Économie et Statistique n° 383-384-385 - 2005Approaches to Poverty: the Test of International Comparisons
The perception of poverty in Europe since the mid-1970s An analysis of structural and cyclical variations
This paper sets out to analyse not poverty as such, but its social representations using a number of comparable surveys conducted since the mid-1970s. The aim is to explain the main differences between European Union countries and the main variations over a quarter of a century. The representations of poverty are not set in time and vary both from one country to the next, i.e. depending on political and cultural perceptions, and from one economic and social situation to the next. Poverty is generally perceived as a permanent state in the Southern European countries, whereas it is seen more as a hardship suffered after a fall in the Northern countries. The perception of poverty 'as a self-replicating phenomenon' declined in all the countries from 1976 to 1993 due to the downturn in employment. However, this perception rose sharply from 1993 to 2001. Moreover, the explanation of poverty as being due to laziness is much more widespread in certain countries than in others, especially in Great Britain. Yet regardless of the country, unemployment does have a specific effect. The probability of explaining poverty as being due to laziness rises with a fall and falls with a rise in unemployment. The population appears to be aware that it is not the poor's fault if they cannot find work in periods of recession and joblessness. The analyses lead to the conclusion that, although Europeans continue to see and explain poverty differently from one country to the next, there is a short-term effect that reflects their collective sensitivity to economic trends and their effects on the most disadvantaged. Therefore, the country effect that reflects the stability of what could be called, to coin Durkheim, the 'mental structure of society' does not prevent the effect of factors such as growth in unemployment. We could therefore speak of both a structural and cyclical development of representations of poverty and the status of the poor in European societies.