Poverty is already at crisis levels. On current trends - an increasingly polarised labour market, rising housing costs and a continuing squeeze on benefits - the next five years will see more people in the UK in poverty, more often and for longer, even with falling unemployment.
With the proceeds of growth increasingly bypassing the poorest, the doubling of wealth in Britain over the last three decades has been associated with rising poverty, and in some respects, alarming falls in living standards. One in ten households live in a damp home and similar proportions cannot afford to heat their home adequately - both a thirty-year high. The number who skimp on meals from time to time over the previous year has doubled since 1983 – up from thirteen to twenty-eight percent. The proportion of the workforce on low wages now stands at twenty-one percent, up from twelve percent in the early 1980s.
The Open University has been part of the largest ever research project into poverty in the UK, the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Poverty and Social Exclusion project. This research is based on two large scale surveys, carried out in 2012, and uses a publicly set minimum standard to measure poverty levels - an approach that Stewart Lansley and I first developed in the 1983 Breadline Britain survey and which was subsequently repeated in 1990 and 1999. These four studies enable trends over time to be tracked and form the basis of our recently published book Breadline Britain – the rise of mass poverty.
This method establishes what the majority of people think are the necessities of life, which everyone should be able to afford and no-one should have to do without, covering a wide range of items from diet to housing to personal and household goods and leisure and social activities. Being based on public opinion, this is the nearest we have to a democratically defined poverty line.
In 2012, nearly one in three people lacked three or more publicly-defined necessities, a level found to have pervasive and multiple impacts on people’s lives. Of this group, over seven out of ten have at least one key financial problem (such as arrears), six out of ten feel their general health has been affected while half suffer mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression. The numbers in deprivation poverty, as measured by the standards of the time, has been steadily rising and is now double that of thirty years ago (see chart).
Source: Breadline Britain – the rise in mass poverty, by Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack (Oneworld), p54.
Since the 2010 General Election, the debate on poverty has become increasingly highly charged, with evidence displaced by deep-seated prejudice. The coalition government, along with much of the media, persist in arguing that poverty is largely self-inflicted and a matter of individual failure – or, as ministers like to claim, ‘a lifestyle choice’ promoted by a ‘something for nothing’ benefits system.
The study shows that the rise in poverty cannot be explained by a sudden explosion of individual failings or a growth of ‘welfare dependency’. Indeed, the most striking feature of the last thirty years is the rise in poverty among those in work – around sixty percent of households in poverty have at least one person in work, double the figure in the early 1980s.
Reversing the rising poverty tide requires a radical shift in the political mindset, one that stops pinning the blame on the poor themselves, that accepts that poverty is driven by an accumulated reduction in opportunities, pay and life chances. It means tackling core inequalities in the workplace, higher levels of social investment and support (from education and training to social housing to child care provision), and, to fund this spending, a more progressive tax system - bearing more heavily on the rich - along with a war on exploding personal and corporate tax avoidance.
To achieve these ends there needs to be a spreading of power as a counter to big business – to town halls, consumers, the workforce and small businesses - and the dispersal of capital ownership more widely through encouraging alternative business models based around partnerships, co-operatives and social enterprise. Tackling poverty at source would enable the welfare system to return towards its original vision of a more universal, and less means-tested system.
It is perfectly possible to run an economy in which the cake is more evenly shared, in which the rich pay their fair share of taxes, in which the poor are not made the scapegoat for the manifold failures of economic and social policy. Depending, as the UK increasingly does, on charity to pick up the pieces is neither effective nor fair, nor a long-term solution. Pressure from below – a precondition for change – is dispersed but growing.
There is nothing inevitable about condemning such a large proportion of the population to a life with few opportunities and low incomes. Other choices are possible.
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