A major new report on poverty in the UK has highlighted the critical need to build more genuinely affordable homes if hard-pressed families are to be released from its grip.
In its ‘state of the nation’ report, Poverty 2019/20 published last week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) laid bare the scale of the challenge facing ministers and policymakers, if they truly want to “unite and level up” the UK following the hardships of austerity, and the years of political turmoil around Brexit.
Poverty is no longer the excusive preserve of those out of work – if it ever really was – and in recent years has swept swathes of working households into its embrace. According to the report, 56% of people in poverty are in a working family, compared to 39% 20 years ago.
Of the 14 million people currently living in poverty, once extra-cost disability benefits are discounted, four million are disabled and a further three million live in a household with someone who has a disability. Children have had the highest poverty rate throughout the last 20 years, with four million in poverty in 2017/18.
Faced with this, JRF is urging the Government to focus on:
- Good jobs. While the proportion of people in employment has risen consistently for six years, weak local economies in some parts of the country have led to higher unemployment in those areas than in the UK as a whole. This needs to change or progress will stall. In addition, employment among disabled people and carers is still low, and they should be supported to work when they can
- Earning for low-income working families need to improve, helping people in the lowest-paid jobs or working part-time. Too many people are stuck in low-paid, insecure jobs, with little chance of progression and too few hours of work to reach a decent living standard. Workers need more security, better training and opportunities to progress, particularly in part-time jobs
- The benefits systems must be strengthened so that it provides the “anchor that people need in tough times”. Social security should support people who need it and we all need to start viewing it as an essential public service
- There needs to be an increase in low-cost housing for families on low incomes, and increased support for people with high housing costs. Something also needs to be done to address the sense of insecurity felt by many people living in the private rented sector
“The new Government has an historic opportunity as we enter the 2020s,” said Claire Ainsley, the JRF’s executive director. “Past successes in recent decades show that it is possible for the UK to loosen the grip of poverty among those most at risk. But this progress has begun to unravel, and it will take sustained effort across the country and throughout the governments of the UK to unlock poverty.
“Millions of families care for each other, raise their children and work hard without any guarantee that they will escape poverty – governments, employers and landlords all have a role to play in changing this. It’s not right that so many are unable to build a firm foundation to their lives because their jobs are insecure, or they can’t find a home they can afford.”
The JRF’s report revealed regional differences in poverty rates, with higher rates in London, the North of England, Midlands and Wales, and lowest in the South (excluding London), Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Two major drivers of differences in poverty rates are the availability of good-quality jobs and housing costs. JRF says that levelling up will require action on low earnings in places like the North East, which saw the largest increase (2.2%), and on high housing costs in London and elsewhere.
More people are in work but when JRF spoke to lone parents, they talked about “dehumanising” work, feeling trapped “in a never-ending circle” by the benefits system, and being “stuck” in unaffordable or insecure housing.
For families on low pay, insecurity is worsened by the cost and availability of transport and childcare, especially in employment sectors such as care, retail and hospitality where a largely female workforce is often required to work evenings and weekends.
Ainsley added: “Without a better deal for working families, and a social security system that provides a public service for all of us, the UK faces further division and deeper poverty. That better deal needs to encompass the basics we all need – from building new homes to funding social security and bringing better jobs to all parts of the country.”
“If the next decade is to see true levelling up it will be because we have broken the grip of poverty and unlocked the UK’s potential, not because we invested in eye-catching schemes. As a nation we have made progress before and we can and must do so again with this new government and a new settlement after Brexit.”
Responding to the report, Councillor Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s resources board, said: “[This] report shows that in order to tackle poverty and promote social mobility, policies cutting across a wide range of areas – such as education, employment support, welfare, health and affordable housing – need to be considered together.
“Councils understand the challenges and opportunities of their communities best and want every resident to have a good quality of life and to be able to improve their circumstances regardless of their background or where they live. With the right funding and flexibilities, councils can better support low-income and disadvantaged households, lift thousands out of poverty and help the Government realise its commitment to level up communities across the country.
“This includes the ability for councils to resume their historic role as major builders of affordable homes and handing control of national employment schemes to local areas who can target skills, careers advice and employment support more effectively to help people get on in life and progress their careers.”
Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Margaret Greenwood MP, called the JRF’s report a “wake up call” for the Government.
“One in five of the UK population is living in poverty, more children and pensioners are in poverty now than five years ago, working single parents have been swept fastest into poverty and in-work poverty is on the rise,” she added.
“Too many people are trapped in low paid insecure work and all too often the social security system fails to give people the support they need.
“The Government should make tackling poverty a top priority by providing a living wage of at least £10 an hour for all workers aged 16 and over and create a social security system that treats people with respect and is there for any one of us in our time of need.”