Felicity Hannah 22nd December 2017
Look, we need to talk about how shit it is to be poor in this country because everything suggests it’s getting steadily worse.
The very latest figures published by the Office of National Statistics show that households in the lowest income bracket have been the hardest hit by inflation over the last decade. They’ve seen prices rise by 36% over the last 10 years compared to a 30% inflation rate for people with the highest incomes.
It’s mostly because poorer households spend more of their money on food, energy and travel (buses, trains and so on, I mean. Not a gap year in Italy), and the cost of those things has rocketed.
And while costs have soared, working age benefits have been frozen in value since 2016/17. So, if you’re poor then your costs have been comparatively rising faster than if you’re rich, yet your income is stuck at 2016 levels.
If we don’t take a serious look at poverty in the UK and the fact it’s worsening then we’re going to undo any achievements made in the first decade of the new millennium.
Because we had made progress
Of course, it’s always been shit being poor. I don’t subscribe to some sentimental Dickensian view of poverty where Tiny Tim’s family may not be able to afford food but they have heart and that’s even more important.
Poverty has blighted life chances, affected mental health and damaged life expectancy for as long as humans have humaned.
But there was a time where it started to look like things might be getting better.
The last Labour government may have had a lot to answer for but it did put prioritise raising children out of poverty. Combined with a prolonged period of economic growth, the number of kids growing up in poverty in the UK fell dramatically and, between 1998/9 and 2011/12, some 800,000 children were lifted out of poverty.
Unfortunately, that has not continued through the recent period of austerity.
Child poverty has now increased for the last three years in a row, meaning there were four million kids living in poverty in the UK by 2015/16. That’s 30% of the country’s children.
If you need help visualising that, it’s nine kids out of a class of 30.
Now, thanks to a perfect storm of Brexit fallout, further austerity and the omnishambles that is Universal Credit (UC), it’s steadily getting worse.
Yeah, about Universal Credit
As the UC rollout continues to bulldozer its way across the country, adding another layer of misery to an already shitty strata, life is going to get even harder for both the working poor and those who live entirely on benefits.
The reforms to benefits in this country were meant to ensure that work paid but they have been widely criticised for the minimum six-week wait for payment that pushed the most vulnerable homes into debt.
Eventually, the government took some steps to improve it and now the wait is to be reduced and advance payments will be made available to cover the initial wait – although they are then clawed back.
Government policy has been creating an Austerity Generation whose childhoods and life chances will be scarred by a decade of political decisions
But even once a household has survived the initial rollout, they’re likely to end up poorer. Analysis by the Child Poverty Action Group and the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that the cuts being made to UC could plunge one million more children into poverty.
Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said in November: “Since 2010, rather than investing in our children, government policy has been creating an Austerity Generation whose childhoods and life chances will be scarred by a decade of political decisions to stop protecting their living standards. This is the choice that’s being made in our names.
“The promise of increased rewards from work made to families with children under the new Universal Credit benefit has been broken. Cuts to Universal Credit have substantially reduced the rewards from work for many families.
“If the government’s flagship anti-poverty measure ends up rolling out poverty then it’s hard not to see that as a colossal failure of public policy.”
TL:DR? It’s getting worse for poor households and yet the rollout is continuing.
Oh good, here comes Brexit
Poverty was given as a reason why some people chose to vote for Brexit, although of course it’s not that simple and people of different incomes voted different ways for different reasons.
But frustratingly and tragically, there’s a very good chance that people in poverty are going to bear the brunt of any economic fallout of this Brexit thing we’ve decided to do.
The thinktank Demos has warned that the parts of Britain that voted to leave the European Union are actually the most vulnerable to the economic impact of Brexit, including Wales, the north-east and Yorkshire and Humberside.
And social mobility tsar Alan Milburn quit in December, on the grounds that the government was failing to create a fairer country and so had abandoned voters who backed Brexit.
Pretty shitty winter
Professor Karen Rowlingson, of the University of Birmingham’s Centre on Household Assets and Savings Management, published a report in September warning that the poorest households risk being “crushed completely” by financial difficulties and that there could be a new winter of discontent.
Rising inflation, a lack of emergency savings and a lack of job security have left households struggling to manage and relying on food banks and other emergency sources.
Professor Rowlingson said: “Five years ago the situation was improving for some people, but in the past two or three years, as we can see from all sorts of data, things have clearly taken a turn for the worse.
If the current state of play continues then the people at the very bottom may well be crushed completely
“Unless things change, the outlook for a lot of people appears very challenging – so much so that we could be about to enter a new winter of discontent.
“Since the global financial crisis many people have done their best to work and save – yet today, after nine years of lost growth, they’re maybe only back where they started.
“If the current state of play continues then the people in the ‘squeezed middle’ could be more squeezed than ever – and the people at the very bottom may well be crushed completely.”
Work doesn’t fix it
If you’re a certain kind of heartless arsehole you might think that if people hate being poor so much they should just get a job.
So you need to know that employment is no protection from poverty. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that, of the four million kids in poverty in the UK, 2.7 million of them live in homes where at least one adult works.
A report into UK poverty released by the foundation at the start of December warned: “[The] squeeze on living standards is also storing up problems for the future; a fifth of people on low incomes have ‘problem debt’; most are not building up a pension; the decreasing proportion of the working-age population buying their own home means that in the future more older people are likely to rent and have higher housing costs in retirement.”
It’s bad and it’s getting worse; worse for both the immediate and long-term future. And if we don’t do something soon then Britain’s poor are fucked.
Felicity Hannah 22nd December 2017