Poverty fact file
While poverty is driven by economic factors, its impacts on an individual's life can be devastating and far reaching. The saying goes that money can't buy you happiness- but what it can do is make your life much, much easier. Living in poverty has the most obvious impact of reducing your ability to buy the material goods needed for a reasonable standard of life such as food, shelter and clothing, but it is in understanding the implications of this that lets us understand why this is such a pressing issue.
What is poverty?
Poverty is when your resources are well below your minimum needs. There is no one single way of measuring poverty- it is a hugely complex issue with a range of different measures that tell us different things. Some of the most commonly used measures include:
Minimum income standard- enough income to afford an acceptable, decent standard of living and the ability to participate in society.
Relative poverty- living in households with income below 60% of the median in that year.
Absolute poverty- living in households with income below 60% of (inflation-adjusted) median income in some base year, usually 2010/11.
Destitution- where you can’t afford basics such as food, shelter, heating and clothing.
Who is at an increased risk of experiencing poverty?
Research shows that there are certain groups who are particularly at risk of experiencing poverty.
Single parent households
Data from the DWP's 2020/21 Family Resources Survey showed that 19% of all single parent households had low food security.
Those who receive support from the Welfare System
27% of households in receipt of Universal Credit reported having low food security (this is a reduction from 43% of those in receipt of the benefit in the previous year, pointing to the crucial role that the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, which has since been removed, played in protecting families from food insecurity). It is worth noting that Universal Credit is also an in-work benefit, with many people claiming it to help top up low wages and insecure work contracts. In March 2022, 41% of all Universal Credit claimants were in work.
Those with disabilities and long-term health conditions
The Food Foundation research found that those limited a lot by a health problem or disability were 5 times more likely to be food insecure than those with no health problems and disabilities. According to the Social Market Foundation more than four in ten people (42%) living in families that rely on disability benefits are in poverty. In 2019, around half of the 14 million people in poverty in the UK were living in families with a disabled person.
On average, disabled adults face extra costs of £583 per month. This doesn’t only relate to money that has actually been spent, but also to purchases and services that disabled people and their families have had to go without as a result of making choices and trade-offs. In other words, not every disabled person – or family with disabled children – can meet their extra costs. This, of course, has a negative impact on their quality of life. The additional costs faced by disabled people, or those with a disabled person in their household are due to many factors including:
-Energy bills- A third of disabled adults say their impairment or condition has a significant impact on their energy costs.
-Transport- the fact that public transport is inaccessible means that some disabled people have no choice but to use taxis and private-hire vehicles to get around. They may also find that they have to travel further in order to take part in accessible activities.
-Insurance- disabled people often struggle to find insurance that they can afford. 26% of disabled people feel they have been charged more for insurance or denied cover altogether because of their impairment or condition.
- Specialists goods and services- including equipment and home adaptations, therapies and specialise toys and play equipment.
People from Black and Ethnic Minority backgrounds
Data from multiple sources shows that those from Black and Ethnic Minority backgrounds are at an increased risk of food insecurity. The latest data from the DWP’ 2020/21 Family Resources survey shows that 21% of Black/African/Caribbean/ Black British households were food insecure (in comparison with 6% of White households). Food Foundation data from April 2022 also shows that Non-white ethic groups are much more likely to be impacted by food insecurity than White ethnic groups.
Poverty’s impact on health and wellbeing
The British Medical Association has reported that poverty can affect the health of people at all ages. In infancy, it is associated with a low birth weight, shorter life expectancy and a higher risk of death in the first year of life. Children living in poverty are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases and diet-related problems. Twice as many people are obese in the most deprived areas of the UK than in the least deprived areas. Most individual long-term conditions are more than twice as common in adults from lower socio-economic groups.
A negative cycle can exist between poverty and health. Many people living in poverty cannot afford the cost of their care, such as prescription charges, resulting in their conditions worsening over time. This negative cycle can transfer across generations, starting from pre-birth, with impact upon parenting, educational attainment, and employment.
Income can influence the ability of individuals and households to obtain a healthy diet; with those on low incomes at risk of suffering from food poverty. Nutrient-dense foods such as lean meat, fish, fruit and vegetables are more expensive than low-nutrient foods, so when budgets are tight people are likely to opt for more unhealth alternatives and cut back on the amount they eat all together. Undernutrition caused by food poverty can have a range of adverse health effects, including on the muscular system, the immune system and psycho-social function. Food poverty has also been associated with increased falls and fractures in older people, low birth weight, increased childhood mortality and increased dental issues in children.
Living in poverty increases the risk of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and substance addiction. Last summer 72% of people who accessed a Trussell Trust Food Bank lived with someone who was experiencing a mental health issue. Research from the Children' Society shows that children living around debt are five times more likely to be unhappy than children from wealthier families.
Recent research into mental health and money worries shows concerning findings. The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute found that people in problem debt are nearly 2.5 times more likely to experience mental health problems and 3 times as likely to have considered suicide. A 2022 report looking at poverty, food banks and mental health found that “the cumulative impact of the adversity involved in accessing a food bank meant that many of the people spoken to had either developed mental health problems, had existing mental health problems exacerbated or, at the very least, were showing warning signs of poor mental health such as disturbed sleep and physical manifestations of sustained stress. Most concerningly, many people spoke of feeling trapped, hopeless, and a burden on others - within mental health services these are seen as critical warning signs when it comes to assessing the risk of suicide.”
The impacts of poverty on our cognitive functioning start young. In children, poverty has been shown to impact on the rapid brain development that occurs in the first three years of life, with the largest differences in brain structure detected in the poorest children. Research from the Joseph Roundtree Foundation shows that children raised in environments of low socio-economic status show consistent reductions in cognitive performance across many areas, particularly language function and cognitive control (attention, planning, decision-making).
Research by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir has shown the ability of scarcity, or living without reliable access to life’s essentials, to completely colonise the mind. They refer to it a ‘bandwidth tax’, impacting people’s ability to make decisions and manage on a day-to-day basis. It is not, they conclude, that poor people have less bandwidth. It is that “all people, if they were poor, would have less effective bandwidth.” In other words, it is not a moral failure of those who experience poverty to not be able to pull themselves out of it, rather that one of the defining features of poverty is that it intrinsically limits your ability to do this by stripping you of dignity, self-worth and freedom.
Educational attainment and life prospects
In England, despite some progress over the last two decades in closing this gap, the relationship between family socio-economic position and attainment remains particularly strong compared to many other OECD countries.
Research on the drivers behind this gap in educational attainment show a complex picture. Disadvantaged children start school behind their more advantaged peers, and the gap in performance widens as they progress through the education system. Lacking sufficient money has a direct impact on the resources families can access to support child development and learning. These include basic items like nutritious food, adequate housing and home access to IT and the internet (home internet access has been linked to a 10-point increase in GCSE attainment in LSYPE participants). Children eligible for the Pupil Premium start school at a level of development 4.3 months behind their more advantaged peers; five-year-olds in the lowest income tertial were found to be 2.9 points higher on a measure of behaviour problems and lagged 13.5 months behind their high-income peers in vocabulary scores. This is particularly significant given as language is the foundation of learning and social interactions.
Upon starting school disadvantaged children and young people are disproportionately more likely to lack the necessary precursors – a good level of health and wellbeing, a nutritious diet, a supportive and stimulating home environment - to learn and perform well in a formal education setting. Disadvantaged pupils are more likely to experience lower quality teaching with worse classroom practices. Other studies show that the allocation of pupils to ‘ability’ groups is often done on an inconsistent and subjective basis: disadvantaged pupils are more likely to be allocated to lower attainment groups. Before they leave school, disadvantaged pupils are currently less likely than their better-off peers to receive careers guidance. This may be particularly detrimental, as disadvantaged young people may lack social networks with the knowledge and contacts to replace guidance offered in school.
In the book, Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Class, Diane Reay explains how the sense of alienation felt by disadvantaged children and young people in education has been documented since the 1960s. Interview data from the last 20 years suggests that many continue to experience ‘education as failure’ and despite increased access to higher education, 22% of the most deprived state school pupils drop out of university within two years, (compared to 7%of the least deprived).
The experience of being stigmatised
From a young age, pupils are aware of social differences and of how they may be perceived differently because of them. Interviews with young people across the socioeconomic spectrum have found ‘the shame and humiliation of being thought of as stupid [was] ever present’ for the disadvantaged children interviewed. Common narratives around poverty being the result of poor individual decisions, rather than larger systemic issues also contributes to people who are experiencing poverty being stigmatised. This leads to many people feeling they cannot come forward for support due to the fear of being judged. Research also suggests that the shame and stigma experienced by people in poverty leads to social exclusion, limited social capital, low self-worth, and a lack of agency that could all serve to prolong poverty.
Negative life experiences that result from being stigmatised start young- more than a quarter of children from the poorest families said they had been bullied because their parents couldn't afford the cost of school. Poverty is extremely isolating as it threatens a person’s confidence and ability to participate in society. For example, the impact that lack of money has on the ability to take part in small celebrations and get-togethers that others take for granted intensifies loneliness and reduces social connection.
Poverty and communities
Low-income communities are less likely to have access to resources vital to their overall health and wellbeing. Those on a low income are less likely to have access to green space and in 2018 nearly 1 in 10 of the country’s most economically deprived areas were ‘food deserts’- neighbourhoods where poverty, poor public transport and a dearth of big supermarkets severely limit access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables. Communities with high levels of poverty are also more likely to have low quality housing, high traffic density and undesirable commercial operations, all of which impose stress of the lives of those living in these neighbourhoods.
These communities also often lack resources such as health care and recreational activities. Lack of access to needed resources takes a toll on people’s lives because of the extra effort required to meet daily needs. Living in an economically disadvantaged neighbourhood also appears to weaken the protective power of social resources in people's lives. People have fewer ties with their neighbours and perceive their relationships with their closest friends and relatives as being less supportive than do people in better neighbourhoods. Researchers think this could be because their support providers themselves are highly burdened.
Rural poverty is an issue of particular relevance to Shropshire. Despite the idyllic images of rural England that are held by many, and assumptions that poverty only exists in urban areas, rural poverty is a very real, albeit sometimes hidden issue.
In rural areas residents often do not have easy access services, almost no one in urban areas lives more than 4km (2.5 miles) from a GP but one in five households in rural areas do. It is the same for supermarkets: 44% of country dwellers have to travel more than 4km to get to one, while 59% are not within 4km of a bank.
Residents of rural areas face additional barriers to entering the workforce and pay a premium for their fuel (many houses run off oil fed central heating systems). Many rural areas have limited or poor-quality internet access and very little public transport infrastructure. Access to the larger, more competitively priced food retailers is often difficult, leaving residents reliant on much more expensive local convenience stores. All of this is then compounded by a low wage economy, where much of the work is low paid, insecure or seasonal.
The Indices of Multiple Deprivation are widely used data sets used to classify relative deprivation of small areas in the UK but typically poorly represent deprivation in rural areas and can lead to rural areas being overlooked when it comes to the allocation of funding and planning for rural health and social services.
Centring the voices of those who have experienced poverty
It is vitally important when we are talking about poverty that the voices of those experiencing it are not forgotten or silenced.
Whether managing on a tight budget, making a difficult decision on whether to purchase food or fuel, experts by experience have important insights of what works and doesn’t in everyday life. This gives experts by experience unique expertise, assets and perspectives that need to be heard, listened to and amplified. Yet too often these voices are missing from the discourse around poverty, resulting in projects, campaigns and interventions that don’t meet the needs of the people they are intended to help.
This exclusion can occur because experts simply aren’t being invited to the conversation. It can also be due to barriers to participation, such as a lack of compensation for expert's time and input.
Below are links to powerful examples of the work being done to amplify the voices of those with lived experience of poverty:
Hungry Nation: Real stories of food poverty in Coventry told on a stage