Who defined the poverty line?

It is a widely accepted fact that Charles Booth set out to disprove the shocking statistic that a quarter of London’s population in the 1880s lived in poverty (and then discovered it was actually over 30%). He developed methods for social investigation which combined direct observation with statistics, drawing on both quantitative (statistical) and qualitative methods (ethnographic). Not only did he test poverty by various indicators such as income, crowding, educational attainment, servant-keeping etc., he also incorporated unquantifiable social influences, such as church attendance. He was a pioneer of participant observation, spending time living in the area, as did many of his associates, including Beatrice Potter (who worked as a trouser hand for a brief time) and Octavia Hill, who lived for a while in model dwellings.

Image: 19th century street hawkers. © Getty Images

Rosemary O’Day has written that “… when Joseph Chamberlain wrote to Beatrice Potter in February 1886 about the existence of distress above the ‘pauper line’, he took it as axiomatic that empirically derived evidence of such distress was necessary before policy decision could been taken by government… Fact-finding was already an essential part of preparation for social action… [but Booth’s enquiry’s premise] that empirical evidence, properly analysed, was essential before one could draw generalisations or… draw up policy [was against the current accepted practice] “. [O’Day R., and Englander D. (1993) Mr. Charles Booth’s Inquiry: Life and Labour of the People in London Reconsidered. London: Hambledon Press, p. 18].

… and of course one could argue that the tables that define class according to income level do exactly that, but despite I believe that Booth avoided pinpointing a precise ‘pauper line’, due to his recognition – just as we do today – that whether defining an absolute or a relative line of poverty, that it is highly problematic for its overlooking the complexity of the measure as for its crudity: just as much for those who fall below it as for those who just scrape above it (and so become ineligible for support overnight). Indeed, the physical, spatial aspect of poverty is just as important to bear in mind. As I have shown in earlier space syntax analysis of poverty, spatial segregation closely corresponds to poverty and of course as Paul Spicker has shown, living in a poverty area can exacerbate poverty conditions enormously.

Englander, D., 1989. Booth’s Jews: the representation of Jews and Judaism in Life and Labour of the People in London. Victorian Studies xxxii, 551-573.

Spicker, P., 2001. Poor areas and the ‘ecological fallacy’. Radical Statistics 76.

Vaughan, L., Geddes, I., 2009. Urban form and deprivation: a contemporary proxy for Charles Booth’s analysis of poverty. Radical Statistics 99.

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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