• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Saturday 13th June, 2009

"He was Britain’s greatest poverty researcher and campaigner"

Peter Townsend, who died on June 7th, offered a rare combination of serious academic scholarship, campaigning for justice and generous support for students and young researchers. His influence over 50 years was enormous, to the extent that even today almost every discussion of poverty, welfare and rights acknowledges his work.His first contributions to poverty research were two articles in the British Journal of Sociology on the meaning and measurement of poverty. These made it clear that although definitions of poverty might include some elements of description and value judgment, robust research was essential. It is significant that the University of Bristol has since set up a research center in his name. But not content with conceptual thinking, he applied his ideas in empirical studies of welfare, along with a plethora of research into specific groups, such as the elderly in residential homes and the disabled. This led him to become increasingly concerned with wider welfare issues and, in particular, the effects of social inequality. It culminated in his collaboration with the distinguished physician Sir Douglas Black to demonstrate and explain unequivocally health variations across the UK population.This accumulating knowledge led him to perceive poverty as the most important underlying reason for many of the social and health problems prevalent in society and he was adamant that things could be easily changed for the better, given the political will. Naturally, he was disappointed that economic difficulties prevented the Wilson and Callaghan Labour Governments from implementing the services he sought, and in the 1980s he expressed alarm that the increasing economic inequality in British society was exacerbating an already grave situation. So rather than just criticizing from an academic platform (he was pro-Vice Chancellor of one of Britain’s leading universities), he bolstered his desire for reform by founding the Child Poverty Action Group and, with others, the Disability Alliance to coordinate information and political action.In terms of preventative work with children and families, he worked tirelessly to encourage governments to reduce poverty, whether by increasing the financial support given to families or devising (with his London School of Economics colleague Brian Abel-Smith) a national pension scheme that would provide old people with a reasonable income in their later life. He must take much of the credit for getting the new 1997 Labour Government to agree to eliminate child poverty in Britain as quickly as possible.It is an indication of the rigor of Townsend’s early work that over the past half century his concepts have been applied consistently in research and political debates and his research findings and ideas confirmed by subsequent empirical studies. Nick Axford, for example, concluded his exploration of social exclusion on a London housing estate by showing that the relief of poverty was the single most potent thing that could be done to alleviate other problems. It thus presents a relatively straightforward opportunity to intervene in the chain of events that leads to long-term deprivation and its well charted consequences. In a review of Axford’s book, Bob Holman, another UK academic with a strong policy commitment, said that those genuinely concerned to promote the well-being of the most disadvantaged people in Britain needed, “more than research skills. Appropriately, this year marks the 80th birthday of Peter Townsend. He is Britain’s greatest poverty researcher and campaigner because he has passion as well”. See: Nick Axford, Exploring Concepts of Child Well-being: Implications for children’s services, Bristol: The Policy Press, 2008 and Bob Holman, book review of Axford op.cit. Adoption and Fostering, 32, 2, pp 91-2

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