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. New data released by Department for Work and Pensions show that the number of people living in the UK in relative poverty has risen over the past two years. As of 2013, there are 10.6 million people with income below 60% of the inflation-adjusted 2010/11 median (termed "absolute low income" by the DWP), up from 9.7 million in 2012.[1][2][3] In 2014, another report by Institute for Fiscal Studies said that 23.2% of Britons were now in relative poverty, the highest since 2001.[4] However, Eurostat figures show that the numbers of Britons at risk of poverty has fallen to 15.9% in 2014, down from 17.1% in 2010 and 19% in 2005 (after social transfers were taken into account).[5]

It has been found by the Poverty and Social Exclusion project at Bristol University in 2014,[6] that the proportion of households lacking three items or activities deemed necessary for life in the UK at that time (as defined by a survey of the wider population) has increased from 14% in 1983 to 33% in 2012.[7][8][9]


Poverty in the postwar era

In the early 1950s, 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.[10] 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.’[11]

Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, 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.[12]

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.[10] Townsend and Abel-Smith also estimated that since the mid-1950s the percentage of the population living in poverty had risen from 8% to 14%.[13] 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.[14] 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 1960s was also characterised 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.[12] As noted in another poverty study, there was evidence that in large families the height of children was less than that for the average, while families with three or more children were more likely to be inadequately nourished. In Sheffield, it was found that a 5-year-old boy in a good district was an inch taller and 1.5 lb heavier, and a 14-year-old boy more than an inch taller and 6lb heavier than equivalent children in poor districts. In a cohort study of children born in one week of 1946, J.W.B. Douglas estimated stated that mothers in families of semi-skilled and unskilled workers "are frequently in a low state of health owing to an inadequate diet, lack of resources, and the cycle of child-bearing."[15]

In his 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.[10]

According to one study, 365,000 families in Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) in 1966 were in poverty by an old assistance standard, and 450,000 families by a new standard.[15] 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).[16]

Low pay was also a major cause of poverty,[17][18] 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.[11] According to one study, around 20% to 23% of employees in the late 1960s had low hourly wages.[19] In 1974, a quarter of adult employees in Britain earned less than £27 a week or less before tax, only slightly above the officially defined poverty line for an average family.[20] 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, for 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."[14]

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.[21] In 1975, government statistics estimated that 1,800,000 children lived in poverty.[14]

Nevertheless, the number of people estimated to be living in poor housing conditions was lower at the start of the 1970s than at the start of the 1960s. In 1961, 4,700,000 households lived in unfit or substandard homes, compared with 2,846,000 in 1971.[22]

During the late 1960s and 1970s, progress was made in reducing the level of post-war poverty and inequality.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25] Low pay continued to remain a major problem by the end of the 1970s, however, particularly amongst manual workers.[26]

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.[27]

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.[27]

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.[28] In 1994, 76.7% of all part-time workers earned less than this threshold.[29] A 2000 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated that 4 million people lacked access to a healthy diet,[30] 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.[31]

From the late 1990s onwards, however, poverty began to fall steadily, helped by policies such as big increases in national insurance benefits[32] and the introduction of the national minimum wage.[33] 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%.[34]

Poverty in the 21st century

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.[34] Eurostat figures show that the numbers of Britons at risk of poverty has fallen to 15.9% in 2014, down from 17.1% in 2010 and 19% in 2005 (after social transfers were taken into account).[35]

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."[36] Poverty among young people increased by 3.9% from 2007 to 2010.[37] 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."[38] Data published in 2014 by New Policy Institute and Trust for London found in the three years to 2012/13, 2.2 million people were in poverty in London after housing costs. This figure represents 28% of London’s population, 8 percentage points higher than the rest of England.[39]

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported the numbers of poor United Kingdom children in wage earning families increased from 2009 to 2014 and more poor children currently live in working families than live in families on benefits. The IFS reported

Recent falls in inequality are likely to prove temporary. Stronger earnings growth and the Conservatives’ planned income tax cuts would do most for incomes towards the top of the distribution, while planned benefit cuts will hit low-income households [both in and out of work] hardest.[40][41]

Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England wrote

The majority of children living in poverty have at least one parent who is working. Employment is important but if wages do not rise substantially in relation to living costs it will not provide a route out of poverty alone. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has today published a report stating that families with children working full-time on the National Minimum Wage are now 15% short of the Minimum Income Standard that people believe offers an acceptable standard of living. Today’s announcement will effectively confine to history any figures on the millions of children being raised in families who experience in-work poverty denying them necessities such as adequate food, clothing and heating.[42]

Julia Unwin of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said

A strong economy and rising employment have masked the growing problem of in-work poverty, as years of below-inflation wage rises have taken their toll on people’s incomes. The upcoming minimum wage rise will help, but many low-income working families will still find themselves worse off due to tax-credit changes. Boosting productivity and creating more jobs which offer progression at work is vital to make work a reliable route out of poverty.[40]

As of 2015 there is actual hunger in the United Kingdom and significant numbers of UK citizens are driven to use food banks. There is also significant malnutrition. Poorer people are frequently forced to buy and eat cheaper, less healthy food. The BMJ, a UK peer-reviewed medical journal published:

For the poorest in our society, up to 35% of disposable income will now be needed for food, compared to less than 9% for the more wealthy. This will increase reliance on cheap, highly processed, high fat, high sugar, high salt, and calorie dense, unhealthy foods. 2 Re-emerging problems of poor public health nutrition such as rickets and malnutrition in the elderly are also causes for concern.( John D Middleton Vice president John R Ashton, Simon Capewell Faculty of Public Health)[43]

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.[44]

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.[45]

Consider also:

"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[46]

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."[10]

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.[47]

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.[48]

Percentage of population in poverty
Relative poverty National assistance scale Supplementary benefits scale
Year Households Individuals Households Individuals Households Individuals
1953/54 6.5% 4.8% 6.5% 4.8% 22.5% 21.0%
1963 6.8% 5.5% 2.5% 1.4% 10.5% 9.4%
1967 5.8% 5.3% 0.9% 0.9% 6.0% 5.5%
1971 4.9% 4.2% 0.5% 0.5% 4.9% 4.2%
1973 4.3% 3.0% 0.3% 0.2% 3.5% 2.3%

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.[49]

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.[50][51] Fuel poverty affects over a million British working households and increases in energy prices affect poor people severely.[52]

See Fuel poverty in the United Kingdom.

Causes of poverty

Current/recent figures

Eurostat figures show that the numbers of Britons at risk of poverty has fallen to 15.9% in 2014, down from 17.1% in 2010 and 19% in 2005 (after social transfers were taken into account).[5]

If the poverty line is defined as those individuals and households with incomes less than 60% of their respective medians, then "nearly 60%" of those in poverty are homeowners.[55]

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.[56][57][58]

Viewpoints of major political parties

Labour Party

While leader of the Labour Government, Tony Blair vowed in 1999 to cut child poverty 25% by 2005, 50% by 2010 and to eradicate child poverty completely by 2020. 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."[59]

Their 2005 manifesto[60] 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."

Conservative Party

In late November 2006, the Conservative Party garnered headlines across the press when a senior member spoke out on poverty, invoking the name of Polly Toynbee. The headlines began when David Cameron's policy advisor and shadow minister Greg Clark wrote:

"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."[61][62]

This approach generated much comment and analysis.[63] 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."[64]

Pressure/interest groups

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).

The Child Poverty Action Group (site) campaigns for the elimination of poverty amongst children.

End Child Poverty coalition (site) also seeks the eradication of child poverty.

Oxfam UK Poverty Programme site) works with people and policy makers to tackle the causes of poverty.

In July 2013 Freedom from Torture(site) published its report "The Poverty Barrier: The Right to Rehabilitation for Survivors of Torture in the UK [65] which highlights the failings of the UK Asylum System in their handling of torture survivors arriving in the UK. The evidence included in the report comes from the testimony of over 100 survivors of torture and 18 members of Freedom from Torture's clinical department. The report highlights financial insecurity, social exclusion and hopelessness and how poverty prevents the rehabilitation process. One survivor stated: "... Our current living conditions keep our torture trauma still alive. We can't move on."

See also


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  64. Mulholland, Helene (24 November 2006). "Cameron: poverty is a 'moral disgrace'". The Guardian. London.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  65. http://www.freedomfromtorture.org/sites/default/files/documents/Poverty%20report%20FINAL%20a4%20web.pdf The Poverty Barrier

External links

Government reports

The Department for Work and Pensions (official site) is responsible for policy relating to social welfare and tends to take the lead in addressing or contributing to poverty.

Government debates (most recent first)
Statistics provided by Government ministers

This is a collection of links to statistics available at the site TheyWorkForYou the relevant content of which is sourced from Hansard.

Child poverty
Pensioner poverty
Rural poverty