By Graham Whitham
In 2008 the UK was experiencing falling poverty rates, the number of people sleeping rough was less than half of what it is today and those of us who had heard of food banks thought of them as an American not a British phenomenon.
If someone had said ten years ago that in 2018 the UK’s unemployment rate would be at a 42-year low and that the proportion of workers in low paying jobs would be at its lowest level since 1982, we might have been forgiven for thinking the country was well on its way to meeting the target to reduce the proportion of children experiencing relative poverty to less than 10% by 2020. Instead that
target, and complementary targets set out in 2010 Child Poverty Act, have been scrapped and an extra one million children are expected to fall into poverty in the next few years.
The lack of a central government anti-poverty strategy means that policies are introduced without their impact on poverty rates being considered. Opportunities to meaningfully address poverty through positive measures, such as extra investment in childcare or increases in the minimum wage are missed as other policies, such as cuts to benefits, actively work against them. The lack of a strategy has meant the UK has completely missed the opportunity to harness positive labour market developments. Jobs growth and reductions in the number of people in low-paying work should have resulted in falls in poverty and increases in living standards.
This isn’t just about headline rates of poverty. Policymakers need to understand both the changes in levels of poverty and the risk of poverty among different groups of the population, if they are to develop, adapt and amend policies aimed at tackling the issue. The make-up of poverty has also changed considerably overtime. The risk of poverty for single-parent households, for example, has fluctuated over the last thirty years. Working households now make up a greater proportion of those people experiencing poverty compared to twenty years ago. Families with more than two children have always been at greater risk of poverty, but the level of risk for those families is growing.
Recent analysis published by Child Poverty Action Group has identified a worrying trend as poverty in the UK becomes more entrenched. Analysis of the ‘poverty gap’ shows that families in poverty are now living, on average, further below the poverty line than they did ten years ago. This development is highly concerning, with huge swathes of families at risk of being cut adrift way below the poverty line. It is also a significant shift, as the UK has tended to have relatively high levels of child poverty but a low ‘poverty gap’, with lots of families in poverty but with incomes just below the poverty threshold.
New experimental analysis by the ONS looking at expenditure poverty (as opposed to income poverty) further illuminates our understanding of the issue. There is an abundance of data and information about poverty – the UK is ‘data rich’ – but there isn’t the necessary strategy in place nationally to respond to what this data tells us and to ensure policies drive down rather than drive up poverty.
Without a clear strategy capable of dealing with these developments, the UK’s poverty crisis will only get worse and the cost of dealing with it in the future will only get greater.
Top image © Beggar by Banksy