05.03 What is poverty in the UK?

Good questions can never be asked too often. In the light of recent events in London and other cities in the UK where the term poverty has been used as a banner for discontent it seems relevant to define poverty more precisely. A vague terminology is misleading and fragments focus and momentum.

By any typical standards I was poor growing up and I lived with serious illnesses in my near family from the age of 10 and alcohol abuse but I lived in a great neighbourhood, I went to a medium school and I was surrounded by love, so in regarding what mattered to me; I was not poor but rich. Finding happiness in what I had instead of unhappiness, frustration and anger in what I did not have – came natural to me. We do not all react the same, which is why I think poverty is either much more multi-layered and complex or not relevant as a reason for violent outrage.

When we discuss poverty I think we have to first of all make a separation between (1)individual poverty and (2)community poverty. Although both span the same categories of issues; the specific nature of poverty for each, require very different measures to be considered.

(1)Individual poverty I will for now subdivide into (1a)financial, (2a)emotional and (3a)knowledge & Skills poverty. The first one is what is commonly used to define poverty as it seems fairly straight forward to agree that if a household earns less than what is considered possible to live on; then they are poor. However it is not that simple.  A family on a higher income forced to rent from a private landlord if they don’t qualify for social housing can be just as financially poor as a family in a council flat, if one compares disposable income (once bills are paid). The family renting from a private landlord has the added stress that their rent is likely to be volatile and move with market forces. The cost of accommodation relative to income is the largest external impact on the financial health of a household. As such it is surprising that there are not more housing models available, which span the entire range of price scales much more gradually.

(2a)Emotional poverty is when there is no family or support network, daily exclusion and segregation and perhaps struggles with abuse and long-term illnesses. These are all tough psychological factors, which can happen across all financial layers of society and severely impact the individual’s ability to cope in life. These issues are much more unpredictable and harder to pre-empt.

Both financial and emotional poverty are generators of stress.

(3a)Knowledge & Skills poverty is the problem of various forms of ignorance, which is as much due to lack of formal as well as informal education. Recognising that our TV channels, newspapers, after school activities and dinner table conversations etc. These are as responsible as formal education is they are important social constructs. As much as it is about the individual’s prospect in life it is also about friction created by the difference of knowledge and skills, which creates a gulf that sets people apart from each other across age, gender, race and religion.

(2)Community poverty I have subdivided into (2a)economic, (2b)social and (2c)spatial poverty. Street crime is often a product of poverty and it adds fear across all layers of society. Well to do neighbourhoods suffer as well as the poorer ones.

Lack of social mobility is often referred to in the same sentence as poverty here in the UK and although it is right to aspire to a society of equal opportunities it is also worth acknowledging that people of all means have a place in society.


This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time

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