In recent decades, consensual approaches to poverty measurement have been widely adopted in large-scale survey research both in the UK and internationally. However, while ascertaining the extent of public agreement on the ‘necessities of life’ has been central to this approach, long-standing critiques have questioned the nature of public consensus on poverty derived using survey methods. By drawing on new primary research preparatory to the 2012 UK Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey, we consider the contribution of qualitative methods in understanding public views on necessities and discuss their implications for survey-based poverty measurement. Our findings raise some important conceptual and measurement issues for consensual poverty measures within large-scale social surveys. Firstly, our research suggests that public understandings of the term ‘necessity’ are diverse and may not always be consistent with researchers’ interpretations or with wider usage of this term within consensual poverty measurement. Secondly, a better understanding of the considerations which inform survey respondents’ deliberations is needed. Thirdly, our findings have important implications for how we should interpret the concept of ‘consensus’ within the context of consensual poverty surveys, and emphasise the need for the application of more deliberative methods in determining public views on the ‘necessities of life’.