Poverty in the United Kingdom
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- This article is about poverty within the population of the United Kingdom as distinct from UK policy on world poverty.
The United Kingdom is a developed country with comparatively large income differences. As such, those at the lower end of the income distribution have a relatively low standard of living. However, the most severe difficulties of those in the developing world are much more rarely to be seen due to the more advanced social infrastructure in the United Kingdom (health services, welfare and so on). Discussions surrounding poverty in the United Kingdom tend to be of relative poverty rather than absolute poverty.
- 1 Poverty in the postwar era
- 2 How poverty in the United Kingdom is defined and measured
- 3 Viewpoints of major political parties
- 4 Pressure/interest groups
- 5 See also
- 6 Footnotes
- 7 External links
Poverty in the postwar era
In the early Nineteen-Fifties, it was believed by numerous people that poverty had been all but abolished from Britain, with only a few isolated pockets of deprivation still remaining. Much of this assumption was derived from a study of poverty in York carried out in 1951 by Seebohm Rowntree and his colleague G. R. Lavers, which showed that in 1950 only 1.5% of the survey population lived in poverty, compared with 18% in 1936 when a previous study had been conducted in that town by Rowntree. Rowntree and Laver cited full employment policies, rises in real wages and the expansion of social welfare programmes as the key factors behind this positive development. They could also show that, while 60% of poverty in 1936 was caused by low wages or unemployment, the corresponding figure in 1950 was only 1.% A “Times” leader spoke positively of this ‘remarkable improvement – no less than the virtual abolition of the sheerest want.’
Over the course of the Fifties and Sixties, however, a “rediscovery” of poverty took place, with various surveys showing that a substantial proportion of Britons were impoverished, with between 4% and 12% of the population estimated to be living below the Supplementary Benefits’ scales. In 1969, Professor A. Atkinson stated that
- “it seems fair to conclude that the proportion of the population with incomes below the National Assistance/Supplementary Benefits scale lies towards the upper end of the 4-9 per cent.”
According to this definition, between 2-5 million Britons were trapped in poverty. In addition, some 2.6 million people were in receipt of Supplementary Benefits and therefore living on the poverty line. This meant that at least 10% of the population were in poverty at his time.
Bad housing conditions also constituted a major cause of poverty in the postwar era. In the early Sixties, it was estimated that three million families lived in “slums, near slums on grossly overcrowded conditions,” while a 1967 housing survey of England and Wales found that 11.7% of all dwellings were unfit.
In their 1965 study on poverty, “The Poor and the Poorest,” Professors Peter Townsend and Brian Abel-Smith decided on measuring poverty on the basis of the National Assistance levels of living; specifically, how many people were living below it. Using this poverty line, Townsend and Abel-Smith estimated that some 14% (around 7.5 million) of Britons lived in poverty, i.e. living on incomes that were below the level of National Assistance. Townsend and Abel-Smith also estimated that since the mid-Fifties the percentage of the population living in poverty had risen from 8% to 14%. In their study on poverty, Townsend and Abel-Smith found that 29% of all persons living in poverty in 1960 were below the age of 15, comprising 17% of all children. About half were living in households whose heads were retired, and one third were living in households whose head was in full-time work.
The continued existence of poverty in the Sixties was also characterised, tragically, by differences in health between different social classes. In 1964-65 the incidence of infant deaths was more than half as much higher in the two lowest social classes than in the two highest social classes (38.0 per 1000 compared with 24.5 per 1000). In 1961-62 28% of all men recorded at least one spell of sickness of four days or more. For the lowest social classes, however, 35% of men had experienced this, compared with 18% of men in the highest social classes. Men in the lowest social class were found to be more prone to bronchitis and have worse and fewer teeth than those in higher social classes. In addition, the incidence of mental illnesses was higher in lower social groups, while unskilled workers in retirement were more likely to be severely disabled. In addition, children from poor backgrounds (who had lower nutritional standards than children from richer backgrounds, while a high proportion were short for their age) were found to have higher morbidity rates when they grew up. On a positive note, patients from social classes IV and V did consult their doctors on a more frequent basis than those in the higher social classes.
In his seminal work “Poverty in the UK” (published in 1979), Townsend suggested that 15 million people lived in or on the margins of poverty. He also argued that to get a proper measure of relative deprivation, there was a need to take into account other factors apart from income measures such as peoples’ environment, employment, and housing standards.
In another study on poverty, Wilfred Beckerman estimated that 9.9% of the British population lived below a standardised poverty line in 1973, compared with 6.1% of the population of Belgium (he also found that social security measures in Belgium had been more effective at reducing poverty than those in Britain).
Low pay was also a major cause of poverty, with a report by the TUC in 1968 finding that about 5 million females and about 2.5 million males earned less than £15 a week. According to one study, around 20% to 23% of employees in the late Sixties had low hourly wages. Regional differences in pay also remained pronounced during the post-war period. If the figure for the United Kingdom was 100 in 1973, then the figure for the West Midlands was 105, the South-East 105, East Anglia 92, and Northern Ireland 87. As noted by one researcher, within Wales there existed “considerable regional disparities within Wales and a basic division between the high-wage area of the industrial south and the low-wage areas of central, northern and west Wales.”
Slum housing also remained a problem, with 12% of British households living in houses or flats considered to be unfit for human habitation in 1972. In 1975, government statistics estimated that 1,800,000 children lived in poverty.
Nevertheless, the number of people estimated to be living in poor housing conditions was lower at the start of the Seventies than at the start of the Sixties. In 1961, 4,700,000 households lived in unfit or substandard homes, compared with 2,846,000 in 1971.
During the late Sixties and Seventies, progress was made in reducing the level of post-war poverty and inequality. Using a constant relative poverty line set by the Council of Europe (those living on below half the average income), 3 million families in Britain lived in poverty in 1977, compared with 5 million in 1961. According to one measurement, the 1971 Supplementary Benefits scale, the percentage of individuals living in poverty fell from 9.4% in 1963 to 2.3% in 1973.
Based on various measurements, however, the number of Britons living in poverty rose significantly from 1979 to 1985. The number of Britons living in poverty (when defined as living below the Supplementary Benefit level) rose from 2,090,000 to 2,420,000 during that period, while the number of people living in poverty when defined as living on or below the Supplementary Benefit level rose from 6,070,000 to 9,380,000. Using a poverty measurement of living at 140% of the Supplementary Benefit level or below, the rise was alarmingly higher, from 11,570,000 to 15,420,000.
Figures from the European Commission estimated that from 1975 to 1985 the number of people living in poverty had doubled in Britain, from just over 3 million to 6.5 million. In 1975, the United Kingdom had fewer people living in poverty than Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Luxembourg. By 1989, Britain had a higher poverty than each of these four countries. In 1989, 12% of the UK population was estimated to be living in poverty, compared with 11.7% in Italy, 8.5% in Germany, 7.9% in Luxembourg, 7.4% in the Netherlands, and 7.2% in Belgium.
From 1979 to 1987, the number of Britons living in poverty (defined as living on less than half the national average income) doubled, from roughly 10% to 20% of the whole population. In 1989, almost 6 million full-time workers, representing 37% of the total full-time workforce, earned less than the “decency threshold” defined by the Council of Europe as 68% of average full-time earnings. In 1994, 76.7% of all part-time workers earned less than this threshold. A 2000 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated that 4 million people lacked access to a healthy diet, while a review of EU food and health policies estimated that food poverty was far higher in the UK than any other EU member state.
From the late Nineties onwards, however, poverty began to fall steadily, helped by policies such as big increases in national insurance benefits and the introduction of the national minimum wage. Using the 60% of median income after housing costs poverty line, the percentage of the British population living in poverty rose to 25.3% in 1996/97, compared with 13.7% in 1979. From 1997/98 to 2004/05 (using the same 60% of median income after housing costs measurement), the percentage of the population living in poverty fell from 24.4% to 20.5%. Poverty rose again from 2005/06 onwards, reaching 22.5% of the population in 2007/08, before falling again to 22.2% in 2008/09.
According to figures from Eurostat, the percentage of the population with an equalised disposable income below the risk-of-poverty threshold (set at 60% of the national median equalised disposable income, after social transfers) in 2011 was 16.2%.
The Office for National Statistics has estimated that in 2011, 14 million people were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and that one person in 20 (5.1%) was now experiencing “severe material depression.”
In assessing social inequality in Britain, Danny Dorling has noted that
“people in different parts of Britain and people living within different quarters of its cities are living in different worlds with different norms and expectations. This was not the case a few decades ago. This is not the case to the same extent in the majority of affluent nations in the world.”
How poverty in the United Kingdom is defined and measured
There is no one definition of poverty. The most common measure, as used in the Child Poverty Act 2010, is ‘household income below 60 percent of median income’. The median is such an income that exactly a half of households earn more than that and the other half earns less.
In the year 2004/2005, the 60% threshold was worth £100 per week for a single adult, £183 per week for a two adult household, £186 per week for a single adult living with two children and £268 per week for two adults living with two children. This sum of money is after income tax and national insurance have been deducted from earnings and after council tax, rent, mortgage and water charges have been paid. It is therefore what a household has available to spend on everything else it needs.
"There are basically three current definitions of poverty in common usage: absolute poverty, relative poverty and social exclusion.
Absolute poverty is defined as the lack of sufficient resources with which to meet basic needs.
Relative poverty defines income or resources in relation to the average. It is concerned with the absence of the material needs to participate fully in accepted daily life.
Social exclusion is a new term used by the Government. The Prime Minister described social exclusion as "…a shorthand label for what can happen when individuals or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health and family breakdown". - House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee
In the early Eighties, Tony Byrne and Colin F. Padfield defined relative poverty in Britain as a situation in which people are able to survive adequately, but they are either less well off than they used to be (such as when they retire from paid employment) or that they are at a serious disadvantage “in their ability to experience or enjoy the standard of life of most other people – for example, not being able to afford an annual holiday.”
It is expected that the official measure of poverty, for which households earning less than 60% of median income fall into, will be redefined. This proposed redefinition could lead to accusations that the figures are being fixed.
Historical statistics on poverty
The table below shows the percentage of the population in relative poverty together with the percentage in absolute poverty derived by two different measures: the National assistance scale and the Supplementary benefits scale. Estimates from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
|Relative poverty||National assistance scale||Supplementary benefits scale|
Other forms of poverty
Water poverty is defined by the Government as spending more than 3% of disposable income on water bills. Nationally, in 2006, nearly 10% of households were in water poverty.
Fuel poverty. A fuel poor household is one that struggles to keep adequately warm at reasonable cost. The most widely accepted definition of a fuel poor household is one which needs to spend more than 10% of its income on all fuel use and to heat the home to an adequate standard of warmth. This is generally defined as 21°C in the living room and 18°C in the other occupied rooms.
Causes of poverty
- Disability - Disabled adults are twice as likely to live in low income households as non-disabled adults.
- Mental illness
- Low Intelligence
- Being born to poor parents
- Being a lone parent - half of all lone parents are on a low income.
- Racial Discrimination
- Inherent biases in the economic system, having to pay a higher rate of interest on a loan for example
Defining the poverty line as those individuals and households with incomes less than 60% of their respective medians:
- Nearly 60% of those in poverty are homeowners.
Historical measurements of poverty
Seebohm Rowntree chose a basic 'shopping basket' of foods (identical to the rations given in the local workhouse), clothing and housing needs - anyone unable to afford them was deemed to be in poverty. By 1950, with the founding of the modern welfare state, the 'shopping basket' measurement had been abandoned.
The vast and overwhelming majority of people that fill the government's current criteria for poverty status (see above) have goods unimaginable to those in poverty in 1900. Poverty in the developed world is often one of perception; people compare their wealth with neighbours and wider society, not with their ancestors or those in foreign countries. Indeed this is formalised in the government's measure of poverty. A number of studies have shown that though prosperity in the UK has greatly increased, the level of happiness people report has remained the same or even decreased since the 1950s
Viewpoints of major political parties
The Labour Party website states:
"In 1997 Labour inherited one of the highest rates of child poverty in Europe – with one in three children living in poverty. Our mission to abolish child poverty is grounded both in our determination to secure social justice, and to tackle the problems that the social exclusion of children builds up for the long-term. Work is the best route out of poverty and our successful welfare to work measures have lifted millions out of poverty including disabled people, who have too often previously been consigned to a life on benefits. At the same time, millions of families are benefiting from the Child tax credit, the Working tax credit, and record rises in Child benefit."
Their 2005 manifesto states:
"[Since the Labour government came to power in 1997] there are two million fewer children and nearly two million fewer pensioners living in absolute poverty."
In a report covering only the East of England, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that in 2004/2005, 22% of children in the East of England lived in families on low incomes. This compares to the 26% of children in low income families in 1998/1999, showing child poverty had been reduced. The JRF noted that the Government had missed its official target of reducing child poverty by a quarter between 1998/1999 and 2004/2005.
"The traditional Conservative vision of welfare as a safety net encompasses another outdated Tory nostrum - that poverty is absolute, not relative. Churchill's safety net is at the bottom: holding people at subsistence level, just above the abyss of hunger and homelessness. It is the social commentator Polly Toynbee who supplies imagery that is more appropriate for Conservative social policy in the twenty first century."
This provocative approach generated much comment and analysis.
It was followed two days later by Cameron saying poverty should be seen in relative terms to the rest of society, where people lack those things which others in society take for granted, "those who think otherwise are wrong [...] I believe that poverty is an economic waste, a moral disgrace. [...] We will only tackle the causes of poverty if we give a bigger role to society, tackling poverty is a social responsibility [...] Labour rely too heavily on redistributing money, and on the large, clunking mechanisms of the state."
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (site) is one of the largest social policy research and development charities in the UK and takes particular interest in the issue of poverty, with over 100 reports on poverty and disadvantage available on its website (external link to report listing).
- Social Services: Made Simple (1990) by Tony Byrne, BA, BSc(Econ.), and Colin F. Padfield, LLB, DPA(Lond)
- Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen (1983) by Ken Coates and Richard Silburn
- Labour and inequality: sixteen fabian essays (1966) edited by Peter Townsend and Nicholas Bosanquet
- Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party by Martin Pugh
- Poverty and Inequality in Common Market Countries edited by Victor George and Roger Lawson
- Responses to poverty: lessons from Europe by Robert Walker, Roger Lawson, and Peter Townsend
- Townsend, Peter (1979). "18". Poverty in the United Kingdom.
- Townsend, Peter (1979). "12". Poverty in the United Kingdom.
- Millar, Jane; Gardiner, Karen (2004). Low pay, household resources and poverty. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
- Consensus and conflict: essays in political sociology by Seymour Martin Lipset
- Social Welfare and the Failure of the State: Centralised Social Services and Participatory Alternatives by Roger Hadley and Stephen Hatch
- Childhood poverty and social exclusion: from a child's perspective by Tess Ridge
- Irwin, John (1996). Modern Britain: An Economic and Social History. Routledge.
- British Economic And Social Policy: Lloyd George to Margaret Thatcher by GC Peden
- Where There's Greed: Margaret Thatcher and the Betrayal of Britain's Future by Gordon Brown
- Britain in Close-Up by David McDowall
- Lourie, Julia (17 Jan 1995). A Minimum Wage. House of Commons Library.
- The Government's Public Health White Paper (Cm 6374): Written Evidence -. Great Britain: Parliament: House of Commons: Health Committee. 2004-11-16.
- Lang, Tim; Heasman, Michael (2004). Food Wars: The Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets. Earthscan.
- "UK: State benefit levels - The Poverty Site". Poverty.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-12-03.
- National Minimum Wage, Low Pay Commission Report 2006. HMSO. Archived from the original on 26 Jun 2013.
- "UK: numbers in low income - The Poverty Site". Poverty.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-12-03.
- "At risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU27". Eurostat. 8 Feb 2012.
- "Persons at-risk-of-poverty after social transfers - Statistics Estonia". Stat.ee. Retrieved 2013-12-03.
- Andrews, James. "How poor is Britain now". Yahoo!.
- The Verdict: Did Labour Change Britain? By Polly Toynbee and David Walker
- Townsend, Ian; Kennedy, Steven (4 MARCH 2004). Poverty: Measures and Targets. Research Report 04/23. House of Commons Library.
- "Key Facts". Poverty.org.uk. Archived from the original on 12 Dec 2006.
- "Definitions of poverty". BBC. 5 April 2013.
- Winnett, Robert (Dec 1, 2011). "Feckless parents would only spend extra benefits on themselves, says Iain Duncan Smith". The Daily Telegraph (London).
- Poverty and Progress In Britain 1953-1973, G.C. Fiegehen, P.S. Lansley, and A.D. Smith, with a contribution by N.C. Garganas. (C.U.P. 1977)
- "Water and Sewerage Charges (Limit on Household Expenditure)". They Work For You. 15 Mar 2006. Retrieved 3 Dec 2012.
- "Fuel Poverty". They Work For You. 18 Oct 2006. Retrieved 3 Dec 2013.
- "Raising awareness of fuel poverty". BBC website. Retrieved 3 Dec 2013.
- Heath, A. and Cheung, S. Y. (2006) Ethnic penalties in the labour market: Employers and discrimination. DWP Research Report No. 341. Leeds: Corporate Document Services.
- Tackey, Nii Djan (2006). "Barriers to employment for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Britain and constraints". et al. Archived from the original on 25 Jan 2013.
- "First-time buyers on poverty 'knife-edge'". BBC News. 1 Aug 2005. Retrieved 3 Dec 2013.
- "Britain's happiness in decline". BBC News. 2 May 2006. Retrieved 3 Dec 2013.
- "Wealth warning". The Guardian. 5 Jun 2005. Retrieved 3 Dec 2013.
- "A history of milestones, information on historical measurements of poverty". Retrieved 3 Dec 2013.
- "What is Labour doing for… families and children?". Archived from the original on 26 Sep 2006.
- "Labour Party manifesto". 2005. Archived from the original on 11 Dec 2006.
- Branigan, Tania (22 November 2006). "Cameron told: it's time to ditch Churchill". The Guardian (London).
- "Toynbee not Churchill, Tory says". BBC News. 22 November 2006.
- "From Churchill to Toynbee?". BBC News. 22 Nov 2006. Retrieved 3 Dec 2013., Toynbee, Polly (22 Nov 2006). "Leaves out of my book". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 Dec 2013., "Rightwing Tories support Toynbee approach". The Guardian. 22 Nov 2006. Retrieved 3 Dec 2013., "Churchill out, Toynbee in". The Guardian. 22 Nov 2006. Retrieved 3 Dec 2013., "Times editorial".
- Mulholland, Helene (24 November 2006). "Cameron: poverty is a 'moral disgrace'". The Guardian (London).
- One hundred years of poverty and policy by Howard Glennerster, John Hills, and David Piachaud and Jo Webb - The Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Contains information on historical trends in poverty and anti-poverty legislation
- Breadline Britain - the welfare state 60 years on - BBC News, 2006.
- Social Exclusion - The Guardian, updated regularly.
- Government reports
- "Measuring Child Poverty". Department for Work and Pensions. December 2003. Archived from the original on 7 Jan 2013.
- "Understanding older people’s experiences of poverty and material deprivation.". DWP. July 2006. Archived from the original on 7 Jan 2013.
- Government debates (most recent first)
- Child poverty debate - Westminster Hall, 4 July 2006.
- Poverty debate - House of Lords, 6 February 2002.
- Student poverty debate - House of Lords, 15 March 2001.
- Statistics provided by Government ministers
- Child poverty
- Number and percentage of children living in poverty, in each year, 1979-2004.
- Number and percentage of children living in poverty, in each year, 1979-2004 before and after housing costs.
- Percentage of children living in poverty in working or workless households, 2003-04.
- Proportion of children in families with (a) a lone parent, (b) married parents or stepparents and (c) cohabiting parents or stepparents in poverty, 2004-05.
- Number and percentage of children living in poverty, 1997-2004.
- Northern Ireland: children living in the province estimated to be living in poverty, broken down by (a) Northern Ireland local government district and (b) parliamentary constituency, 2002/04.
- Pensioner poverty
- Number and percentage of pensioners living in poverty from 1979-2004.
- Pensioners in poverty 1994-2003, broken down by region.
- Rural poverty
- Percentage of children and adults living in poverty both before and after housing costs from 1995-2005.
- Poverty among (a) pensioners, (b) the unemployed, (c) disabled and (d) others in 1996/97 and 2003/04.
- The average weekly income for a) the lowest earning 40% and b) the highest earning 40% in England as a whole and the South West in particular for 1996/97-1998/99 and 2002/03-2004/05.