Why the UN is investigating poverty in the United Kingdom

Theresa May 2018 UK

Ms Theresa MAY, UK Prime Minister. Copyright: European Union Event: European Council – October 2018 (Day 2)

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum. 

Authors: John McKenna, Formative Content


For the past 12 days Philip Alston, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has been investigating the poverty of a nation in 2018. But the country he is investigating isn’t an emerging economy. It is the United Kingdom – the fifth largest economy on the planet.

Despite rising employment levels, economic growth and pockets of enormous wealth, a fifth of Britons remain in poverty.

According to data published earlier this year, there are now 3.1 million children with working parents living in poverty in the UK. This is an extra 1 million children in poverty since 2010, in an economy that has grown by more than $220 billion over the same period.

Alston’s tour of the UK took in nine towns over the 12 days, covering everything from child poverty in Glasgow to foodbanks in Newcastle, and a debate on digital exclusion at the University of Oxford.

His visit is only the second time a Western European nation has been subjected to a UN investigation into poverty, after Ireland in 2011.

Presenting the initial results of his investigation at a press conference in London on Friday, Alston blamed cuts and reforms of state benefit payments and the closure of public facilities for the poverty of 14 million people.

His findings include:

14 million people – a fifth of the UK population – live in poverty

Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials

Child poverty is predicted to rise 7% between 2015 and 2022

Homelessness is up 60% since 2010

A 49% real terms reduction in funding for local governments since 2010

“During my visit I have spoken with people who depend on foodbanks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter, children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future,” Alston said.

How do we define poverty?

Definitions of poverty are split by the UN into two broad categories: extreme poverty, which is having access to less than $1 per day; and income poverty where a family’s income fails to meet a government’s established threshold that differs across countries.

The UK government currently has no poverty threshold in place, which has prompted the creation of an independent Social Metrics Commission to establish a new measurement of poverty for the UK.

Alston is using the benchmark of “relative poverty”, looking at the percentage of people living with less than 55% of the median income, once costs such as childcare, housing, debt and disability have been taken into account.

Foodbank Britain

There are many ways of measuring the relative wealth or poverty of a nation, but the most visible indicator of rising poverty in the UK over the past decade has been the number of foodbanks appearing in church halls and community centres across the country.

Foodbanks are charitable organizations where members of the public donate food and other essentials such as toiletries, and these donations are sorted and distributed to people in need that have been referred by officials such as doctors and social workers.

The UK’s largest foodbank charity, the the Trussell Trust, has met with Alston during his visit to the UK.

It says more than 1.3 million people have been referred to its foodbanks for emergency food supplies over the past year – a rise of nearly 50% in just five years.

“Every week, food banks meet people referred for emergency support who have either very little income, or none at all, so we are glad to have shared the insights of our network with Philip Alston,” said Samantha Stapley, Director of Operations at the Trussell Trust.

“For too many people in the UK today, staying above water is a daily struggle. It’s completely unacceptable that anyone is forced to turn to a foodbank as a result.”

Taking credit

One of the main topics of the trust’s conversations with Alston was the effect of the UK government’s cuts to both in-work and unemployment benefit payments.

Data from the trust shows that nearly three-quarters of referrals to their foodbanks came as the result of reductions or delays to benefit payments.

A Trussell Trust spokesman said that the particularly damaging effect of the UK government’s new benefits system, called Universal Credit, was highlighted to Alston during his visit.

The charity’s foodbanks in full Universal Credit rollout areas had an average increase in demand of 52% in the 12 months after the full rollout date in their area.

Comparative analysis of random samples of foodbanks taken from 247 projects either not in full Universal Credit areas, or only in full rollout areas for up to three months, showed an average increase of 13%.

Many recipients of Universal Credit, which replaces six benefits with one single monthly payment, have faced problems including underpayments and delays in payments of up to six weeks. These issues have been acknowledged by the UK government, which in its budget last month included a raft of measures to ease the transition.

Alston said the benefit reforms had a “remarkable gender dimension” to them.

“I think if you had got a bunch of misogynists in a room and said, ‘Guys how can we make this system work for men, and not for women’, they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what’s already in place,” he said.

“Ninety percent of lone parents are women, and which group do you think does absolutely the worst in the whole benefits system? Lone parents.”

Inclusive growth

Alston’s visit has highlighted not only the poverty in the UK, but the growing divide in the way wealth from economic growth is distributed.

The UK’s poor performance on inclusive growth was highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s Inclusive Development Index 2018, where the UK ranked 21st overall.

In eight out of the 12 indicators that contribute to the index, including GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, and wealth inequality, the UK scores in the bottom half of the rankings.

“The numbers suggest that the country is lagging behind its peers on many dimensions of inclusive growth,” says the index report.

“In particular, wealth inequality has been increasing over the past five years.”

Alston said this growing divide risked alienating large swathes of British society.

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