Poverty in the UK: a real problem

Poverty is a problem in the UK, contrary to the opinions of some. In recent years the amount of food banks rise from 50-odd to over five hundred within the last five or six years. Homelessness is rising, child poverty has been rising…though the government sought to solve this by redefining it (facepalm).

When the current government took over the UK’s economy was a shit show following the global financial crisis, so they chose austerity as their remedy. This led to cuts on sectors, but arguably fell hardest on the poorest.

First, some definitions: there is relative poverty and absolute poverty.

Relative poverty means that somebody does not have the means to live the life that most people lead, so they are excluded from activities and opportunities that the average person can enjoy.

In the UK, if your household income is 60 per cent of the median (middle number) household income, then you are defined as living in relative poverty.

Absolute poverty is a state where you cannot afford a basic standard of living, so food, shelter and clothing are beyond your means. This is not measured relative to your own population’s standard of living, but to a fixed standard.

According to Full Fact, since 1998/99 absolute poverty has fallen by around 10 per cent. Before housing costs, it has reduced from 27 to 17 per cent, while after housing costs it has fallen from 31 to about 23 per cent. The latter figure is more troubling, because absolute poverty after housing costs has risen over the last 10 years, and before housing costs absolute poverty has remained the same.

Relative poverty has been falling consistently, with 2013/14 before housing costs relative poverty is the lowest since the 1980s.

Child poverty has made a lot of headlines over the last year. Enshrined in the Child Poverty Act 2010, the government has a statutory requirement to eliminate all child poverty by 2020.

Currently, there are 3.7 million children in poverty, more than a quarter of all children.

“[B]y 2020/21 another one million children will be pushed into poverty as a result of the Coalition Government’s policies,” predicted Barnardo’s, a children’s charity.

Sixty-six per cent of these live in families where a person is in work.

Last year, the government sought to redefine child poverty. Its critics argued that this was the government’s attempt to fudge the statistics and eliminate child poverty by definition rather than in practice.

However, the government believed that changing the measure from family income and financial deprivation to statistics like educational attainment and household worklessness would be more effective. In capturing the child’s life chances, so the argument goes, you more accurately capture the poverty of their upbringing.

Plans were abandoned this year due to widespread opposition. Whatever your opinion on the measure, child poverty is still rising.

Food banks are another topical issue, due to the sheer scale of the increase in use. Last April the Trussell Trust, an organization that gives out free emergency food to those struggling, reported 19 per cent a year on yearly increases in food bank use.

In 2008-09, before the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, there were 29 food banks. By the end of it, the Trussell Trust was operating 445.

Forty-four per cent of 2014 referrals were the result of delays to their benefits or “stopped altogether as a result of the strict jobcentre sanctions regime,” as The Guardian wrote.

This “sanctions regime” had come under the welfare reforms imposed by the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith.

These have been seen as particularly harsh, with policies ranging from increasing sanctions for people on sickness benefit to scrapping a fund to help people living with disabilities.

In this climate, it is no surprise that homelessness has risen, too. You wouldn’t need statistics to sense this either. Maybe five years ago you could walk through the centre of Southampton and see one or two homeless people at best, now you’d be surprised if you saw only one or two.

The charity Crisis has noted some startling statistics. In 2015, the number of people that slept rough at least once, 3 569, was double the 2010 figure, according to government statistics.

“Local agencies report 7,581 people slept rough in London alone throughout 2014/15. A 16 per cent rise on the previous year, and more than double the figure of 3,673 in 2009/10.”

According to the charity, last year 112,340 people made homeless applications, a rise of 26% since 2009/10.

Raw figures are difficult to interpret and, given that the Office for National Statistics noted that in 2013, levels of UK persistent poverty were the lowest in the EU, there is an argument that these statistics could be a lot worse. Or, given the prevalence of poverty in other parts of the world, these statistics are good.

But as one of the world’s largest economies, any level of homelessness or poverty in the UK is unacceptable, enough to turn a liberal into a socialist. What’s more, the rising levels of homelessness and food bank usage are a worrying trend.