Perceptions of poverty levels: a long view

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Clery (@liz_clery), who works with the amazing NatCen team that are responsible for the British Social Attitudes Survey.

The latest British Social Attitudes report came out in July, and it pointed out a puzzle in public attitudes to poverty:

  • Trends in poverty have remained relatively stable over the last 12 years (at least using HBAI, and at the population level).
  • However, the proportion of the public thinking that there is “quite a lot” of poverty in Britain has increased markedly over the same period, from 52% in 2006 to 65% now.

Our chapter in the BSA report sought to identify the reasons for this divergence – and in this blog post, I both summarise our findings and probe this slightly further.

Looking over the long term

Looking back over a longer time period, we can question how atypical such a finding is, within the context of long-term shifts in attitudes. The unique value of BSA lies in its regular repetition of the same survey questions, using a consistent methodology, enabling us to not only track attitudes to particular topics over time, but to assess how these change in specific political and economic contexts.

While BSA has measured perceptions of the prevalence of poverty since 1986, levels of poverty have only been measured by government using the HBAI methodology since 1994/95. In Figure 1, we have plotted absolute poverty levels (both before and after housing costs) over the 24 financial years for which these statistics have been published as part of the HBAI series, alongside the BSA time series on perceptions of poverty, mapped to the financial years in which data was collected. (While HBAI also includes measures of relative poverty, absolute measures, defined in relation to the median income threshold from 2010-11 and adjusted in line with inflation, are generally considered a better indicator of trends over time).

Figure 1: View that there is “quite a lot” of poverty, by HBAI absolute poverty measures, 1994/95-2018/19

[Note: the labels on the lines were corrected on 12th Dec 2019, as they were originally incorrectly labelled ‘relative poverty’]


Looking at these data, we can see that between 1994-95 and 2006-07, the proportion of the public believing there to be “quite a lot” of poverty in Britain tended to move in line with trends in levels of absolute poverty, which was generally in decline. However, over the last decade or so, the two time series have diverged; while absolute levels of poverty have remained relatively stable, the proportion believing there to be “quite a lot” of poverty has risen markedly.

Why has this happened?

Our first thought was that perceptions of poverty over the last decade may have been closely aligned with trends in political and media discussions – and this hypothesis was largely confirmed by the analysis presented in our chapter.

However, we can also look to see how views about poverty have changed among supporters of the two main political parties – and this shows that political/media discourse is not the whole story. In fact, as shown in Figure 2, perceptions of levels of poverty expressed by Conservative and Labour Party supporters were more distinct in the late 1980s and early 1990s than they are today, converging thereafter before diverging again from 2006-07 as discussed above.

Figure 2: View there is “quite a lot” of poverty, by political party support 1986-2018

Trends in perceived poverty split by party affiliation

The reasons why attitudes to poverty might change in different ways for supporters of different political parties have been well-documented in previous BSA reports:

  • First, the views of supporters of a political party might change in line with the policy position expressed by ‘their’ party. (Though it might also be that a political party amends its policy position on the basis of its understanding of changes in the preferences of its supporters).
  • Second, supporters of political parties tend to be more positive about the record of ‘their’ party when it is in government (in other words, when they might be seen to have responsibility for addressing a particular problem).
  • Finally, political party support is a fluid characteristic; as the political standpoints of different parties change, so too might the identities of their supporters; while it is also known that individuals are more likely to support particular parties, or indeed any party, at particular life-stages.

These theories have previously been employed to explain some of the shifts in attitudes among supporters of the main two political parties presented in Figure 2. In particular, the view among Labour Party supporters that there is “quite a lot” of poverty declined most markedly, and became closer to the view held by Conservative Party supporters, during the period when their party was in government from 1997. As well as reflecting the continued decline in absolute poverty levels, depicted in Figure 1, this shift is likely to have resulted from two factors. First, previous analysis of BSA has documented how attitude to welfare among Labour Party supporters changed dramatically during the 1990s, reflecting a shift in the policy position of ‘their’ party – namely a shift towards more stringent welfare policies. It seems likely that the decline in the view that there is “quite a lot” of poverty in Britain among Labour Party supporters also reflects this policy shift. Second, it may be that, once their own party was in office, Labour supporters became more circumspect in their assessment of the government’s record with regards to poverty.

Moving back to the present day, our chapter concludes that public perceptions of poverty have become “divorced” from official measures and that, to reduce the perception that there is quite a lot of poverty in Britain,  “it may be that policy makers need to instead identify and devise policies that address the issues highlighted by politicians and campaigners and in media discourse around poverty relating to people’s basic needs – such as short-term deprivation, homelessness and food bank use”.

However, our consideration of long-term trends in attitudes suggests a number of alternative developments that might also have such an impact – namely a change in government, shifts in the policy positions of the main political parties, or shifts in political party support among the public. Given current levels of uncertainty and fluidity in the political sphere, increasing the likelihood of such changes, it will be very interesting to see if and how such developments impact on trends in public attitudes to poverty in the coming years.

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