Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Breaking the link between poverty and ethnicity

The persistence of poverty among minority ethnic groups should not be accepted in modern Britain

Minority ethnic individuals in the UK are at a much higher risk of having their lives blighted by poverty. But why is tackling this issue so difficult? Research last week highlighted that overall relative poverty rose in the UK last year, a rise which was largely driven by increases in child poverty. The combination of a freeze on benefits for low income families, stagnating wages and rising inflation has had a detrimental impact on the household incomes of some of the most vulnerable groups in society.

There is often an unwillingness to recognise that there are some groups which, while small in number, are at particularly high risk of financial hardship. The fact that for the past 20 years all minority ethnic groups have had higher rates of poverty than their white neighbours or classmates, is both persistent and shameful. We need to look much more closely if we are to get better at understanding why people in some groups are swept into poverty, and what kind of help would provide an anchor against those factors in the future.

There are 14 million people currently living in poverty in the UK, which is around 1 in 5 of the population.  While around 19 per cent of white individuals are in poverty, last year poverty affected half of all people of Bangladeshi descent. At the last census there were around 447,201 Bangladeshis in the UK, so that’s around 223,000 adults and children who do not have enough to make ends meet. Too many. The poverty rate for this ethnic group has hovered around the 50 per cent mark for some time and was as high as 80 per cent 20 years ago.

While both Pakistani and Bangladeshi households have seen much higher falls in their poverty rate in comparison to other groups, as well as higher increases in their household income over time, the gaps between them and white groups remain consistently large.

Many of the factors behind this disparity relate to inequalities within the labour market – high unemployment rates for example at a time when we are experiencing some of the highest rates of employment since the 1970s. There are also high numbers of ethnic groups stuck in low paid, low skilled, part time and often insecure work.

Forty one per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers are concentrated in the lowest skilled occupations, in sectors which often have limited opportunities to progress into better paid work. Tackling both low pay and enabling workers to increase their hours would certainly contribute to reducing poverty for these groups, as will improving access to training and support.

It is of course important to acknowledge that many of the factors which cause poverty among minority ethnic groups are common for all groups regardless of ethnic background, for example unemployment, low pay and economic inactivity. This suggests we should develop universal strategies to improve labour market experiences. However, the fact that ethnic groups disproportionately suffer in our economy indicates that a more targeted focus would better address the root of these disparities.

Our work with community-based employment providers suggests that targeted activity with particular BAME groups that are either far from the labour market or trapped in low paid work can create higher rates of engagement, and while this work can be both time and resource intensive, the benefits can be huge.

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We must also understand the very real fear of experiencing racism and discrimination in the workplace for BAME groups, something that the Women and Equalities Select Committee Inquiry on Muslims at work referred to as the ‘chilling factor’. This prevents some BAME women from accessing work, services and support. And research has outlined the very real experience of discrimination in the application, recruitment and progression process for minority ethnic groups which can leave them trapped in low paid roles and locked out of senior positions.

Solving poverty for BAME groups includes practical solutions which address skills gaps, jobs growth and employer practice. For example, the government should redouble the participation rate in basic skills training for ESOL, literacy and numeracy – enabling those BAME groups who need them to be better equipped for our changing labour market. Employers also need to work with local decision makers to increase access to better paid and better quality work, particularly in areas with high rates of BAME unemployment or under-employment.

It is not right that coming from a minority ethnic group should increase your risk of living in poverty. We need to get better at improving the prospects for minority ethnic families – starting by breaking the link between poverty and ethnicity.

Read next: Six ways that we can help to give Britain a raise


Debbie Weekes-Bernard is policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She tweets @Debs_wb


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Debbie Weekes-Bernard

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