Breadline Britain 1983: overview

The Breadline Britain 1983 survey pioneered the consensual approach to measuring poverty by investigating the public’s perceptions of minimum needs and then identifying those who could not afford these necessities. The survey established, for the first time ever, what the majority of people see as the necessities of life. In Britain in the early 1980s these necessities covered a wide range of goods and activities. In other words, the survey established that people judge a minimum standard of living on socially established criteria and not just on the criteria of survival or subsistence. They take a relative, not an absolute, view of poverty and endorse the view that people are entitled to a living standard that reflects the place and time in which they live. This finding was of considerable importance for, while this may seem obvious today, at that time there was an influential body of opinion that defined the needs of the poor in terms of subsistence.

The survey formed the basis of the ITV series, Breadline Britain, which was transmitted in August 1983. London Weekend Television, who produced the series for ITV, commissioned the survey organisation MORI to conduct the survey. A representative sample of 1,174 adults throughout Britain was asked about their views on what constitutes an unacceptably low standard of living and about their own standard of living.

In particular, the Breadline Britain survey asked which of a list of 33 items the respondents thought were necessary and which all people should be able to afford and should not have to do without. The list was designed to be representative of living standards by covering a cross-section of goods and activities, including heating, household goods, food, clothing, personal possessions and leisure and social activities. The survey then asked people which items they had, which items they did not have because they couldn’t afford them and, to allow for personal choice, which they did not have and did not want.

The survey was conceived by Joanna Mack (producer/director, Breadline Britain) and developed with Stewart Lansley (researcher, Breadline Britain), with the advice of Brian Gosschalk (MORI). To ensure that the list was firmly based on the lives of the poor and in tune with the perceptions of a broader range of people, a series of focus groups with households on low and middle incomes was held by MORI across Britain. Various versions of the necessities question were piloted to ensure that respondents were distinguishing between what was necessary and what was desirable. The final version, using sort cards, states:

On these cards are a number of different items which relate to our standard of living. Please would you indicate by placing in the appropriate box the living standards you feel all adults should have in Britain today. This box is for items which you think are necessary, and which all adults should be able to afford and which they should not have to do without; this box is for items which may be desirable, but are not necessary.

The Breadline Britain 1983 questionnaire gives top level results for all questions. A short pamphlet written by Joanna Mack and Stewart Lansley to accompany the television series, Breadline Britain 1983, provides a summary of the results of the 1983 survey. Joanna Mack and Stewart Lansley wrote up the full results of the survey and developed the consensual method for measuring poverty in Poor Britain (1985). Mack and Lansley have given permission for the PSE team to provide, for the first time, Poor Britain as downloadable files.

Comparisons between the results of this 1983 survey with the subsequent Breadline Britain 1990, the PSE Britain 1999 survey and the current PSE: UK 2012 survey can be found under UK trends. Breadline Britain 1983 Findings provides a short summary of key results. In the coming months we plan to put more data from this research study onto the website.

Survey sample

The 1983 Breadline Britain survey took place in February 1983 and covered a quota sample of 1,174 respondents aged 16 and over interviewed in their homes in 80 sampling points across Great Britain. The sample was designed to over represent poor people living in deprived areas using the ACORN sampling method. The survey was conducted by MORI. See Poor Britain, Appendix A for further details.