Opinion

Millions in UK need to double their income to escape poverty – but change is possible. Here's how

Paul Kissack, the chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, writes for The Big Issue about how to end poverty in the UK

starmer and sunak

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak. Images: Flickr/ Jeremy Corbyn and Flickr/ UK government

A lot has changed in the last 20 years, but here is something that hasn’t: the headline rate of poverty.

It is now 20 years – and six prime ministers – since the last sustained period of falling poverty in the UK. In fact, that sustained fall of around four percentage points in the first half of the 90s didn’t reverse the unprecedented 11 percent rise over the 80s. It has never been reversed. 

What’s more, in the last two decades we haven’t just seen a failure to reduce the scale of poverty, we have seen poverty deepening. It’s deepened so far that the average income of people in very deep poverty would need to double their income, at least, to escape poverty.

That’s the equivalent to a whopping £12,800 for a couple with two kids under 14. Six million people were in this position in 2021/22, 1.5 million more than two decades ago. The deeper we look, the worse the picture.

Our latest poverty report paints a picture of social failure at scale. And it is a failure we pay for twice over. 

First, there are the human costs resulting from the blighted lives of millions of people who face avoidable hardship. Living in a cold, damp or insecure home, or not having enough food, damages people’s physical health. The stigma attached to poverty can increase social isolation, piling further pressure on people’s mental health.

Second, these failures pile pressures onto already stretched public services. Physical and mental health conditions feed through to growing demands on the NHS.

The number of people unavailable for work through long-term sickness grows. Local councils spend more and more money on temporary accommodation in the face of growing homelessness. Teachers are unable to close attainment gaps for children who turn up at school from damp or temporary homes and without food in their stomachs.

This must change. As a general election comes into view, any party serious about governing must have a practical and ambitious plan to turn the tide of deepening poverty of the last 20 years.

Over the past decade, social security has fallen increasingly short, with the real-terms value of payments reaching a 40-year low at the same time inflation hit a 40-year high, pushing people deeper into financial hardship. The basic rate of universal credit for a single person today is around £12 a day. 

You cannot live on that. This is why JRF, along with The Trussell Trust and The Big Issue, has been calling for all political parties to embed an ‘Essentials Guarantee’ into universal credit to ensure everyone has a protected minimum amount of support to afford essentials like food and household bills.”

In our report today we find poverty in every corner of the country, across all ages and in all types of families: this is the Britain that will head to the polls later this year. Political parties will spend this year making their case to the British people for a future in which the genuine opportunity for a better life feels possible.  But no party will be able to realise their aspirations for Britain without a credible plan to address the deepening hardship faced by millions.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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