In recent months we have seen in the press that there is an increase in the number of food banks in the UK, loan sharks persist as a fundamental problem for tackling debt, and a whole range of welfare reforms are being implemented: from universal credit to the bedroom tax. It is a time of rapid change not just to levels of poverty and unemployment, but is shifting the role of the state in dealing with a range of social problems. The most recent announcement is that claimants will now have to wait longer before making an application for social security. Under the coalition government, the anti-poverty agenda continues to remain high profile – and it’s not good news.
Preliminary findings from the poverty and social exclusion survey (PSE) makes for some pretty depressing reading. 30m people (nearly half the population) are suffering from some degree of financial insecurity; nearly 18m cannot afford adequate housing conditions; almost 14m cannot afford one or more essentials for life; nearly 12m are too poor to engage in common social activities; 4m children go without at least two things they need; 4m children and adults are not properly fed. The list goes on.
It may seem a strange list in places, some of the terms being a bit vague. ‘Essentials’ are referred ‘things they need’. These may appear strange phrases for a measurement of poverty. PSE does not generate a measure based upon the number of people who fall below a certain level of income (i.e. 60 per cent of median income) but draws its measures from what the population as a whole think is necessary for a minimum standard of living in the UK today: bringing together a list of things/activities the majority believe to be necessities for life in the UK and people’s actual living standards (not just income). This is a consensual measure of poverty. Essentially the aim is to look at direct measures of poverty (income is an indirect measure) but draws up a list of items believed to be necessities by the wider population. Poverty therefore exists where people are unable to afford to buy those items or do activities deemed necessary by the majority of the population. The ‘essentials’ and ‘things’ therefore are items from this wider list which individuals/households are lacking.
Whilst the full analysis of the PSE data is still underway, the preliminary analysis shows that the UK doesn’t just have a government in Westminster reliving the 1980s – poverty levels also look likely to return to their 1980s levels. In 1983, 84 per cent of those lacking three or more necessities felt they were poor all or some of the time and, in the 2012 survey, 71 per cent of those lacking three or more necessities thought they were poor all or some of the time. In terms of housing in 1983 five per cent couldn’t afford adequate heating, six per cent lacked a damp free home and nine per cent didn’t have enough bedrooms for children over 10. Today those figures are nine per cent for heating, 10 per cent lacking damp-free homes and nine per cent lacking enough bedrooms. Adults lacking meat/fish/vegetarian equivalent every day in 1983 was eight per cent, today it is five per cent (in 1999 it was two per cent). In 1999 three per cent were unable to afford a hobby or leisure activity, two per cent could not afford properly fitting shoes and 22 per cent lacked an annual weeks holiday. In comparison the 2012 figures are dire: six per cent couldn’t afford a hobby, four per cent lack properly fitting shoes and 26 per cent lack an annual week’s holiday.
It is not simply an important endeavour that poverty is tackled, but that Labour’s efforts to remove the blight of poverty from society are renewed and strengthened. Labour needs new thinking on how to address this issue, not capitulation to the current Lord Freud approach to social security reform. Limited economic growth, squeezed (flatlining) wages and high levels of unemployment (particularly with the cuts to public sector jobs) demand that Labour are open to new ideas: basic incomes, more overt redistribution (or even predistribution) not only of income but also wealth to tackle inequality, continued support for credit unions to tackle financial exclusion, alongside efforts to restart the economy are just some possibilities. If such radical ideas seem ‘dodgy’, perhaps knowing that these poverty figures have occurred when the economy has doubled in size over a 30 year period, that inequalities continue to increase and that scores of children don’t just live in damp homes but are also lacking sufficient food and even the ability to have friends round their house. Increases which have happened when further cuts a looming in the shadows and Labour’s opposition to them is too often to accept them. These people live in our communities, they are our neighbours and they are the very people we should be throwing the full might of the state in to helping.
Lee Gregory is a lecturer in social policy at the University of Bristol, School for Policy Studies. He writes here in a personal capacity
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