by members of the public.
Based on detailed discussions among groups of ordinary people about what should go into a minimum budget for different kinds of household, this work aims to start building a social consensus about how much is enough.
Such a standard will not replace the official poverty line but helps us to interpret what it means. In fact, it legitimises the effort to get families with children above 60 per cent median income by showing that all families who live below it cannot afford the standard of living defined by the members of the public who took part in this research. Typically, families with children need about 70 per cent of median to reach such a standard.
In creating a new debate about minimum living standards, this exercise is not just about numbers. It encourages people to think about what exactly we define as necessities today and why. All the participants in the research agreed that mere food and shelter are not enough – that an adequate living standard needs to involve some level of social participation. For a child, this means for example being able to take a present to a birthday party and having a basic computer on which to do their homework. With any luck, this will bury once and for all the outdated idea that people at the bottom of society are not “poor” unless they are starving. Or the inference that those who get support from the state have no right to participate fully in society.
A debate of this kind could also start to put more emphasis in public discourse about what unites rather than what divides us. Images of "chavs" who are on low incomes but expect flashy trainers and wide TV screens play into new class stereotypes. But this research brought together people from a wide range of income groups in lengthy discussions, and they reached a high level of consensus over what is necessary.
Parents from all classes could agree that for a British teenager in 2008, a mobile phone is essential from the point of view of safety and social inclusion, but that buying a top of the model range with unlimited minutes was not. (The budgets included a cheap £25 pay as you go model from a supermarket, expected to last five years).
They also agreed how important it was to teach teenagers that wanting something is not the same as needing it. We all face difficult decisions about prioritising necessities and distinguishing them from luxuries that we could do without, when balancing our own budget. If we can approach these issues by building consensus rather than division, we will become a more cohesive society, and also become more clear-headed about when we need to tackle unacceptable inequalities.
Donald Hirsch is poverty adviser to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Plus don't miss the New Statesman leader on ending child poverty