A Joseph Rountree Foundation team headed by Jonathan Bradshaw, professor of social policy at the University of York, has published a report which sets out the sum required for a minimum standard of living in Britain. The headline figure is £13,400, but in fact the report sets out different sums for people in different circumstances. The study, which took more than 2 years to complete, defines a minimum acceptable standard as including "more than just food, clothes and shelter." For example, a single person is reckoned to need "walking boots, a pay-as-you-go mobile phone and a bicycle." A pensioner couple's sum covers "an occasional carvery meal and a bird feeder." Wine is included, but no tobacco, and a car is not deemed essential.
One might quibble over the details of what should or should not be included, but the exercise itself is a laudable one. It is useful information for us to know what level of income is needed by specific groups to sustain a minimum acceptable standard of living. It would be a good thing if this were to be institutionalized, with a standing commission reporting annually on how the figure has changed over the year, much as the inflation rate basket of goods is changed from time to time to reflect changing lifestyles.
What is admirable about the new report is that it sets out the poverty levels as specific cash sums. This is a positive step, for it is on the basis of what poor people can afford that the poverty level has meaning, rather than on how they compare with the rich. Too often people talk of poverty when they are actually discussing inequality. For poor people inequality is rather less important than whether they can afford enough to eat, and to live at a minimum acceptable standard. This is not some hypothetical fraction of what rich people earn, or what the average income is. It is whether they have enough to get by on. The Joseph Rountree Foundation rightly includes extras in addition to basic survival needs, for they are part of living a decent life. Their report sets out targets for minimum income levels, and sensibly treats poverty as a problem of deprivation and needs, rather than as one of disparities of income. It is a most welcome and refreshing change.