The reality of poverty in Britain

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At the end of May, a report into austerity in the UK by the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty was issued - to the accompaniment of protests by the British government. The report records 14 million people in poverty, the “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population”, and that, despite high levels of employment, “close to 40% of children are predicted to be living in poverty two years from now, 16% of people over 65 live in relative poverty and millions of those who are in work are dependent upon various forms of charity to cope”. It describes the record levels of hunger, the extent of food banks, the fact that many people have to choose between heating their homes or eating, the extent of homelessness, the numbers of rough sleepers, falling life expectancy in some parts of the country, the denial of benefits to the disabled, a whole catalogue of the impact of the government’s “harsh and uncaring ethos” with its “punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach”.

The government retaliated by saying that the UK was one of the happiest places in the world (15th on a UN list, apparently) and that the rapporteur was “biased”. The latter point is not wrong. The report says UK standards of well-being have descended precipitately in a remarkably short period of time, as a result of deliberate policy choices made when many other options were available”. It says that the attacks are “ideological”, implying that there are other ‘options’ for capitalism which don’t involve the impoverishment of the working class. The last hundred years of examples show that, internationally, left and liberal governments, in response to the state of the capitalist economy, have also tended to make policy choices that reinforce capitalism at the expense of the exploited and dispossessed. In this context, it’s not the choices of the Tories, or the threat of Brexit that’s to blame but the nature of capitalism impulsed by its economic crisis.  However, the UN report’s empirical observations are accurate, despite the bias of the author. We intend to highlight, in a series of articles, the reality of poverty in Britain, starting with some points on child poverty.

Hush-a-bye baby, on the tree top,
When you grow old, your wages will stop,
When you have spent the little you made
First to the Poorhouse and then to the grave

(Anonymous verse from Yorkshire.)

The use of Universal Credit is one of the British state’s most recent welfare weapons. Financial support from tax credits and Universal Credit has been limited to two children since 2017. Whenever they DWP tinker with UC they proclaim another triumph. In May the DWP announced the latest changes with the Secretary of State hypocritically saying “I feel very strongly about making sure that the policies of this department are fair, compassionate and that they work for everybody”. The May announcements are the latest in a series of changes to welfare policies. In January the DWP announced a delay to the roll-out of Universal Credit, the introduction of which is extremely delayed and causing untold misery and payment arrears to claimants switching to UC.

There is a two-child limit for UC which means that the child element of tax credits and Universal Credit is limited to the first two children in a family (with a small number of exceptions), and so families do not see any increase in entitlement for the third and other children. Prior to the two-child limit, a family could receive the child element of child tax credit – currently worth £2,780 per year – for each child, subject to a means test. This is in addition to child benefit, which is currently worth £1,079 per year for the first child and £714 for each subsequent one and which, subject to its own rather different form of means test, continues to be available for all children. In total this means that, in the absence of the two-child limit, an out-of-work family with three children would be entitled to £10,840 per year from these benefits; one with four children would be entitled to £14,330. Many of these families are also entitled to other benefits, such as housing benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance.  The DWP’s relaxation of the two-child system only means that those claiming a third child before April 1917 are exempted. The cuts in children’s allowance will continue and for the very poorest of working-class families throw them into child poverty.

By capping the number of child elements that a family can receive at two, the two-child limit reduces benefit and attacks the very weakest of the working class – children.“The UK has some of the highest levels of hunger and deprivation among the world’s richest nations, according to a wide-ranging United Nations assessment of child health and wellbeing. The Unicef report ranks 41 high-income countries against 25 indicators tracking progress against internationally agreed goals to end child poverty and hunger, promote health, ensure quality education, and reduce inequality.” (The Guardian, 21/5/19)

The Tories’ “cruel and harmful policies” are forcing children into hunger according to a new report. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that austerity and benefit cuts mean tens of thousands of families across England don’t have enough to eat. It said the introduction of Universal Credit (UC) has “exacerbated the hunger crisis”. HRW said ministers have “largely ignored” the impact of their cuts. This includes “skyrocketing food bank use” and “children arriving at school hungry and unable to concentrate”.

The 2015 Budget introduced a four-year freeze on most working-age benefits and tax credits. If the freeze does not end until April 2020 (as currently planned), it will have increased the number of people in poverty by 400,000 and affected 27 million people, including 11 million children. The vast majority of those affected live in working families with children, many working on low pay but still affected by the freeze of child benefits. People living in poverty will be on average £560 worse off, equivalent to around three months of food shopping for an average low-income family. This information was contained in a report written for the Rowntree Trust “In 2018/19, foodbank network the Trussell Trust handed out 1.6 million emergency food packages – a 19% increase on the previous year. More than half a million of the packages went to children.”

When campaigners point out that more than one in four children in the UK lives in poverty they usually do so with a view to strengthening the ‘welfare state’. In reality the welfare state imposes and presides over poverty. In the 1800s poorhouses often had a plaque at the entrance with the slogan “Protect the poor” or “Save the children”. It was a lie then, just as much as the bourgeois state’s claim to ‘help the disadvantaged’ is today.

Melmoth 22/5/19


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