The 'poverty line' is hiding a lot of crushing poverty

May 13, 2021

A woman walks with a box of produce she received during a food drive. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Policy changes in the U.K. have left the lowest-income people more likely to fall into deep poverty, even as the proportion of British people considered "below the poverty line" has largely stagnated and thus masked increased suffering.

In a new paper, published April 14 in the Journal of Social Policy, University of Leeds sociology and social policy lecturer Daniel Edmiston argues that inequality below the poverty line has worsened, and simplistic but widespread measurements obscure the reality that a greater proportion of people in the U.K. are more than 75% below the line.

"The poorest are falling deeper into poverty," Edmiston told The Academic Times. "First, more people in poverty are in work, but work isn't paying enough or providing a stable income in the way that it used to. Second, measures like the benefit cap, two-child limit and freeze to working-age benefits have disproportionately affected women, children, larger families and Black people."

Since 2017, the government has made cuts to "universal credit," a monthly or bimonthly payment for low-income people and families: Those with more than two children have been receiving less money despite having larger families. Notably, the proportion of U.K. families with three or more children in deep poverty has increased 20.6% since 2010. In 2019, people 18 or younger were 1.2 times as likely to fall into deep poverty than they were in 2010, and nearly 26% of people in deep poverty are children.

If anything, Edmiston said, it's likely that the poverty of women and children is understated. 

"Household-income surveys tend to assume the money within a household is equally shared between household members," he said. "However, there is evidence to suggest that this is not the case, with women and sometimes children losing out and men receiving — taking — more."

With stingier benefits, the poorest 10% of people in the U.K. have suffered the most, Edmiston said. Adjusted into 2019 pounds, the poverty line after housing costs went from GBP 253 ($322) per week in 2010 to GBP 268 ($342) in 2019. Over the same period, the median income of the most impoverished 5% of people drifted 17% further away from the poverty line; the median income of the bottom 10% of people got 15% further. Those who were comparatively less poor — closer to the poverty line — remained relatively stable or experienced modest increases in incomes.

On average, people in the bottom 5% lost GBP 548 ($699) a year between 2010 and 2019. Notably, Edmiston's analysis showed that full-time employment wasn't protecting people as much as it once did: The likelihood of being in deep poverty decreased or plateaued for unemployed, part-time or self-employed people compared with full-time workers, whose likelihood of being in deep poverty rose.

Edmiston took data from households with below-average incomes in the Family Resources Survey. He compared the bottom fifth, 10th, 20th and 30th percentiles of earners from 2010 to 2019 and reported the figures in 2018/2019 pounds. 

Although only 13.2% of the U.K. is made up of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people, 24.3% of people in deep poverty were BAME in 2019. Black people were twice as likely as white people to be in deep poverty, while Asian people were three times more likely than white people. Black people in the U.K. have lost the most since 2010 compared with other racial and ethnic groups: More than one in five Black people in the U.K. live in deep poverty.

If anything, the study probably underestimates the severity of destitution, since only private households were included in the survey. 

"Priority populations — of most interest when it comes to researching extreme marginality — are often 'missing' from household-income surveys," Edmiston said. "This is because household-income surveys tend not to sample those outside private households — e.g., those experiencing homelessness, in care homes or prisons."

Edmiston said that now that the study is published, he hopes "that the U.K. government develops a measure of poverty that is better able to capture changes underway below the poverty line" and "that social researchers from academic and policy backgrounds adopt a pluralistic approach to poverty measurement, combining different measures to explore the changing profile of poverty."

The paper, "Plumbing the depths: The changing (socio-demographic) profile of UK poverty," published April 14 in the Journal of Social Policy, was authored by Daniel Edmiston, University of Leeds.

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