Poverty research - overview

The University of Bristol has a strong, and well-earned reputation for poverty research. In 2017, the Bristol Poverty Institute (BPI) was established in recognition of these strengths, with the aim of further building on and enhancing our visibility, our research ambitions, and our impact at all scales from the local to the global. In this section you can learn more about what we do,  including some examples of our areas of work outlined below, as well as a selection of impact case studies which can be accessed via the navigation page on the left. In addition, we are also in the process of developing a catalogue of past and present poverty-relevant research projects undertaken by our academics, to showcase the breadth and depth of excellent and impactful research at the University. This can be accessed via the ‘Poverty-relevant research at UoB’ tab on the left.

Measuring poverty

Our Institute's staff are world leaders in developing the consensual method for measuring multidimensional adult and child poverty: the theory, definition and measures are used by all UK governments, all countries in the EU and by many other governments globally.

Sustainable Development Goal 1.2 requires UN member countries to measure and report their progress in reducing multidimensional poverty. Most countries do not have suitable measures and we believe that the consensual approach is the only methodology which can produce consistent and socially realistic results in all low, middle and high income countries.

Recently, research by Institute staff facilitated Mexico and New Zealand to officially adopt relative deprivation measures and all 22 Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTS) have agreed to use this method (Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu have already done so).

Since the 1960s, UK social scientists have carried out poverty surveys to test new ideas. The 1968-69 Poverty in the UK survey, the 1983 Poor Britain and 1990 Breadline Britain surveys and the 1999 and 2012 (PSE) and its 2002 counterpart in Northern Ireland, introduced innovative techniques and kept UK research at the forefront of poverty measurement methodology.

Institute staff played a leading role in developing and analysing all of these surveys, changing the way poverty is understood and measured. Politicians and the public now think of poverty in terms of deprivation of the necessities of life and exclusion from the normal/customary living patterns of UK society.

One innovative use of these data is in understanding women’s experience of poverty from 1999 to 2012 (PDF). The prevalence of poverty among single mothers remains largely unchanged. On the other hand, large numbers of older women have been lifted out of poverty due to increases in state pensions (the ‘triple lock’). This shows the extent to which government policies have been effective in tackling pensioner poverty.

Our University’s approach to assessing child poverty created the first reliable indicators of child deprivation including shelter, access to safe drinking water and sanitation, education, health care and nutrition. UNICEF launched its Global Study on Child Poverty and Disparities in 2008 in over 50 countries. The Approach is a core part of the Study in each country and led directly to:

  • The Composite Index of Anthropometric Failure (CIAF), developed by Institute staff to assess child undernutrition and used in over 50 countries;
  • Training workshops for UN, NGO and national government staff in 12 countries;
  • The round-trip time to collect water indicator we proposed has been implemented as one of the new Sustainable Development Goal indicators – Institute staff both developed this measure and provided training for World Health Organisation statistical staff;
  • A one-year postgraduate Diploma in Public Policy and Child Rights was created in four Egyptian and Jordanian Universities for education and social work professionals across the Arab world. From 2010-13, 100 students studied the Diploma and the Ministry of Education in Jordan offers 20 scholarships each year. 


    Health inequalities

    Our institution has pioneered life-course epidemiology - the study of how things that happen during pregnancy, childhood and adulthood influence health and wellbeing. This has demonstrated the complex interactions between poverty and health inequalities (PDF), including influences during childhood that may have long term effects as well as the role of cumulative deprivation on adult health outcomes.

    The Economic and Social Research Council argues that longitudinal and cohort studies are the ‘crown jewels’ of the UK’s medical and social science infrastructure. Our researchers established two of these major studies and have applied a life course approach to many other cohorts across the world.

    Our Children of the 90s study is one of the most comprehensive biological and socioeconomic studies in the world. It has followed 14,500 pregnant mothers since 1991/92, their children, their partners and, in the past few years, the children’s children. The cohort is the richest open epidemiological resource of its kind in the world and receives strong support from UK funders. It is internationally renowned and used by researchers worldwide.

    Systematic reviews by our researchers have shown that adults who had poor childhoods are much more likely to die early from diseases including coronary heart disease, haemorrhagic stroke and stomach cancer.

    For example, infection with Helicobacter pylori in childhood, which is associated with living in overcrowded housing, may result many decades later in an increased stomach cancer risk. This is one primary epidemiological mechanism which links child poverty to the premature death of adults and the resulting health inequalities.

    Educational inequalities

    Our evidence on inequalities at school entry and in adolescence showed that the pathways linking low parental income to poorer child development are complex and diverse — there is no single ‘magic bullet’ that can dramatically reduce early inequality.

    This has profoundly influenced UK policy since 2010, convincing the Government that policies to improve life chances must begin in the preschool period. These Early Years policies include free childcare places for disadvantaged two-year-olds, an increased number of health visitors and the launch of telephone and online services for parents.

    A primary aim of our Education research has been to help schools and governments improve education quality in developing countries. Our work has concentrated on the theory and empirical measurement of education quality and on changes to practice in China, Sub-Saharan Africa and in Small Island States (SIS).

    Pioneering work with the 32 Commonwealth SIS has changed the priorities, strategies and spending plans of UNESCO, the World Bank and the Commonwealth. We have demonstrated the need to strengthen both primary and tertiary education - to provide school teachers with high quality pedagogic training.

    Financial inequalities

    In 1999, we published a report establishing the nature and complexity of financial exclusion and the number of households affected. Those at particular risk were low income groups, social tenants, single parents and certain minority ethnic groups.

    Later, our examination of low-income households’ use of higher-cost credit (such as home credit and payday loans) demonstrated the potential benefit of making more affordable credit available through larger, professionally run credit unions and community-based loans. Our evaluation of the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) Growth Fund (PDF) found that it significantly reduced the interest paid by low-income borrowers, compared with using higher-cost credit.

    Our research also highlighted saving as an important (but overlooked) aspect of financial inclusion that could provide low-income households with a financial cushion.

    We examined schemes in other countries and advised the Financial Inclusion Taskforce and HM Treasury who launched the Saving Gateway, a matched-funding savings scheme for low-income people of working age.

    In 2004/05, our evaluation showed that well-targeted, clear and simple incentives were effective in encouraging people on lower incomes to save.

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