Opinion

Poverty and inequality are slowly poisoning Britain. It could lead to a far-right victory in 2029

Will Snell, the director of the Fairness Foundation, writes about how the next government can tackle poverty and inequality in the UK. And why it must be solved as a matter of urgency

person looking out of window

There is evidence that poverty impacts the brain and physical health. Image: Unsplash

In the US, an even more unequal country than Britain, there’s been a lot of research in recent years into the idea that “poverty poisons the brain”.  

There’s plenty of evidence that children who grow up in poverty and with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which holds back the development of their brains. And of course this harms their performance at school, which has an impact on their career prospects and their earning potential.  

So poverty creates a vicious cycle. We know that already. But what this research suggests is that inequality also plays an important role. It’s not just the absolute level of material deprivation that is harmful – the lack of nutritious food, the poor housing, the parents having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet – it’s also the relative deprivation.

The damage is made worse by the day-to-day experience of having less than other people. Economic inequality bleeds into social inequality and turbocharges the stress and anxiety that causes so much harm.  

And these harms aren’t restricted to people at the sharp end of poverty and inequality. In The Spirit Level, published in 2009, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson showed how inequality is bad for all of us, because it drives up levels of ‘social harms’ such as physical and mental illness, violence and crime and illiteracy.  

Since this book came out 15 years ago, lots more evidence has emerged to show how inequality is damaging for our society, economy and democracy.  

In fact, unless the next government takes radical action to reduce inequalities in the UK, it’s going to be more or less impossible for them to achieve their manifesto commitments – whether we’re talking about Labour’s five missions, or the Conservative pledges, or the ambitions of any of the other political parties.  

How so? Here are some examples of inequalities in the UK today, what might happen to them over the next parliament without radical action, and what this will mean for our economy and society.



Let’s start with regional inequalities in household wealth. Today, the average person in the south east of England is £195,400 wealthier than their counterpart in the north of England; this gap is projected to increase to £229,000 by 2029, according to the IPPR.  

The evidence shows that there’s a link between high levels of economic inequality and low levels of social mobility. Low social mobility limits people’s ability to reach their full productive potential. This wasting of talent reduces the supply of skilled labour and innovation that is needed to increase productivity. So inequality harms economic growth.

What about poverty? The UK government has signed up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals; these commit the UK to halving all forms of poverty by 2030. Today, 30% of children live in relative poverty; this is projected to increase to 33% by 2028, according to the Houses of Parliament.  

And as we’ve already seen, children from poorer families quickly fall behind in early learning and development. In large part this is because the impacts of living in poverty, such as malnutrition and poor housing, undermine brain development and psychological factors such as self-esteem and aspiration. We can’t give people equal opportunities in life if we don’t banish poverty for good.  

And of course poverty and poor housing are closely connected. Today, 1.8 million children live in overcrowded housing; this is projected to increase to 2 million children by 2030, according to the National Housing Federation

All of these inequalities are connected to inequalities between people of different ethnicities, genders and disabilities. For example, there’s a huge racial wealth divide in the UK, with Black African and Bangladeshi households owning approximately ten times less wealth than their White British counterparts.   

And poverty and inequality have terrible impacts on our health. The Health Foundation forecasts that “on current trends, inequalities in health will persist over the next two decades: people in the 10% most deprived areas can expect to be diagnosed with major illness a decade earlier than people in the 10% least deprived areas”. It’s going to be very hard to reduce NHS waiting lists without tackling the social and economic drivers of poor health.

When it comes to the impacts of inequality, the canaries in the coalmine have already stopped singing, and our new report sets out how much more unfair Britain could become over the next five years and what we can do to stop the poison from setting in. 

The report finds that Britain is on course to become even more unfair over the next parliament unless the new government takes drastic action to tackle inequalities. There’s a real risk that failure to act soon will open the door for a far-right victory at the 2029 general election.  

And inequality has a two-way relationship with the climate emergency – without action on inequality, it will be hard to make progress on net zero, while the increasing impacts of the climate emergency will make inequality even worse. 

The good news is that there are plenty of evidence-based solutions, and while some of them will require up-front investment, this will more than pay for itself over time.  

Repairing our social security system – including but not only by scrapping the two-child limit and the benefit cap – will immediately lift many thousands of families out of poverty. 

But more ambitious action will also be needed, such as introducing an ‘essentials guarantee’ and making a major investment in social housing, and we’ll need to find new ways to raise the money to pay for it, including by doing more to tax wealth.  

Then we might have a chance of transforming the vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle, and building a fairer and more prosperous society for everyone.

Will Snell is the director of the Fairness Foundation. 

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