A WARM winter coat. A damp-free home. Fresh fruit and veg. A week’s holiday every year. Are these the bare necessities of life in the UK? What about broadband, curtains, or household insurance? It’s hard to pin down exactly what we mean when we talk about living in poverty. One man or woman’s luxury – a glass of wine on a Saturday night, a redecorated living room – may for another be the difference between living and merely surviving.

When you read that 60 per cent of people in poverty live in working households – the highest level ever recorded – what do you imagine their lives to be like? Perhaps you don’t have to imagine, because you’re one of them. Perhaps you’d be taken aback to be told you were. With fewer than half of these households containing a low-paid worker, how do the sums add up?

The Cardiff University academics behind this latest research took as their primary poverty measure a relative one – the widely accepted threshold of 60 per cent of median income – but also looked at incomes before and after housing costs. They crunched numbers from DWP statistics, along with findings from the longitudinal Understanding Society survey, to produce a detailed picture of who is poor, and why. Their findings challenged not only the received wisdom that a job is the best route out of poverty, but also the belief that to increase wages is to wave a magic wand and make poverty history.

When such a large proportion of those experiencing in-work poverty are paid relatively decent wages (defined as more than two-thirds of median hourly earnings), one might reasonably ask where the money is all going. Why, for example, might someone end up at a food bank despite bringing in what many would regard as a perfectly adequate salary?

There are two main explanations: children and rent. The Cardiff study found a key determinant of in-work poverty was the number of workers in the household, with single-worker households at much higher risk. It goes without saying that two adults with no children are likely to have more disposable income than a single parent of three, even if only one of them works or both earn relatively low wages.

It’s undeniably unfair that the High Income Child Benefit Charge brought in by the Tories takes no account of overall household income – so if, say, a single mother of four earns £60,000 a year the charge will eat up 100 per cent of her child benefit, whereas two parents on £49,000 each will get to keep it all. This unfairness was of course highlighted when the charge was introduced in 2013, as was the false economy of clawing back benefits via such a clunky mechanism (those who stand to lose 100 per cent of value of their benefit are nevertheless still encouraged to claim it, to build up National Insurance credits). But the protests were a little muted – after all, one salary of £60,000 is still a fortune, surely?

That depends on how far it stretches, and this is where other measures of poverty become useful. Since the 1980s, researchers have been asking members of the British public what poverty really means to them, in practical terms. Is it about food and shelter, or something more? The results support the definition proposed in the 1970s by Peter Townsend that it also means being “excluded from ordinary patterns, customs and activities”.

In the most recent survey, conducted in 2012, more than half of those questioned regarded a TV as an essential, something “which everyone should be able to afford and not have to go without”. Some 77 per cent said the same about a phone and 80 per cent about a washing machine. Of course views have changed over time, but not always in the direction we might expect. In 1983, 64 per cent thought new (rather than secondhand) clothes were essential for adults, compared to only 46 per cent 20 years later – after the arrival of super-cheap “fast fashion”. There was a similar drop in the proportion who consider a holiday away from home an essential – from 63 per cent to 42 per cent.

So what has changed between then and now? Wages have risen, but not in line with inflation and certainly not in line with rents and mortgage payments. The housing market has changed beyond recognition since the 1980s, when the right to buy led to a surge in owner-occupation. Since 2007 there’s been a big shift from home-owning to private renting, and while the Cardiff study found the absolute risk of in-work poverty was highest for those living in social housing, the risk for those renting privately is increasing the most sharply.

There’s little point in raising the minimum wage, or tax credits, or any income source for families if the extra cash goes straight in the pockets of landlords. Sneaking a look at people’s payslips tells us nothing about their ability to make ends meet – and participate in society – unless we can see who they live with, and what their outgoings are. It follows that any bid to judge whether they are “really” poor by their occupation, their postcode or their Facebook page is the first step down a very slippery slope indeed.