Relative definition of poverty
Relative poverty defines poverty in terms of the standards of living in a particular society at a given time. It does not start from an absolute minimum subsistence level. What counts as poverty in relative terms changes overtime. Lack of a refrigerator might be seen as an indicator of poverty in Western societies in the 1990s but would certainly not have been in the 1940s. Relative poverty is measured in terms of the level of affluence of the society at a given point in time.
Peter Townsend in his study Poverty in the United Kingdom (1979) suggests that the sole indicator of poverty is not lack of money for food, shelter and clothing. It is also related to expected behaviour in that society. He gives the example of an old lady he interviewed who saw the purchase of a birthday card for a young relation as being more important than buying food for herself.
Townsend also recognised that expectations change overtime both within and between one society and another. As societies become more affluent, what was once a luxury becomes a necessity.
"Poverty is relative because need is relative to social institutions and practices"
P. Townsend, New Society (August 1980)
Townsend also found that 22.9 percent of the population lived in poverty; the official figure using an absolute measure of poverty was 6.1 percent.