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A short history of (mis)representing poverty

Updated Monday 10th December 2012

Use this tool to explore this short history of (mis)representing poverty 

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The history of poverty research and policy making in the UK and elsewhere has been characterised by repeated attempts to construct those affecting poverty and disadvantage as a group apart from ‘normal’ and ‘mainstream’ society; almost as a distinctive sub-grouping of the population.

From the mid to late nineteenth century, where the most poverty stricken were classified as dangerous, deviant and disreputable, through to the renewed concern with ‘troubled families’ in the 2000s, the framing of poverty through a binary divide between ‘them’ suffering poverty and ‘us’ who are not has been almost ever present.

This is particulary the case as a dimension of the presentation and representation of poverty and those experiencing poverty by influential sections of society, including among politicians, policy makers, academics and researchers, and also including important sections of the media.

How have such ideas travelled across the post-Second World War period, from the highpoint of the Beveridgean Welfare State through to the current period of welfare state retrenchment?

See our short history below then go to the bottom of this page for a summary and useful links. Share your views by using our comments facility. 

A short history of (mis)representing poverty

Click on each image to delve into a brief history of poverty misrepresentation across three dimensions: People, Places and Policies.

Find out about the ways in which particular places feature in the misrepresentation of poverty at different times.  Creative-Commons twistyfoldy.net under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence What impact has poverty had on different people and societies over the decades? 
  Creative-Commons Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10246via CC-BY-SAh license via We look at poverty's definitions and measurements as we focus on how Government policies on poverty has changed over the decades. Creative-Commons xpgomes under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence
Creative-Commons Background: c_nilsen under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

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Summary: key themes

  • Striking continuities in the representation of the most disadvantaged sections of the population over successive decades and generations – wherein we can see repeated and concerted efforts to also sub-divide ‘the poor’ into two groups: those whose poverty is largely due to factors beyond their immediate control (a ‘respectable poor’) and a second group (the ‘problem poor’) whose poverty is almost entirely due to their own lifestyle, behaviour, limitations and so on.
  • Why does such language and the use of pejorative labels matter? It impacts on policy making and has concrete and real, material consequences for those so labelled. Share your views in the comments section below. 
  • In this regard throughout the post-1945 era, as before it, there is an ongoing struggle between those arguments that advance a more ‘structuralist approach that locate poverty within the functioning of society and so on, against those which favour a more behavioural, cultural and individualist perspective.
  • Policy transfers: for much of the past six decades or so, the types of thinking, ideas and labels highlighted here have transferred between the UK and US at different times.
  • Anti-poor language and constructing important sections of ‘the poor’ as a distinctive and pathological underclass carries with it anti working class prejudices and it is also highly gendered in its construction of particular groups of disadvantaged women as particularly culpable in the reproduction of disadvantaged populations (single parents, illegitimacy, family breakdown and so on).
  • Notions of an underclass and problem populations are often metaphors for advancing fears and concerns (among the middle and upper classes – but transmitted downwards) about the consequences far reaching economic, social and cultural changes in society.

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