Breadline Britain: Who's to Blame?

This series on the book ‘Breadline Britain: The Rise of Mass Poverty’ will look at how poverty in the UK is measured, how Government policies are addressing poverty and the report’s suggestions for tackling the poverty epidemic. To refer to the research on which the book was based, you can go to www.poverty.ac.uk.

How we tackle the problem of poverty depends on what we think causes poverty. Why do some people succeed while others don’t? From the perspective of public policy, poverty can either be seen as a result of one’s social circumstances, or their individual responsibility. Successive UK governments have put the emphasis on one of these two views to differing degrees over time.

Some argue that the poor are poor because they are careless or workshy, more likely to abuse drugs or prone to anti-social behaviour. However, research does not support this. While poverty has increased in recent years, drug use has fallen and prevalence of drug use is not linked to socio-economic circumstances. While there is a link between poverty and crime, it's complex, with overall unemployment and underemployment, as well as poverty, causing crime rather than the other way around. Also, those who are poor are more likely to be the victims of crime. And while some poor people are unemployed, the majority of those in poverty in the UK are either in work or unable to work. 52% of those in poverty are in full or part-time work, while 36% are permanently sick or disabled, retired, in education or are caring for family. This leaves 12% unemployed. People in the UK have to work to earn their poverty.

A more plausible explanation for the rise in poverty in the UK is to do with the rise in work insecurity, the housing crisis and severe welfare cuts. Although unemployment recently fell to a seven year low of 5.4%, there is still a problem of low income and low security jobs. In a 2010 study of rich nations, the UK had over 20% of employees in low paid work, second only to the US. Middle income jobs are thinning out as a result of automation, outsourcing and business restructuring, meaning more and more skilled workers are falling into unskilled, low wage positions. The decrease of middle wage jobs has inhibited upward career progression and lead to a social hourglass, with bulges at the top and the bottom. Jobs at the bottom of this hourglass tend to be precarious and insecure, offering unsociable hours, few rights for workers, intense work for low wages and a coercive management. The name ‘precariat’ has been given to the social and economic class who fall into these positions. Many of these jobs have ‘zero-hours contracts’ with no guarantee of reliable hours. While the introduction and increase of the minimum wage has tempered this trend to some extent, the minimum wage is still not a living wage, meaning insecurity is still a reality for many. The young, those starting out in the jobs market, are the hardest hit, with those born around 1990 being the first generation to see their incomes stagnate compared to the previous generation.

Despite the rise of low wage and/or insecure jobs, house prices have increased as a result of the selling of council houses at a faster rate than the building of new houses, and the transfer of housing to the private rented sector. The ‘Right to Buy’ initiative launched in the 1980s under the Thatcher government and relaunched in 2012 aimed to increase personal home ownership through the selling off of social housing. Instead, many of the houses were bought by people who already owned their own homes and intended to rent the properties out for a profit. Given the lack of social housing, more people have been forced to rent private properties. This has lead to people living in unsafe or squalid rented accommodation, afraid to complain to landlords for fear of facing a revenge eviction.

Because of this, many working people and households rely on benefits provided through the Welfare system. But as a result of changes to benefits such as the introduction of Universal Credit, 1.2 million low paid workers have faced sanctions to their benefits for failing to take steps to boost their earnings. Because of changes to tax credits that come into effect in 2016, low earning families will be £850 a year worse off, while low earning single parents will be £1000 a year worse off.

Given these problems facing those in poverty or in danger of poverty, what can be done? The researchers of the Breadline Britain study offer suggestions of how our hidden poverty crisis can be tackled. We’ll look at their suggestions in the last installment of this series.

Alex Charlton