The rise of absolute poverty in Britain


David’s Cameron’s threat to deny under 25 year-olds housing benefit is the latest severe attack on the poor after two years of Tory austerity has brought absolute poverty back to our streets.

To those living in larger cities across Britain, the shocking 16% increase in homelessness from the beginning of 2012 is a visible change. Homelessness in London has risen by 43% in just one year. And that is before this latest policy disaster cooked up by Downing Street has been implemented.

The austerity measures that are ripping into our society are exacerbating the problems that people already suffer from in any recession. A recent report by the Institude for Fiscal Studies discovered that 2.5 million children and 2.1 million working-age parents were in absolute poverty in 2010. At the current rate of growth this number will rise to 4.7 million working-age parents by 2020.

As a result of the government’s policies there are several areas where social deprivation is deeping at an even more alarming rate.

Disability suicides

With the fast and ruthless removal of the safety net in rough times, it is horrifying and not surprising that the situation has reached crisis levels.

A third of Remploy factories – that employ disabled people – are closing down, and in their place, those who cannot work are being subjected to humiliating, and rigged, work assessments.

Atos Origin, the French IT company that has been brought in to reassess them in a lucrative contract, has attracted protest from anti-cuts campaigners as a result of its practices. Claimants are subject to an online survey biased against the claimant that has been strongly discredited by health professionals.

The situation is so bad that a sizable number of claimants are believed to have committed suicide as a result of the assessments, prompting questions in Parliament from left-wing MP John McDonnell.

Workfare slavery

The situation is not much better for those who are able to work, but cannot find paid employment as over 2.4 million compete over vacancies.

A few months after Tesco’s “JSA+expenses” advert on the Job Centre Plus website sparked outrage on Twitter, the scandal of 30 unemployed people forced to sleep under London Bridge whilst working on the Queen’s Jubilee Celebrations has again shown what this government is capable of.

The unpaid workers were supplied via Tory peer Baroness Stedman-Scott’s charity Tomorrow’s People that provides many large companies with workfare labour. The lesson is simple – those attacking the poor are getting rich from it.

Map of child poverty in Britain showing high density ‘black spots’. Source:Save the Children


In work poverty

A particularly alarming development is the rise in what has been called in-work poverty. This means people who are working but still not earning enough to feed their families.

For instance around 62% of children in poverty in 2011 were living in working households – the problem is that wages are so low for some people that they cannot make ends meet.

This particularly affects people working in sectors like the supermarkets where mega-corporations like Tescos pay their workers very little and keep many on part time hours. This means that Tesco workers have to subsidise their pay with benefits – effectively meaning that the tax payers are subsidng Tesco’s low wages.

But it is not just the private sector. For all the talk of public sector gold plated pensions, a lot of people working for local or central government are not on particularly high wages, some civil servants ear only around £18,000, but are now having to pay even more in pensions contributions which can tip people into financial insecurity.

The problem is made worse because the cost of living is sky rocketing whilst wages are relatively stagnant. The cost of food has increased by 30% in the last 5 years, and utlity costs have risen dramatically since 2005/06. Look at this table to see the changing costs in the last decade.

Without socialisation of the main energy producing companies and a militant campaign against low pay, these trends are likely to continue and deepen as more people are kicked out of better paying jobs and forced to find any employment that they can, which can often mean more poorly paid work.


Long term unemployment

Another worrying trend is the growth in long term unemployment. In May 2012 the number of out of work for a year was 880,000, whilst the number of people out of work for two years was around 430,000. The social consequences of long term unemployment go beyond simply being momentarily on the back foot, because it begins to affect peoples social well-being and the nature of the community itself. For instance around half of all unemployed young people in Wales reported feelings of self loathing, panic attacks and even self harm.

Tony Dolphin, from the IPPR think tank explained the psychological affects of long term unemployment; “Being out of work for more than a year can have a scarring effect, making it harder to get a job as well as having a negative impact on one’s health and well-being.

As a general rule, the longer someone is unemployed, the less likely they are to ever return to work.”

In a recent shocking example of how desperate people can become, a man in Birmingham (which suffers from some of the highest unemployment rates in Britain) was even driven to set fire to himself after not receiving a welfare payment.


Absolute Poverty

Statisticians look at poverty in two general ways – ‘relative’ poverty, a measure which looks at those well below the median average of income (60% of income) – who cannot take part in the normal activity afforded by society. It is relative to the rest of society. But ‘Absolute’ poverty refers to a level of poverty beyond the ability to afford the essentials which we need simply to live and survive. People in absolute poverty cannot afford some of the basics and live in social exclusion. And it is this predicament that is the fastest growing type of poverty in Britain today according to research bodies such as the IFS and Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It will come as no surprise that when the IFS produced its report on growing child poverty, David Cameron’s reaction was to question the figures, rather than accept the consequences of his government’s policies.

Coalition policy changes such as those to unemployment and disability benefits – of which there are simply too many others to discuss here – are ripping up the vital ‘safety net’ that in the past prevented large numbers of people from falling into a spiral threatening the ability to survive.

And even charities, for many the last form of defence, are finding it hard to cope with the effects in the light of their government grants also being slashed. Birmingham’s Edgbaston district has seen the creation of a ‘food bank’ in the last couple of months specifically for pregnant women in the area who cannot feed themselves. The charity reports that it is a unique position to do so, having managed to maintain its government grants. But many other charities are not so fortunate, cuts to grants mean that many cannot provide the kind of social services that increasing numbers of people are relying on.

Charities across the country have reported similarly dramatic rises in those being unable to eat, shelter and live – and it’s generally those who have access to a soup kitchen that we get to hear about, not those who suffer in silence.

In wealthy countries like Britain, extreme poverty like this used to be a rarity. But over this year and next, 21.8% of children will be living in absolute poverty, and tha figure is likely to increase. How many survive is ultimately up to us and whether we can build a movement to stop the social decline.



  1. karen
    June 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm · Reply

    What we are seeing is a return to Dickenzian Britain! Will we see a return of the poor houses too? It is my opinion that the government wish to afford those in poverty the very least…that way they are easily subjegated into slave labour! The attitude towards those on benefits harks back to political and public attitudes of the 1800’s. Cameron and his rich cohorts are psycopaths, they are devoid of empathy, compassion and humanity! They must be removed from power…and soon!

    • Dan Fisher
      July 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm · Reply

      Agreed. I believe what we are seeing may be the first steps out of international imperialist capitalism and towards neo-feudalism.

      Corporations must now be beginning to believe that socialist revolution, peaceful or violent, has become impossible.

      This is worrying; surely the media can only go so far to pacify people, and conditions on the ground are self evident. Without the welfare state the situation should become revolutionary very quickly.

      I’m concerned that military technology and greater powers granted to the police will allow the forces of reaction to subdue any type of uprising in developed countries.

      But they will have to take the routine corruption of state forces to a whole new level if they want to prevent the rise of radical socialism in elections.

      • billj
        July 2, 2012 at 10:23 am · Reply

        Dickensian Britain certainly wasn’t feudal, a more naked dog eat dog capitalist world its difficult to imagine. What we are seeing is the recreation of the class divide, that always existed but was obscured by reforms granted to the working class.
        The latter day Thatcherites don’t care about any of that, so they’re busy stripping away the protection that made their system survive.

        • Dan Fisher
          July 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm · Reply

          Sorry, I should have made that clearer, I meant I agreed with this part;

          “It is my opinion that the government wish to afford those in poverty the very least…that way they are easily subjegated into slave labour!!”

          When corporations finally destroy the state they will necessarily replace it; I consider an economy where the powers of government are wielded directly by corporations to be a form of neo-feudalism. I believe the dystopian future we’re in for is one of stagnation and monopoly.

          • Luke Cooper
            July 3, 2012 at 11:12 am ·

            Firstly, the term feudalism – which describes a predominantly agricultural economy with monarch etc – is not a good description of the dystopian future that you anticipate.

            Secondly, and more substantially, this perspective does not appear to be very realistic to me. Consider how successful liberal democratic capitalism has been in overseeing the neoliberal project – why on earth would capitalist elites seek to establish political structures that have none of the appearance of democratic representation, when they can secure their economic interests in a system that does appear to be democratic? They would be replacing a legitimate structure for exploitation with an illegitimate one, and for what end? Why would they do this?

            Concretely, the direction of global development remains towards an expansion of liberal, representative capitalist democracy, based on the rule of law etc. If that were to change, if for example, authoritarian governments emerge in response to class struggle resistance, then I don’t think you’ll see corporations trying to seize political power, but old institutions like the military and police, are a much more likely instrument for authoritarian rule.

            Cheers, Luke

          • Luke Cooper
            July 3, 2012 at 11:22 am ·

            Firstly, feudalism is a predominantly agricultural economy based on a fixed class heirarchy of monarchical rule and exploitation of serfs, etc, so it’s not a good term to use to describe the dystopian future you anticipate.

            Secondly, and more substantively, I don’t see why corporations would push for the kind of fusion of political and economic power into their own hands that you are keen to predict. Representative liberal democracy has proven very effective in over-seeing the neoliberal project in a manner that gives it legitimacy. Political systems based on infrequent elections, the rule of law, the formal separation of political and economic power, etc, has proven a proven a very effective means for capitalism to continually reproduce itself. Why would corporations, who have many of the rights and freedoms they could possibly want in the current international political order, seek to replace institutions that give their power democratic legitimacy with institutions that would expose their power as undemocratic and illegitimate? They wouldn’t and they won’t.

            Indeed, the direction of development globally is towards the deepening of liberal, representative democracy and the further integration of global trade and production networks under the auspices of corporate finance capital. One would only expect there to be an authoritarian turn, if resistance to capitalism reached such proportions that the old institutions of the state, the military, police, etc, felt compelled to restore order and close down the liberal democratic process in the face of radical anticapitalist challenges. Only in Greece, had Syriza of won, would this be a possibility in the current international order. And even then, it wouldn’t take the form of a direct seizure of power by corporations, but only an indirect securing of their power, through the use of political institutions that are formally independent of them.

          • Dan Fisher
            July 3, 2012 at 11:50 am ·

            Ah, but neo-feudalism would be an advanced economy based on the exploitation of those contractually bound to serve. I don’t think it will bear much of a resemblance to capitalism as we know it, at any rate. I’m not sure what else to call it.

            If the direction of development is towards more democracy, surely we’d be seeing an expansion of the welfare state to compensate? I simply feel that cutthroat capitalism and democracy, even bourgeois democracy, cannot coincide. If the two forces, that of the people and that of the corporations, are pushing against each other, a step in one direction or the other would change the whole game.

            It’s important to note that I’m not talking about the next 10 years here, I’m trying to see longer-term where economic development will go; and it seems to me that disenfranchisement is coming back into fashion. If the democratic state survives at all it will be in a butchered form where elections are meaningless.

          • Kerem Nisancioglu
            July 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm ·

            Dan, you wrote:

            “Ah, but neo-feudalism would be an advanced economy based on the exploitation of those contractually bound to serve. I don’t think it will bear much of a resemblance to capitalism as we know it”

            This actually sounds like an accurate description of capitalism, where ‘the contract’ institutionalises servitude and exploitation, in contrast to feudalism, where it is extra-economic mechanisms such as kinship that perform this function.

            Theory aside, there are concrete indications of both trajectories (Luke’s and Dan’s). In Chile for example, the move towards ‘more democracy’ post-Pinochet was not accompanied by an expansion of the welfare state. Ditto post-war Iraq. In both cases, the instantiation of formal democracy has been concomitant with an extension of corporate power. (I wonder if we could include as an example the current push for Lords reform occuring during the biggest ever attack on the British welfare)

            On the other hand, with the increasing privatisation of state functions – in particular into previously ‘untouchable’ areas such as policing – there is no inherent reason in the logic of capital why the coercive functions of the state couldn’t be subsumed by private entitites (eg &… other than it being politically risky

  2. John Bowman
    July 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm · Reply

    Should have said in the article, all the ‘official stats’ on homelessness (eg. the 16% increase figure) are massive under-estimates since they apply only to those who have registered as being homeless.

    Most people who live on the streets, or ‘couch-surf’ at friends and relatives will not declare themselves homeless to the authorities.

    Then of course you have a grey area of over-crowding: if 4 people share a bedroom, they are not homeless, but they are probably in that situation either because they lost their home or cannot afford basic rent prices, or are not eligable for housing benefit etc.

    I put it to a youth worker who is involved in Manchester Anticapitalists whether he thought that homelessness had doubled in the city, and he said very firmly that it has quadrupled in the last year or so.

  3. Anon
    July 14, 2013 at 12:52 am · Reply

    Hi everyone,

    I worked in a homeless centre for four years up until one year ago. I have seen a shocking rise in the numbers of people who were accessing services. Homelessness has now become the norm for people in their 20s such as myself. I left the homeless centre to work for a renewable energy company, which ended in me not getting paid and becoming homeless myself. I decided not to register myself as homeless, as I have seen first hand how the system is geared against young and single working people.
    You will find yourself sleeping on the floor of a shelter somewhere for some weeks, maybe months and that’s if your lucky. You will then be given a room in a hostel- where if you decide to work your rent will sky rocket to over £200.00 per week, and you can expect to wait up to five years and beyond for council housing. Oh and if you turn this down the council blame you for being homeless and will withdraw their support.

    I have always worked hard and now I sleep on the floor in my parent’s house- and I consider myself lucky. I am working in a call centre where I leave to go to work at 9 in the morning and I don’t get back until 10 at night, 5 or 6 days of the week. The best I can hope for in the coming months is enough money to sub let a room somewhere so I at least have a bed. To get a flat would cost me a minimum of £600.00 per month including bills leaving me with about £200.00 a month in which I am to pay off debts, eat, travel to work and pay for a cell phone. Homelessness has not just risen. It is the norm. Those of us lucky to stay with family and friends and receive support from our loved ones do so- but this is a short term solution to a long term problem.

    Many of my friends just accept that this way of living is the normal and acceptable. Only being able to afford one meal a day and choosing between toothpaste and toilet role in Tescos are all to familiar to us. I sit and watch the streets at the families and couples late at night are searching through your bins to see if they can find something to eat. I see young teenage girls outside brothels on highstreets waiting for their mothers to finish work. And I see councilors and MPs driving past these places in cars worth more than what I earn a year. These people will never care and we can’t expect them to either. Not until they are forced to cut the callouses of their feet to fill their bellies. They are rich and they don’t care, because they are rich. The only people in our society who have the education to change and develop a valid discourse against these crimes take out student loans and attend institutions where they learn to hate the the poor. The “Underclass” and Charles Murray spring to my mind. The only light I can see at the end of this tunnel is a return to meaningful occupation and the recognition from all people that no matter what you do for a living, if you work hard you deserve the right to be able to support your family, pay for somewhere to live and have something to eat. I am not interested in who rules or why. However, if things continue to decline at this rate, there will be anarchy, and I won’t hesitate to reach for the machete to cut a hole in the political establishment which seems hell bent into forcing us into slavery, poverty and misery. I would rather live in the Iron Age than to put up with this any longer.

    Yours Truly,

    A Nobody.

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