It’s 20 years since poverty last fell in the UK – and it’s getting worse

This detailed and extensive new report, which is the JRF’s final annual poverty report before a general election, shows that poverty has reached “unacceptably high levels”.

Alongside The Trussell Trust and backed by many organisations including The Big Issue, the charity has been calling for the government to introduce an ‘essentials guarantee’ so that universal credit provides people with the money they need to live at the very least.

Paul Kissack, chief executive of the JRF, writes in the report: “We find poverty in every corner of the country, across all ages and in all types of families. 2024 will be a year of important choices, the consequences of which could last far into the future as the nation goes to the polls.

“Political parties in the UK will set out what they stand for and the sort of country they wish to help shape. Any party serious about governing must be both practical and ambitious if we are to turn the tide of deepening poverty of the past 25 years.”

The report primarily analyses the latest government data around poverty for the year 2021/2022 – before much of the impact of the cost of living crisis was felt by many families. It is likely that the scale of poverty has simply got worse over the last two years.

More than one in five people in the UK were in poverty in 2021/2022, equating to 14.4 million people. That includes 8.1 million working-age adults, 4.2 million children and 2.1 million pensioners.

Some groups of people are more likely to face poverty than others – including disabled people and carers, large families and lone parents, and ethnic minority groups.

Children have consistently faced higher poverty rates, rising by two percentage points to 29% in 2021/2022 in comparison to the previous year. The number of pensioners facing poverty also rose to 18%, up by 3% on the previous year.

Pensioners have the lowest rates of poverty of any group, along with working-age adults without children.

Becca Lyon, head of child poverty at Save the Children UK, said:“These are stark findings from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and confirm that income levels in the UK are falling woefully short when it comes to providing a decent standard of living.

“There must be an urgent look at the welfare system to try and lift children out of poverty, and political leaders must urgently draw up a child poverty strategy.

“Committing in law to a ‘child lock’ where child related benefits rise in line with inflation or earnings, whichever is highest, would also be a logical step. Children deserve so much more than this corrosive deepening poverty.”

The UK is seeing especially deep poverty at least in part because social security has fallen increasingly short. The real-terms value of benefits payments reached a 40-year low at the same time inflation hit a 40-year high.

If we head back 40 years ago, it was the Margaret Thatcher era. The then Conservative government saw an unprecedented rise in poverty, up from broadly flat levels of poverty of around 14% before 1979.

Graph showing the levels of poverty under governments since 1964. You’ll see the biggest rise under Thatcher, but it’s remained stubbornly high since then. Graph: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Subsequent governments have only ever managed small decreases, with the last substantial fall in the first eight years of Blair’s government. But it’s risen again since then, and poverty levels are currently around 50% higher than they were in the 70s.

Particularly concerning is that people who were already facing poverty are now experiencing even deeper levels of hardship. The poorest are just getting poorer – and that has a grave impact on individual lives and the country as a whole.

Kissack said: “There are the human costs resulting from the blighted lives of millions of people who face avoidable hardship. Going without basic essentials strips people of their dignity and damages their social connections.

“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, when they are already burdened with worry about how to cover life’s essentials.”

Universal credit is currently falling short of the money people need to survive by £35 each week, at conservative estimates by the JRF. This means people are struggling to live.

One man, Myles, told The Big Issue he feels like a failure because he is struggling to afford the essentials he needs to live in the cost of living crisis. His mental health is worsening and he is eating less as his benefits are not stretching far enough.

The disability benefits system is also failing vulnerable people, as The Big Issue has extensively reported. A disabled mother and nurse has described how she feels “guilty for being alive” thinking about how her family is going to cope with the rising cost of living this winter. 

Ministers are keen to drive more people into work to boost the economy through tightening the benefits system – but campaigners have warned this will only push more people into poverty while damaging the economy in the long term.

Kissack added: “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. Poverty becomes the enemy of opportunity: talent and potential are wasted in its wake.This is a story of moral and fiscal irresponsibility. And it is a story we must change.”

Responding to the report’s findings, Michael Clarke, head of information programmes at anti-poverty charity Turn2us, said: “We are confronted daily with the harsh realities faced by those grappling with financial insecurity. Their stories aren’t just data points; they are compelling evidence of a failing system. 

“It is imperative for all political parties, particularly in the run-up to the election, to listen to these lived experiences. Policies must be shaped and informed by the voices of those directly affected by financial insecurity. This approach is not only about addressing immediate needs but also about systemic change. The current state of deepening poverty is a direct result of the erosion of the real-terms value of benefits and a punitive approach to social security. 

“It’s time for all our political leaders to listen, act, and make meaningful changes that reflect the lived experiences of those most in need.”  

The Big Issue outlines many more of the poverty statistics outlined in the JRF’s annual poverty report and more official figures here.

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