The historical development of family budget standards in Britain, from the 17th century to the present

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This article reviews the British tradition of research into household budget standards and describes a rich history of theoretical and methodological innovation in the social sciences. The origins of this enterprise lie in hypothetical family budget calculations made by political arithmeticians investigating living standards in the 1600s. Systematic budget inquiries emerge in England in the 1790s and by the end of the 19th century, normative standards are applied to determine lines of poverty across sections of British society. The first ‘scientific’ study to do this was conducted in England in 1912, local budget surveys flourish here until after the Second World War; by which time poverty researchers were abandoning them, turning instead to the data which was becoming available from national government surveys of family income and expenditure. Towards the close of the century, however, we see researchers trying to escape some of the circularity posed by family spending, which is, after all, constrained by household income. New and competing methods for determining household budget standards emerge before a groundbreaking inquiry attempts to establish a consensus in the field of minimum income standards research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)765-788
Number of pages24
JournalSocial Policy and Administration
Issue number7
Early online date11 Nov 2010
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2010


  • minimum income standards
  • family budgets
  • living standards
  • social surveys
  • poverty


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