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Poverty in the enlarged European Union. A discussion about definitions and reference groups


  • Tim Goedemé
  • Stijn Rottiers


The enlargement of the EU has stirred discussion about the relevance of the traditional EU poverty indicator. This indicator measures poverty in relative and national terms. As a result, the poor in the least wealthy EU member states have very different living conditions from those in more wealthy member states. Consequently, some authors have argued for alternative or additional poverty measures. One line of thought is that the reference groups people use for evaluating their living standard are significantly Europeanised and that a Europeanised poverty measure should incorporate this evolution. With this article, we aim to embed this debate into a proper conceptual framework. Therefore, we first review the literature on poverty definitions, and argue that despite diverging conceptualisations, scholars assume that somehow poverty is a relative concept. Second, we discuss the relevance of reference group theory for conceiving this relativity. We argue that a distinction must be made between privately-oriented reference groups and publicly-oriented reference groups. Only the latter offer a norm to define the minimum acceptable standard of living in society. Hence, poverty researchers should investigate publicly-oriented reference groups. Nevertheless, the discussion has largely focused on privately-oriented reference groups. We conclude that EU-wide research on budget standards in combination with survey-based approaches offer a promising way forward to construct poverty lines driven by publicly-oriented reference groups.

Suggested Citation

  • Tim Goedemé & Stijn Rottiers, 2010. "Poverty in the enlarged European Union. A discussion about definitions and reference groups," Working Papers 1006, Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy, University of Antwerp.
  • Handle: RePEc:hdl:wpaper:1006

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Atkinson,Anthony Barnes & Micklewright,John, 1992. "Economic Transformation in Eastern Europe and the Distribution of Income," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521438827, March.
    2. Atkinson, Tony & Cantillon, Bea & Marlier, Eric & Nolan, Brian, 2002. "Social Indicators: The EU and Social Inclusion," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199253494.
    3. Whelan, Christopher T. & Maître, Bertrand, 2009. "Europeanisation of Reference Groups?," Papers RB2009/3/2, Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).
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    Cited by:

    1. Zachary Parolin, 2018. "Race, Social Assistance & the Risk of Child Poverty across the 50 United States," Working Papers 1804, Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy, University of Antwerp.
    2. Daria Popova & Alina Pishniak, 2017. "Measuring Individual Material Well-Being Using Multidimensional Indices: An Application Using the Gender and Generation Survey for Russia," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 130(3), pages 883-910, February.


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