Poverty and social participation – Townsend’s legacy

The legacy of ideas and evidence left by sociologist Peter Townsend (who died in 2009) remain 'profoundly relevant' in 21st century Britain, according to a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The JRF study draws on a large new dataset, Understanding Society, to explore the relationship between poverty and social participation highlighted in Townsend's work.

Key points

  • Participation in society can be measured in terms of social relationships, membership of organisations, trust in other people, ownership of possessions and purchase of services. All are lower among people with low incomes.
  • However, although participation generally drops as income declines, participation stops falling among the 30 per cent or so of people with the lowest incomes – creating a participation ‘floor’. In other words, there seems to be a minimum level of participation that most people succeed in preserving, however low their income.
  • The 30 per cent of people with the lowest incomes are also forced to choose between the basic necessities of modern life; they must decide which needs to neglect. Additional income may well be spent on upgrading the quality of necessary goods and services rather than adding to them.
  • Averages mask important variations. The participation floor for benefit recipients is lower than for other groups on the same income. Most minority-ethnic groups experience greater material deprivation than the white majority: but their social participation is, on average, higher.
  • Children’s engagement in school life and with friends is not directly affected by household income. However, parents on low incomes, on average, play less often with their children and spend less on activities. This is associated with poorer educational outcomes as judged by teachers. Low-income parents frequently spend more time than affluent ones assisting children with their school work because they have fallen behind their classmates.

Source: Emanuele Ferragina, Mark Tomlinson and Robert Walker, Poverty, Participation and Choice: The Legacy of Peter Townsend, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
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Publication date: 
May 27 2013