Chris Game examines the sobering results of a new study into poverty and looks at how people are realigning their thinking in the midst of the economic downturn.
Oysters, in mid-Victorian England, were known as the poor man’s protein. “Poverty and oysters always seem to go together”, as Sam Weller observed in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers.
They were widely available, cheap, and eaten literally by the barrel-load.
Today, a single Loch Fyne oyster can cost £2.25, and a dozen will set you back about £20 – a useful reminder that poverty is most informatively understood and measured as a relative concept: relative to a particular time, place, and context.
Earlier this year, I wrote about poverty, abuot the growing gap in our society between the rich and poor, and how Birmingham was now the second most unequal city in the second most unequal country in the EU.
I knew at the time that the Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) research project, the largest poverty study yet undertaken in this country, was near completion, but no details were available.
Now they are – in an Economic and Social Research Council report aptly entitled, The Impoverishment of the UK – and, while they don’t make for comfortable reading, they’re both illustrative of that previous article and indisputably important.
Among the report’s headline findings are that:
* Over 30 million people (almost half the population) are suffering to some degree from financial insecurity
* Almost 18 million cannot afford adequate housing conditions
* Roughly 14 million (almost 1 in 4) cannot afford one or more essential household goods
* Almost 12 million are too poor to engage in common social activities considered necessary by the majority of the population
* About 5.5 million adults (1 in 11) go without essential clothing
* Around 4 million children and adults are not properly fed by today’s standards
* Almost 4 million children go without at least two of the things they need
* Around 2.7 million households (1 in 10) live in homes that are damp.
If the headlines seem shocking, the overall and contextualised conclusion is even more so. This is the fifth scientifically conducted independent study of poverty since 1983, and the situation is worse today than it has been for the past 30 years.
The number of people falling below the minimum standards of the day has doubled since I have deliberately reported these headline findings first, because some of their phrasing indicates clearly how these PSE studies are conducted and what they do and don’t measure.
What they particularly don’t do is to measure poverty in absolute terms or for official purposes.
An absolute definition of poverty would be one that is consistent over time and even across countries – the percentage of the population, for example, eating fewer calories per day than are deemed necessary to sustain the human body.
An official definition may be relative, but usually to a level of income: below, for example, 60 per cent of the national median income – median being not the average, but the mid-point of the income distribution, with equal numbers of households on incomes above and below that point.
Reducing by 2020 the proportion of children living in families with a net income below this level is in fact one of the specific targets of the 2010 Child Poverty Act, passed with all-party support and whose aims were incorporated in the Coalition Agreement.
As proclaimed in the title – Poverty and Social Exclusion – PSE measures are unambiguously relative: “considered necessary by the majority of the population” or “by today’s standards”. They focus precisely on what David Cameron and Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, committed their party to in opposition.
Cameron, in his Scarman Lecture (2006), said: “I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.”
Duncan Smith, The State of the Nation Report (2006), said: “We should now say explicitly: poverty must be defined in relation to changing social norms. We should reject completely the notion that poverty can be defined in absolute terms alone. Relative poverty matters because it separates the poor from the mainstream of society.”
That’s what the PSE data measure – poverty in relation to changing social norms: the numbers of people falling below what the population as a whole think should in today’s Britain be a minimum standard of living. Two main stages are involved.
Stage One is a Necessities of Life survey, in which a statistically representative sample of nearly 2,500 adults was asked which, of a list of 76 items – 46 for adults, 30 for children – they consider necessary and that no one should have to do without, as opposed to desirable but not absolutely necessary. ‘Necessities’ were those items thought necessary by more than half the sample.
The 25 resulting necessities for adults were headed by those backed by over 90 per cent of the sample: heating to warm living areas of the home, a damp-free home, and two meals a day. Top of 24 children’s necessities were: a warm winter coat, fresh fruit and veg once a day, and new, properly fitting shoes.
Other highly ranked adult necessities included some consumer items, like a washing machine and telephone, but not others – including car, home computer, mobile phone, and internet access.
The researchers note that, as in previous surveys, the public clearly takes a relative, rather than absolute, view of poverty – that a minimum standard of living should be about more than mere subsistence and should enable people to participate fully in their society.
They also found, though, that in this latest survey people had become noticeably tougher. In reaction presumably to the recession and austerity, they no longer considered several former ‘necessities’ any longer to be so: replacing worn-out clothes with new (not second-hand) ones, replacing worn-out furniture, being able to buy presents to family and friends once a year, having a one-week holiday away from home, having friends or family for a meal or a drink once a month, and, for children, or having their friends to visit for tea or a snack once a fortnight.
Stage Two of the research is a Living Standards survey of more than 5,000 households, in which the head of household completes a lengthy questionnaire asking which of the ‘Necessities of Life’ the household lacks and why. Findings, in addition to those already listed, included:
* 11 per cent of children over 10 living in households without enough bedrooms for every child aged 10 or over of a different sex to have their own room
* 4 per cent of children (well over half a million) living in families who cannot afford to feed them properly
* 9 per cent of children going without one or more items of basic clothing
* 9 per cent of working-age adults (3 million), 12 per cent of 18 to 25 year olds and 21 per cent of those unemployed and looking for work unable to afford appropriate clothes for a job interview
* 33 per cent of adults (16.5 million) unable to pay unexpected costs of £500
* 30 per cent of working-age adults (about 11 million) unable to afford regular payments into a pension.
With five genuinely comparable studies extending across 30 years, all kinds of changes and trends are identifiable.
However, the single most disturbing trend must surely be that of the rise, and the sharpness of the rise, in the study’s measure of multiple deprivation.
In 1983, 14 per cent of surveyed households lacked three or more of the items and activities seen as necessities. The figure for 2012 was 33 per cent, or exactly one household in every three.
In three decades, the country as a whole has obviously become much wealthier.
But it has also become measurably much less equal, with the living standards of increasing numbers of people and households failing to keep up with the changing standards of society and the changing expectations most of us still have of that society.
And that, of course, was before this year’s programme of mass welfare cuts had even reached the starting post.
* Chris Game is from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham.