Confusion generally reigns in any conversation about statistics for poverty in the UK. Is it child poverty, income poverty, fuel poverty, food poverty? Is it before or after housing costs? Is it relative or absolute poverty? The calculations are all different and can give a widely different picture of what’s happening across the UK. For the record:
… Food Poverty– is defined as ‘the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet’. Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty have calculated that over 20 million meals were delivered to people in food poverty in the UK in 2018 by the 3 main food aid providers – Trussell Trust, Fareshare and Food Cycle. This is an increase of over 50% on 2016;
… Fuel Poverty– people spending more than 10% of their income on fuel to maintain adequate warmth are said to be in fuel poverty, with over 15% of households in England and Wales in that position in 2016. In Scotland over 30% of households in 2018 were in fuel poverty as defined by spending more than 10% of all income on all household fuel;
… Relative Income Poverty– households with less than 60% of ‘median’ income are said to be in ‘relative’ income poverty. (‘Median’ is the middle of the national range of income – that is, half have more, half have less). Using a relative measure disguises the effect of year on year changes in overall income. Official statistics show that there were significant falls in relative poverty between 2009/10 and 2015/16. It fell by 1.3 million to 9.7 million (15%) ‘before housing costs’ and by 300,000 to 13.2 million (21%) ‘after housing costs’;
… Absolute Poverty– with an ‘absolute’ measure of poverty, the poverty line is fixed in real terms, so that poverty goes down only when the absolute material living standards of poorer households improve. Official statistics show that 10.6 million individuals (17% of the population) were in absolute poverty in the UK in 2012/13, measuring incomes ‘before housing costs’ (BHC) and using a poverty line equal to 60% of 2010/11 median income in real terms. This was a fall of 200,000 individuals (0.5%) since 2011/12. Measured ‘after housing costs’ (AHC), 14.6 million (23%) were in absolute poverty, an increase of 600,000 people. Measured BHC, absolute poverty is close to the pre-crisis level seen between 2004/5 and 2008/9; but on an AHC basis, absolute poverty is 3 million above its low point in 2004/5 and at its highest level since 2001/2;
… Child Poverty– the current government definition is ‘children living in households with less than 60% of median income’ (in terms of relative income poverty), as adjusted on the principle that the same income will stretch further in a smaller family. Child material deprivation has been rising, increasing by 300,000 children in 2012/13 alone. Over the same period, the rate of absolute income poverty among children rose when measured ‘after housing costs’ but fell when measured ‘before housing costs’.
Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean … even if we could agree what we really mean by statistically measured poverty, any conversation about how to deal with it soon becomes meaningless because statistically measured poverty is not in itself a cause which can be addressed … … it is but a symptom of many other causes.These causes vary widely – mental health, substance misuse, low pay, poor quality housing, unmanageable debt, long-term disability, worklessness, welfare dependency, benefits cuts, zero hours contracts … to name but a few … and these causes typically interconnect in complex, potentially chaotic ways within both individuals and communities.Or to look at it another way, if poverty does in fact cause anything, it causes loss of dignity, loss of hope and loss of control … but these things cannot be restored by increased income alone.
If I am homeless, that £10 note you give me does not restore my dignity.
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD ECONOMIST
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