The Peter Townsend Reader

The Policy Press, 2010, xviii + 678 pp, hbk 1 847 424051, £70, pbk 1 847 424044, £24.99

This reader is an inspiration, and we are hugely in the debt of the Policy Press and of the book’s section editors for the comprehensive nature of this collection of excerpts from Peter Townsend’s writings.

For sixty years Townsend did more than anyone in the UK to gather evidence in the cause of social change, to treat social policy sociologically, to define poverty as relative poverty, and to found institutions which would have a long-term impact on social policy: particularly the Child Poverty Action Group and the Disability Alliance.

Few books have had as much of an impact on this reviewer as Townsend’s 1979 PenguinPoverty in the United Kingdom: a survey of household resources and standards of living. No collection of extracts could do justice to its 1,200 pages of evidence and analysis, but those printed in this reader are carefully chosen and correctly begin with the seminal passage:

‘Poverty can be defined objectively and applied consistently only in terms of the concept of relative deprivation … The term is understood objectively rather than subjectively. Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong. Their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities’ (quoted on p.191).

The most important pages in a reader are the index, and this reader has a good one. Reading it will reveal the breadth of Townsend’s interests, and using it will reveal the grasp he had of the detail of a wide variety of policy fields. Entries on ‘means-tested benefits’ and ‘universal welfare’ will take readers of this Newsletter to excerpts which will be of particular interest:

‘One problem, which has not been examined by successive governments during the past two decades [ – this was written in 1999] is the effect of specific policies on trends in the inequalities of living standards and, hence, health. The biggest influences on structural trends need to be identified and explained. In the United Kingdom these influences include … restraints on the value of child benefit … and the substitution of means tested benefits for universal social insurance and non-contributory benefits for particular population categories such as disabled people’ (quoted on p.398)

‘… the more conditional and even punitive forms of selective social assistance are counter-productive for social cohesion, well-being and productivity; therefore social security schemes involving entire populations and categories of the population … i.e., social insurance and tax-financed “universal” group schemes, deserve priority, even if for reasons of limited resources they have to be phased in by stages’ (quoted on p.575).

If I have one negative criticism of this reader it is that it contains no Townsend bibliography. A separate bibliography is mentioned (but not referenced) in the introduction, but that won’t help readers of this volume. At least a list of Townsend’s books should have been included.

But having said that, this reader is everything which students of social policy would have asked for. It contains separate sections on sociology and social policy, the history of the welfare state, poverty, inequality and social exclusion, health inequalities and health policy, older people, disability, and social justice and human rights; within each section it provides a broad diversity of material from different periods of Townsend’s career; and it quotes from little-known and sometimes inaccessible articles as well as from Townsend’s better known books.

Above all, this reader is an inspiration to us to collect and publish evidence in the cause of social change – and that, I’m sure, is the legacy for which Townsend would have wished.