David Leese: We need to loosen the grip of poverty on the nation’s health

There was news this week that the roll out of the government’s universal credit welfare programme will be delayed amid criticism of its impact on vulnerable people.

It is not right that anyone should have to experience poverty or destitution in the UK. At the end of 2018, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, carried out an investigation of the state of the UK, and highlighted that over 14 million of us live in poverty. He found many examples around the countryparents, children, working people, and disabled people across the North and South of the country, are locked into poverty and unable to break free.

The findings of his report made it clear that the costs of welfare reforms have fallen disproportionately on those on low incomes. The freeze on benefits, in particular, has squeezed those already struggling to make ends meet. Alston spoke to many people affected by changes to the welfare system and heard of the constant stress and anxiety they feel when money won’t stretch far enough, forcing them into impossible situations.

Working families with low earnings rely on tax credits and other benefits, or Universal Credit, to top up their incomes in the face of rising costs of rent and childcare. But these benefits are frozen, not keeping pace with these essentials. Reductions in the support available mean that many parents on low pay find it hard to escape the grip of poverty and build a better life.

Social security should be providing an anchor for people when circumstances sweep them into povertyit shouldn’t be leaving them destitute. In the UK, 1.5 million people experienced destitution at some point during 2017.

Living in poverty has wide impacts. People on low incomes have worse health outcomes on average than those on higher incomes. People living in the most deprived areas of the country are more likely to attend accident and emergency departments and are more likely to die young from conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Rates of suicide are also considerably higher in less well-off areas.

Children are the group in society who are most like to live in poverty. 4.1 million children are currently living in poverty in the UK, a rise of over 500,000 in the past five years. It goes against our values of compassion that so many children are in position where poverty harms their health. A child born into a family living in the least deprived areas of our country can expect to live in good health for more than 15 years longer than a child born into a family living in the most deprived. 

Worrying figures were released recently showing that the prevalence of emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression is almost twice as high in children living in households in receipt of low-income benefits. It’s almost three times as high for children living in household with a disability.

Poverty can be solved. The percentage of children living in poverty fell by 15% between 1994/95 and 2004/05, to 28% of children. It fell to its lowest level of 27% in 2011/12, but has started to rise again in recent years, reaching 30% in 2016/17 with predictions showing it could rise further by 2021.

Two main factors drove the falls in child poverty. Firstly, for most of the period between 2000 and 2013, benefits for out-of-work families with children not only kept up with prices, but they rose in comparison with average incomes. Secondly, the introduction of tax credits meant that those in work, but with low earnings were also supported.

In the past five years, this progress has stopped. Not only has it stopped, but child poverty rates have risen due in large part to reductions in the support offered by benefits and tax credits. The government can point towards tax cuts and minimum wage rises, which have been beneficial for some, but for many low-income families, the gains are undermined by reductions in the more targeted support to households given by the benefit and tax credit system.

Philip Alston was right to highlight the rising tide of poverty in UK, however what he said was nothing new. He has held a mirror up to our society and we mustn’t ignore the message. Our analysis shows why we need to loosen the grip of poverty on the nation’s health. There are clear actions that the government can take from ending the freeze on benefits and building on the principles behind Universal Credit to make sure that work is a proper route out of poverty. We all want to be part of a compassionate society, which cannot happen while poverty is an injustice that continues to burn.

David Leese is analysis manager at the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

Competing interests: None declared.