How is Poverty Measured in the UK?

Nearly 1/3 of people in the UK are in poverty … but what does this mean, exactly? People on our training workshops are often very keen to understand this, so we spend a good chunk of time on it. Here is a much more superficial summary.

If you and I earn the same but my rent is double yours, I’m left in a far worse position .

The “Poverty Line”
The official government-approved UK “Poverty Line” is actually quite a complex thing, but in brief: you’re counted as being “poor” if your income falls below a proportion of the national average (more specifically: 60% of median) after housing costs. Rents and house values vary across the UK: if you and I earn the same but my rent is double yours, I’m left in a far worse position, hence after housing costs (AHC) being the relevant measure. That said, the ONS, the DWP and other official sources often publish poverty rates measured before housing costs are deducted. (Why might they do that?) Whether AHC or BHC, stating where my income sits in relation to an ever-changing average doesn’t explain whether or not I can afford life’s essentials. As a measure of poverty, I prefer a method that asks whether people can afford a basic standard of living or not.

“Necessities” are not just based on preferences within the home, but on changes in the world outside it

The Minimum Income Standard
Imagine a figurative “basket” of essential goods and services that you need for a basic standard of living. Every two years, focus groups of UK residents decide what should go in the basket – food; heating; clothing; books; a modest birthday party? A mobile phone? A microwave? This work has been funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for decades, and seeing things slide from the “luxury” category into the “essential” space provides a fascinating window on how society and expectations of modern life change. “Necessities” are not just based on preferences within the home, but on changes in the world outside. When buses were plentiful and affordable, nobody considered a car “essential”, but now it is agreed that if you have children, you can’t meet their transport needs without one. (And if you can’t afford one, you can’t meet their transport needs.) MIS is not the officially recognised measure of poverty in the UK but it is more relevant in many ways than the “60% of median” measure outlined above. Researchers note that most household types need 75% of median income to afford their full basket. To delve further into the implications of this, enrol on a “Making Sense of Poverty” workshop!

Fairer Festivals?

In the 90s, I didn’t know anyone who paid to go to the Glastonbury Festival. At that time, amongst my peer group, it wasn’t just attending the festival itself that was a rite of passage, but negotiating your entry, via use of a ladder or access to a roughly-dug shallow hole. Paying full whack for a ticket was out of the question.

But the last year before the “Super-Fence” finally went up, I could see this simply couldn’t continue. The health and safety implications of having literally countless people on-site (it was estimated that as many people had snuck in as had paid) had become far too problematic (not to mention illegal, breaching the event’s licence conditions). The toilets were unspeakable, the crowds heaving from one area to another were dangerous and I couldn’t get near enough to a stage to hear a band without noise pollution from another. Enough was enough. So Glastonbury is now off-limits for those who aren’t working there or willing/able to pay over £265.

Organisers of festivals – particularly smaller, independent festivals – value having a good mix of people on-site, and the events are often borne out of a really inclusive, welcoming, community-led ethos. The inherent exclusivity of an experience requiring costly equipment to survive, in remote sites, with an entry fee carrying a hefty price tag is therefore problematic for some in the industry.

I am really enjoying supporting a research project by Cardiff Metropolitan University, asking festival organisers for their views on this situation, and how it could be addressed. The discussions we’ve had so far have been so interesting. A festival can be a very good-value holiday for a family, providing: an escape from usual, everyday life; an intensely connected sense of community; opportunities to experience culture and creativity that could be life-changing. Some families will prioritise this as their summer getaway, while for others the total cost is unthinkable. The research participants are keen to explore how to make their offers more available to those on low incomes, as well as to examine how their internal practices (e.g. in employment and contracting) continue inequalities.

The research team hopes that the project will result in a toolkit that festival organisers can use to increase accessibility to their events, as well as stimulate more discussion about the importance of this aspect of social and cultural participation to people on low incomes. Get in touch if you’d like to hear more!

Fleece on Earth: Christmas Onesie Woes

The Christmas Onesie has become a staple gift in our house.  Who doesn’t love finding something snuggly, soft and colourful under the tree?  Best of all, they’re cheap to buy, so what’s not to love?  Well, here goes …

The Plastic Soup Foundation, based in the Netherlands, reports that synthetic garments shed microplastic fibres into the air around us, as well as polluting the oceans every time we wash them.  “More than one-third of the microplastics in the ocean come from synthetic clothing,” says the Foundation, and these pollutants then end up in our drinking water and our food.  (Plymouth University research suggests acrylic may be the worst culprit, releasing nearly 730,000 microfibres per wash.) 99% of the world’s population is breathing air that doesn’t meet WHO standards and contains pollutants, up to 1/3 of which can be plastics.  In our homes, microplastics are present in domestic dust, shed from synthetic furnishings, carpets etc as well as our clothes. 

This poses a threat to our health and immune systems.  The foundation reports: “Inhaled microplastic particles can be absorbed into the lung tissue. As a response, important cells in the immune system, so called dendritic cells, will engulf the plastic particles. Dendritic cells … lack the tools to break down plastic particles. But they try, and fail, and keep trying. This … causes significant inflammation. Chronic inflammation is known to be a leading cause of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, asthma, and diabetes.”

What’s really disappointing is the number of high-street shops which boast about their sustainability credentials – their net-zero targets; their cotton certification schemes; their use of recycled materials – whilst making no mention of their liberal stocks of problematic polyester, or any commitment to reduce the resulting plastic pollution in our air or water.

Concerned Christmas shoppers might forego the bright and fuzzy pleasures of a fleecey onesie in favour of more the muted and less sumptuous cotton jersey option, but let’s be honest: these probably won’t draw the same squeals of delight from the kids.  One year I presented them as “customisable”, along with fabric paints, but the end result wasn’t impressive.  Those looking for a high-impact gift will be irresistibly drawn to the more attractive patterns and textures of synthetic options.  Others will reach for what’s familiar and – crucially – affordable, either not knowing or not engaging with the consequences; there’s nothing like “having no choice” to remove your sense of agency.   And thus we come ultimately to the realisation that cheap clothing contributes to health inequality: all the illnesses mentioned above are more prevalent amongst people on low incomes, and are factors in the shocking gap in healthy life expectancy between those with more choices, and those with fewer.

The Plastic Soup Foundation has more information about all this, including advice for how to minimise shedding from your fleece clothing, and if you have found any great alternatives to fleece onesies, please do let me know!

Mary Sherwood

(Photo by Tania Melnyczuk on Unsplash)

Are you ready for this …?

Title: A More Equal Wales - Preparing for the Socio-ecoomic Duty

In 2010 the Equality Act was brought into law in the UK. The Socio-economic Duty, an aspect of the Act requiring public bodies to consider how their decisions could reduce socio-economic disadvantage, was something which many anti-poverty policymakers and activists were very excited about, but this bit was not enacted.

In April 2018, Scotland brought the Fairer Scotland Duty in to force, and Wales follows on 31st March 2021. Public bodies will have some work to do in preparation, and in moving forward in a way that complies with the Socio-economic Duty.

Senedd Cymru has produced some excellent guidance and resources to support public bodies to prepare.

Please get in touch if we can help you get ready! A good understanding of socio-economic disadvantage will help you do your best work and deliver great results.

Let’s Try UBI!

On December 3rd, Swansea became the first local council in Wales to add its voice to the growing campaign for a pilot of Universal Basic Income.

There are many ways in which this could improve our society, not just for the individuals struggling to escape poverty but for all of us, because living with inequality hurts everyone.

I could write a lot here, but instead I will hand over to one of my favourite changemakers, public speakers and forward-thinkers, Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe. I love hearing Sophie speak, because she can take you on a journey through so many different themes to demonstrate the holistic importance of taking the right approach to a problem, which, of course, is what the Well-Being of Future Generations Act is all about.

Enjoy Sophie’s short piece on the need for a UBI pilot, and while you’re there, have a look at the other resources offered by the UBI Lab Network. Consider getting involved. If you’d like to see your local council pass a motion in support of a UBI pilot, I might know one or two folks in Swansea who could lend a hand.

Living Wage Increase

As every November, the Living Wage Foundation has announced the increase in rates for within and outside London. Increasingly, the foundation itself resorts to inserting the identifier, “Real” in front of “Living Wage”, to clarify that only this rate of pay is actually calculated to provide full-time workers with a wage that’s adequate for the essentials of a basic, decent lifestyle in modern Britain.

Most people I talk to are unclear about the difference between the Minimum Wage, the National Living Wage, and the (Real) Living Wage. No wonder, when those in power have deliberately created so much confusion.

Mentions of the so-called National Living Wage by Money Saving Expert, the website founded by Money Saving hero, Martin Lewis, often include the same quote; this year’s Spending Review news was no exception:

“When the national living wage was first announced, founder Martin Lewis blasted it as being “naughtily nicked” from the Living Wage Foundation to give “extra credibility” to the scheme despite not paying that amount. “

The fact is that the National Living Wage is not the Living Wage, it is simply the Minimum Wage for people over 25 (23 from April ’21) , and unless/until it catches up with the Living Wage, it isn’t enough to live on, and doesn’t deserve that name.

What fascinates me is that year on year, the Foundation reports the increase required to keep pace with the cost of living … while policymakers choose not to intervene to lower the costs of the essential items that are added up to work out what the Living Wage needs to be. In 2014, for the first time, a car became an essential household item if your household included any children, because public transport had become so a) absent and b) expensive. Doing something to improve public transport, making it more accessible and affordable, would reduce the cost of this household essential, lowering the amount that responsible employers need to pay in order to ensure their workers can afford a decent life.

Instead, the Foundation reports the increase in living costs, and employers agonise about whether they can keep pace with it or not. Conscientious local councils have had some respite from this worry over the last couple of years, since the pay floor agreed has been at (Real) Living Wage levels. Time will tell if this parity continues, or if the lowest public sector earners may slip back below the amount needed for a decent, basic standard of living.

A Year On …

It is only a year since the fabulous Race Equality & Social Justice Conference held by Race Council Cymru and 4theRegion. Looking back at video footage of people crammed chummily into seats right next to each other, milling around with drinks and chatting, without masks on is surreal. The event was some 7 months before the shocking death of George Floyd … 8 months before angry people in Bristol threw a statue into the harbour … and we had plenty to talk about, as people concerned about race and equality always have.

“Black Lives Matter” took on even more resonance as Covid spread and people realised the particular risk faced by BAME people. All sorts of factors are at play here, not just poverty, but poverty is most certainly relevant. It is relevant to front-line, poorly paid care-workers, who can’t take time off, no matter how frightened they are. It is relevant to larger families in homes without enough rooms for a sick person to isolate from others. And I believe it is relevant to the everyday stress that affects people’s immune systems, and is worse for people on low incomes, and no doubt worse for people who feel uneasy going about their daily lives, as many BAME people so tragically and unfairly do. More on that in a future article. Today I just wish to look back with gratitude for a wonderful event that combined knowledgeable speakers, an enthusiastic audience and a lively atmosphere.

4theRegion continues to deliver excellent online conferences and talks – do check them out.