The ‘Yellow Vests’ protest movement which began in France at the end of 2018 has uncovered widespread anger among French citizens. But as Nicolas Duvoux and Adrien Papuchon explain, it is difficult to fully capture the scale of this resentment from an analysis of available poverty measures. Instead they suggest that an indicator of ‘subjective poverty’ is required to gain a full understanding of the roots of the movement.

Starting in November last year, the ‘Yellow Vests’ protest movement has revealed deep and intense anger towards the government and elites among the working classes in France. Yet, available poverty measures both at the national and EU levels do not accurately capture the reasons why such social resentment has erupted.

Instead, an indicator of subjective poverty offers a better route for measuring the widely spread social insecurity that manifested itself during the protests. Means-tested assistance schemes that have developed for three decades in France have failed to address this subjective poverty. Thus, this scientific challenge is also a public policy one.

Inadequate poverty measures

The question of who qualifies as ‘poor’ has been much debated in the human and social sciences. In France, any individual living in a household whose standard of living is less than 60 per cent of the median standard of living is considered poor: in 2016, this represents an income of €1,026 per month for one person, which would cover around 14 per cent of the population.

Poverty now disproportionately affects children (19.8 per cent), young adults (19.7 per cent between 18 and 29 years) and single-parent families (34.8 per cent). It is concentrated in densely crowded urban areas, whose inhabitants have not participated in the movement. It is an indicator of inequality, which measures the gap to average or intermediate incomes, but fails to capture the extent to which low-income workers and retirees struggle to make ends meet.

There is also poverty in living conditions. This is decreasing due, in particular, to improvements in the quality of housing. Yet, housing is particularly expensive in France when compared to other European countries. As such, this measure does not help us to understand the social underpinnings of the Yellow Vests movement.

Subjective poverty and social inequalities

Data from the Health and Solidarity Ministry’s Directorate for Research, Studies, Assessment, and Statistics (DREES) can help address this problem. The opinion barometer conducted by DREES offers one of the most robust datasets on public perceptions of social cohesion, inequality and welfare state policies in France. It allows the self-identification of poverty to be measured based on the following question: “Personally, do you consider that there is a risk that you will become poor in the five next years?”

While relative income poverty indicates the share of income that is distant from intermediate or median incomes, the sense of poverty, which affects about 13% of the population in the 2015-17 figures, highlights persistent social insecurity and a degraded vision of the future. Monetary poverty is an indicator of inequality, while subjective poverty is an indicator of insecurity.

The main contribution of this subjective measure of poverty is to question the most common view of poverty which, by focusing on situations of prolonged distance from the labour market, neglects the high percentage of people who consider themselves poor. Here the vulnerability felt by workers in the service or industrial sectors appears to be highly significant given France distinguishes itself in international comparisons by highlighting a fairly low level of in-work poverty. Means-tested assistance schemes that have been developed for three decades in France have failed to address this subjective poverty.

Figure 1: Subjective poverty in France by employment status (click to enlarge)

Note: Figures are for individuals aged 18 and over living in metropolitan France. Source: Opinion barometer of the DREES, 2015-2017. (*) Also includes Professionals, Farmers and Storekeepers.

This indicator of subjective poverty helps demonstrate the importance of key drivers of socio-economic inequalities. If, in France, those who are above the age of 60 have a lower average level of poverty than the general population, thanks to the comparatively generous public pension system, housing status has a clearly stronger impact on subjective poverty among retired people. Subjective poverty captures how home ownership is shaping inequality in contemporary France and it does so more accurately than objective poverty.

Rethinking subjective poverty

Several of the subjective measures available in the current discussion on poverty have been developed in various contexts over the previous decades. More recently, a method based on the elaboration of ‘reference budgets’ has been developed as a means to capture the adequacy of resources of households.

However, a common feature of most of these approaches is that they measure social norms (the minimum necessary income to live decently in a given society) rather than an individual’s perception of their own social position. None of these indicators captures adequately the self-identification as poor that most accurately defines a subjective poverty indicator. This self-identification is exactly what can be found and what can help understand the scope and depth of social insecurity among French working classes.

Figure 2: Subjective poverty and optimism/pessimism about the future

Note: Figures are for individuals aged 18 and over living in metropolitan France. Source: Opinion barometer of the DREES, 2015-2017.

Lastly, contrary to downward mobility, those who feel poor not only have a negative view of their past trajectory but are also disproportionately pessimistic about the future. Thus, this indicator provides a wider account of the social experience of those who are disadvantaged in society. This is the sense of despair that the Yellow Vests movement has become an expression of. Implementing means-tested assistance schemes cannot be considered a satisfying answer to the growing social instability and feeling of injustice in French society.

For more information, see the authors’ recent paper in Revue Française de Sociologie

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, the London School of Economics, or the authors’ organisations. Featured image credit: Patrice CALATAYU (CC BY-SA 2.0)


About the authors

Nicolas Duvoux – Université Paris 8
Nicolas Duvoux is Professor of Sociology at Université Paris 8.

Adrien Papuchon – DREES
Adrien Papuchon is a sociologist based in the French Ministry of Solidarities and Health at the Directorate for Research, Studies, Assessment, and Statistics (DREES). He completed his PhD in sociology at Sciences Po.

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