Examining Poverty in the United Kingdom


LONDON, the United Kingdom — Financial hardship has been endemic in the United Kingdom. The most recent figures from the Department For Work and Pensions indicates that about 14 million U.K. citizens fall below the poverty line. This is the highest number since the U.K. government started collecting poverty figures in 2002. Put more practically, this means that about one-fifth of the U.K. population experiences poverty. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Northern Ireland and Scotland both have a poverty rate of 19%, whereas England and Wales respectively have poverty rates of 22% and 23%. Of this group, over half are members of working families. This suggests that the issue stems less from unemployment and more from low wages. The number of impoverished working families has risen by nearly 20% in the last 20 years, indicating that it may have become more difficult to make a living as a low-income worker. Poverty in the United Kingdom remains a serious issue.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Raised New Challenges

The global COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the effects of poverty in the U.K. Government officials have reported a surge of claims for welfare benefits, with 2.9 million applying. Though the government has bolstered the welfare system with 6.5 billion pounds, it is clear that many are already feeling the impact. Around 8.7 million workers have experienced furloughing, with an accompanying 20% pay cut for many. Moreover, with plans to scale back government support later in 2020, job insecurity could also become widespread. While the present is bad enough, the future could be catastrophic. The Institute For Public Policy Research projects that worse consequences will have reared their head by the end of 2020. Poverty rates could rise by 7%, which means that an additional 1.1 million will live in poverty, 200,000 of them children. Given that poverty in the United Kingdom was already a serious issue before the COVID-19 outbreak, this crisis point illustrates the need to enact effective policies to alleviate it.

UN Representatives Have Critiqued U.K. Policy

In 2019, U.N. special reporter Professor Philip Alston spent about two weeks traveling through the U.K. and Northern Ireland to gather first-hand information for a report on poverty in the U.K. His conclusions were harsh: not only did he determine that poverty was a widespread issue, but he also suggested that it was the direct result of government policy. Specifically, he stated that since World War II, the social safety net had been “deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.” His claim that the government had done so for ideological reasons underlines a belief – that the government contradicts – that the government had not taken poverty in the U.K. seriously on a policy level. This means community members and nonprofit organizations have performed much of the work in providing aid to the impoverished.

Aid is Going to the Most Vulnerable

  1. Children: According to The Guardian, about 4 million children in the U.K. are in poverty— a number which has risen by 400,000 over the past five years. Fortunately, several nonprofits have been working for years to provide them with the resources that they need. For instance, Childhood Trust plans to start a campaign in which it will match up to 2.5 million pounds of donations. These funds will go towards supporting a wide variety of services to financially aid children through the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. Pensioners: Poverty in the U.K. does not only impact the young, but also the elderly. The number of impoverished pensioners has risen by 300,000 since 2015. Given the advanced age of many pensioners, few options exist for them to supplement their income. One nonprofit, Age UK, has begun an emergency coronavirus appeal to support seniors both financially and psychologically through the pandemic. So far, it has answered nearly 50,000 calls for help, and its 130 plus chapters have been delivering food packages to pensioners.
  3. People Of Color: Non-white people have also suffered from poverty. Activists have noted that poverty is a widespread symptom of structural racism in the United Kingdom, as it is in many other places in the world. Recent protests across the U.K. have highlighted this injustice which began in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. but has also focused on domestic racism. Protestors have and will continue to demand equity and action against the racial income gap. Ideally, the government will listen and enact policy to aid and protect marginalized communities.
  4. People with Disabilities: Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that people with disabilities, their caregivers and family members are more likely to suffer from poverty. The fact that many disabled people may be more susceptible to the COVID-19 pandemic worsens this situation. Thankfully, the government has worked with wholesalers to provide over one million meals to the clinically vulnerable in order to prevent hunger.

While poverty has persisted in the United Kingdom, there are efforts to reduce it. Hopefully, through continued efforts, the U.K.’s poverty rate will lower in the future.

– Brendan O’Halloran
Photo: Flickr


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