The largest study of poverty ever conducted in the UK has laid out the dire state of British deprivation – and seriously undercut the government’s claim to be lifting people out of poverty through work.
The Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK (PSE) project details how, over the last 30 years, the percentage of households living below society’s minimum standard of living has increased from 14% to 33% – despite the fact that the economy has doubled in size over the same period.
The 3rd Peter Townsend Memorial Conference, which begins in London today, will hear from an array of academic analysts discussing the findings and how the problems they reveal can best be tackled.
The extent of poverty
Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and led by the University of Bristol, the PSE report is based on surveys of more than 12,000 people made in June 2012. The surveys found that that millions of Britons in paid employment live with high levels of deprivation.
Among other things, the report found that around 5.5m adults go without essential clothing, around 2.5m children live in homes that are damp, and around 1.5m children live in households that cannot afford to heat their homes.
Meanwhile, one in four adults lives on an income below what they themselves consider necessary to avoid poverty, while one in every six in paid work is technically poor. More than one in five had been forced to borrow money to pay for basic day-to-day needs in the year prior to being surveyed.
But most topically of all, the PSE finds that full-time work is not always sufficient to keep families out of poverty. This calls into question the government’s flagship strategy of getting low-income families into employment and shifting them off state assistance.
Since 2010, Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has put reducing unemployment and dependence on benefits at the core of his welfare policy. But the PSE finds that children who suffer multiple deprivations are not typically living in homes marked by family breakdown and unemployment.
Instead, the majority live with both parents, at least one of whom is employed; they live in small families, with one or two siblings, are white, and live in England.
The cost of austerity
Commenting on the study’s findings, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw of the University of York said they showed many parents who work full time still have to make huge sacrifices to try and protect their children from deprivation.
“We already know from DWP data that the majority of children with incomes below the the relative income poverty threshold have a working parent. The PSE survey shows that the majority of deprived children, those lacking two or more socially perceived necessities, and very deprived children (lacking five or more socially perceived necessities) have a working parent.
"We found that 65% of the deprived and 58% of the very deprived children had a working parent, and 50% of the deprived and 35% of the very deprived had at least one parent working full-time. Child poverty is not being driven by skivers, but is the consequence of strivers working for low earnings while in-work benefits are being dissipated by government austerity measures”.
The study finds that low wages are a central cause of the widespread deprivation it describes. For many people, full-time work is not enough to lift them out of poverty; almost half of the working poor work 40 hours a week or more. And one in six adults in paid work (17%) is poor, suffering low income and unable to afford basic necessities.
Reacting to the findings, Clare Bambra, professor of geography at Durham University, said that the research was a shameful picture of “the devastating and far-reaching human costs of inequality and poverty in the UK today”.
She said: “It’s shameful for a rich country like ours to be tolerating such levels of poverty especially amongst our children and young people. The mantra that work sets people free from poverty has been shown to be a grand old lie.
"We will be living with the long term consequences of this social neglect for decades to come – there are clear links between poverty and reduced life expectancy and higher rates of ill health, especially concentrated in deprived areas and the north.
"These findings show us the true cost of austerity.”