Over 14 million people in the UK are currently living in poverty.
Poverty is defined as having insufficient income or possessions to meet basic human needs. Absolute poverty is a complete lack of these things, and is typically what most people think of when they hear the word. Relative poverty is classified as households earning on or under 60% of the average income. This one can often fly under the radar. As the cost of living rises and employment becomes precarious, more and more people are slipping into this second category. There are many contributing factors and it isn’t just a problem of low income.
Young people and poverty
Child poverty has seen an alarming increase recently, with over 4 million children reported as living in poverty in 2018-19. The chaos of the past year certainly hasn’t helped the situation. Kids going to school hungry is on the rise, and those from poor backgrounds often face bullying and social exclusion. New school uniforms and supplies are expensive for families without the options of hand me downs.
Another troubling factor that’s often overlooked, is that an estimated 70% of children affected by poverty live in a household where at least one of their guardians has a job. There’s often a negative stereotype attached to poverty implying that it stems from a lack of productivity. But with so many people working hard to support their families and still struggling to make ends meet, it just isn’t accurate. Children shouldn’t have to miss out on such basic things as food and education.
Further up the age brackets, students from are also affected. In 2016, over a third reported having to go without food. Those hardest hit are often from working class backgrounds. They’re frequently unable to get support from family who are facing financial difficulties themselves. Working alongside studying may be accessible for some students, but having to put in long hours at a job doubtless affects the education they’re paying so much for. Regardless of subject, working class students leave university with more debt on average than more affluent classmates. In many ways, the experience is setting them up at a disadvantage from the start.
Mapping it out
Poverty can affect people living anywhere. It’s easy to think of London as being a wealthy city; packed with offices and suburbs synonymous with million-pound mansions. But it’s been reported in recent years as having the highest poverty rate in the UK, at an alarming 28%. It’s closely followed by the North East of England, and the West Midlands who score 24%. Residents can find themselves struggling with the cost of living, but reluctant to move due to the proximity to work. Commuting from further afield may drop prices slightly but transport then adds its own costs. The high concentration of inner-city job opportunities tends to create a catch-22 situation of having to between steep rent and limited options elsewhere.
Working in poverty
In-work poverty has seen a 5% rise over the past 25 years. It can be hard to grasp how someone who’s employed and working might still be classified as living in poverty. But a lack of job security, irregular hours and few prospects for progression all factor, on top of low wages. The tenfold increase in zero hours contracts in recent years has been called into question too. Many people are taking whatever work they can, only to then find themselves in precarious employment with insufficient pay.
It’s not just a financial strain. The stress of unstable income or job loss has a colossal effect on mental and physical health. Anxiety and depression are common but they aren’t the only issues. Lack of sleep, appetite loss, fatigue, weakened immune systems and even malnutrition are all more likely for people under pressure. The life expectancy of those living in deprived areas can be as much as 19 years lower than elsewhere in the country.
The knock-on effects are obvious; it’s hard to find or keep work with all this to contend with. In 2019-2020 around 1.9 million people used a foodbank, which is an increase of about 300,000 on the year before. Uncertainty about when and where your next meal is going to come from is bad enough; it’s even worse with children to support. Vitamin deficiencies can develop into serious, long term health problems. However, social stigma and shame are often referenced by those who’ve accessed food relief. It shouldn’t be the case that people feel embarrassed when seeking help to fight hunger.
It’s no secret that keeping a roof over your head is pricey. Whether it’s the cost of rent or keeping up with mortgage payments, there’s a constant stream of outgoings and household bills. Periods of unemployment or unstable work don’t take long to add up before people find they’ve fallen far behind. The charity Shelter estimated from their findings that 280,000 people were homeless at the end of 2019. The drop from poverty to homelessness is a constant threat without the right support. A tough year of redundancies has had an impact across the board, hitting none harder than those already struggling to make ends meet. Finances have been stretched to breaking point, with those already in some of the lowest paid jobs at higher risk of unemployment. But it’s come as a total shock for others, as lots of previously stable livelihoods have been lost almost overnight.
Unfortunately, the nature of poverty itself is also a challenge when trying to break the cycle. Often, individuals find themselves stuck in a loop, trying to combat the effects of it on one side only to find it rearing up again on the other. Insufficient funds lead to housing and hunger issues, often pushing people into unsafe or exploitative employment, if they can find any at all. Physical wellbeing is neglected which impacts on mental wellbeing. Bills get bigger and pay doesn’t. Re-assessing things like access to education and the living wage would provide stronger foundations for people to build with. As would steps to reform the skyrocketing costs of everyday life. There’s no quick and easy solution for such a complex problem, but the sooner change begins the better.
For more information and support, the following charities and organisations are here to help: