The methods of the Poverty Maps are as intriguing as its findings. As a leading survey of 19th century socio-economics, the maps provide fascinating insight into the evolving philosophy and practice of poverty analysis – a field dealing in technicalities and statistics, but long fraught with political priorities, social concerns, and competing methods of research.
Booth, who came from a wealthy Liverpool shipping family, was preoccupied throughout his adult life by poverty’s causes and possible solutions, and funded the entire seventeen volumes of the Inquiry himself. His methods were highly progressive in their immersive fieldwork and their insistence on different criteria – as well as a sliding scale – of poverty.
Unlike other reports, he refused to tack poverty onto any particular income line, and rather insisted on the interconnecting factors that could constitute an experience of deprivation, including family make-up and size, housing conditions, illness, physical ability, and regularity and reliability of employment.
Nevertheless, the maps were still products of Booth’s particular class consciousness, not to mention a Christian framework that leaned towards moral judgements. The street reports often describe lower class residents in terms of “doubtful”, “rough” or even “savage” character. Most notably, the lowest group of his classification was constituted as “semi-criminal”, distinguished from those in “chronic want” on an ethical basis, and implying that at least one tier of poverty was somehow deserving.
Booth identified this group with destructive habits, in particular excessive drinking and poor money management, as well as “bad character”. Unlike his contemporary, the progressive Dr. Thomas Barnardo, who insisted that “heredity counts for little, environment counts for everything”, Booth was unresolved on whether the origins of “bad character” resided in nature or nurture.