Three approaches to defining poverty levels are discussed—social consensus approaches, budget standard methods, and behavioural approaches. Each addresses different questions and none, of itself, has provided—nor, it is argued, could ever provide—an objective definition of poverty. The paper then raises problems that have been largely neglected in defining poverty. First, the treatment of time and home production: the time and ability of individuals to prepare food or to wash and feed without assistance, for example, vary greatly depending on circumstances and in turn affect income needs. Choices and constraints affecting the household formations in which people live and their budgeting behaviour are also important in assessing poverty. Individual variations in behaviour need to be explicitly recognised if practical definitions of poverty levels are to be found. Finally, the paper condemns discussions of poverty that are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
* A preliminary version of this paper was presented to the ESRC Social Security Workshop in September 1986. The author is grateful to members of the Workshop for their comments and in particular to Jonathan Bradshaw, Helen Fawcett, Julian Le Grand. John Veit–Wilson, and Robert Walker for their suggestions. None of these people is responsible for or will wholly agree with what remains.
† Reader in Social Administration, London School of Economics.