Revisiting the “poverty line”

As we discuss the current state of relative and absolute poverty in the UK, it’s worth revisiting the origins of the concept of a “poverty line” in the work of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree.

Poverty image (Getty)
Street hawkers selling Christmas gifts on Ludgate Hill, London. Dec 1907

Booth’s definition of poverty was intentionally relative, given that he was using a description of class, rather than income. In other words, he did not define a basic level of subsistence, below which an individual could fall; rather, he established what the conditions were in which poverty took place. While Charles Booth never defined an actual poverty line, he refers in his writings to a line of poverty, which he notionally positioned at a “bare income” of 18s. to 21s. per week.[i] This was a hypothesised line demarcating those who were just getting by and those who were in want. It was based on Booth’s close observation of a statistical sample of a large population – across many industries active in London at the time. These conditions included the physical setting within which people were living.

Booth and legend
Charles Booth map of poverty, 1889, showing area around the East End of London

Charles Booth’s observations on poverty situated the problem as being to do with the regularity of income just as much as its level. Yet he also put great emphasis on the spatial influences on social situation. Scattered through Booth’s writing are comments such as “Thus… the ‘poverty areas’ tended to be literally walled off from the rest of the city by barrier-like boundaries that isolated their inhabitants, minimizing their normal participation in the life of the city about them…”[ii].

My own space syntax analysis of street block level poverty on the Booth maps has showed statistically measurable differences in the spatial segregation of the poverty classes in contrast with the ‘comfortable’ classes. His three poverty classes – black, dark blue and light blue – were in significantly segregated locations, although these were only one or two streets away from the more prosperous streets of the area. The results suggested that Booth’s three poverty classes constituted a spatially defined poverty line.[iii] Namely, there was a measurable relationship between spatial segregation and living in poverty.

Space syntax analysis of spatial integration (x axis) averaged for the six Booth classes of poverty. Image from Vaughan, L, and I Geddes. “Urban Form and Deprivation: A Contemporary Proxy for Charles Booth’s Analysis of Poverty.” Radical Statistics 99 (2009): 46-73.

Seebohm Rowntree’s York enquiry was conducted with a team of assistants during the period 1899-1900 and then published in 1901 under the title ‘Poverty, a Study of Town Life’. While the study was inspired by Booth, in contrast with Booth’s extensive study using multiple sources, Rowntree chose to conduct an intensive study of a single town, much smaller than Booth’s London.[iv]

Despite the differences in scope, the York study had very similar results to those of Booth: large families crammed into small rooms without sanitation or ventilation and disease rife in poverty areas. Rowntree’s team found that a quarter of all York’s children living in its slums died before the age of one and overall, the poverty rate of the town was at least as bad as that found by Booth in London. If a child survived childhood, their poverty was typically due to the casualization of labour, or sickness or injury from work. If an individual survived working life, it was old age that was likely to return a person to poverty; just as Booth had found, old age was closely correlated with poverty. Unsurprisingly, both Booth and Rowntree became campaigners for pensions.

Map from Seebohm Rowntree’s survey of poverty in York. Source: Rowntree Society and Rachel Welford

By aiming to determine the nature of living in poverty, Rowntree was in effect investigating whether it was due to ‘wasteful expenditure’, or ‘insufficient means’. Rowntree’s report did much to reiterate Booth’s findings that poverty was not, as was typically thought, a matter of fault; critically, his determination of a poverty line based on income was set at the point at which income was only enough for the “maintenance of merely physical efficiency”, as opposed to access to enough to allow for “expenditure necessary for the development of the mental, moral and social sides of nature.”[v]


Gillie, A. “The Origin of the Poverty Line.” Economic History Review 49, no. 4 (Nov. 1996): 715-30.

Rowntree, BS. Poverty: A Study of Town Life. 1902 2nd ed.  London: Macmillan, 1901.

Spicker, P. “Charles Booth: The Examination of Poverty.” Social Policy & Administration 24, no. 1 (1990): 21-38.

Vaughan, L, and I Geddes. “Urban Form and Deprivation: A Contemporary Proxy for Charles Booth’s Analysis of Poverty.” Radical Statistics 99 (2009): 46-73.


[i] Quote is from Booth’s address to the Royal Statistical Society, 1887, cited in Gillie (1996)., p. 715. See also P Spicker, “Charles Booth: The Examination of Poverty,” Social Policy & Administration 24, no. 1 (1990).

[ii] Quoted in Pfautz (1967), 120.

[iii] L Vaughan and I Geddes, “Urban Form and Deprivation: A Contemporary Proxy for Charles Booth’s Analysis of Poverty,” Radical Statistics 99 (2009).

[iv] “I am much indebted to Mr. Charles Booth and his associates for valuable suggestions given from time to time during the progress of this investigation. In a letter received from Mr. Booth, which is printed on p. 800, he shows the relation which exists between the York figures and those which he had obtained for London. It is unnecessary to point out the significance and importance of the facts which Mr. Booth thus brings out. BS Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, 1902 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1901)., p. ix.

[v] Rowntree., pp. 112.


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s