For the first time in two decades our country is experiencing a sustained rise in the number of people struggling to make ends meet. Poverty has a harmful effect on many aspects of people’s lives, especially their physical and mental health.

In the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s latest state of the nation report, UK Poverty 2017, we found that 14 million people are living in poverty – one in five of the population. Over half of these people are living in a working household, facing impossible choices on a daily basis, despite doing all that they can to achieve a decent and secure life for themselves and their families.

This concerning rise in poverty is driven by stagnating earnings, the rising cost of housing and the freeze on working age benefits which are no longer effectively loosening the grip of poverty on people’s lives.

What’s less well known is the damage this is doing to the health of the nation.

How does poverty affect our health?

People on the lowest incomes are twice as likely as those in the richest 40% to be experiencing anxiety and depression. Poor health and disabilities can present additional costs for families already struggling, including barriers to finding work. Currently nearly a third of disabled people are living in poverty.

Worryingly our society is marked by wide geographical inequalities. On average, a child aged under one and living in Manchester is expected to live a healthy life for 16 years less than a one-year-old living in Wokingham. To tackle these issues requires a new national mission to solve poverty in the UK, which sees political leaders offering a bold programme of domestic reforms.

There are three main ways we can make progress.

End the freeze on working age benefits

Last October, our new analysis highlighted the benefit freeze as the single biggest policy driver behind the expected rise in poverty in the coming years. The freeze alone is forecast to push an additional half a million people into poverty by 2020/21.

When the four-year freeze was first introduced in April 2016, inflation was at 0.3% whereas in January 2018 it stood at 3%. This means that while prices continue to rise, the budgets of low income families are being stretched to breaking point.

If the government was to end the freeze, it would provide immediate relief to low income families, who have incomes that are not keeping up with the prices and bills they need to pay.

Increase the supply of low-cost rented housing

A stable home is the bedrock of family life and for those families who cannot afford to buy, social housing offers their best option. However successive governments have not delivered the number of homes needed to meet demand.

This has forced more families to live in the private rented sector, where housing is often more expensive, of poorer quality, and there is less security of tenure. We know that one in three private renters in poverty are living in non-decent homes, which significantly increases their risk of developing health problems.

Fixing our dysfunctional housing market is one of the defining challenges of our generation and requires strong leadership. In the immediate term, the government should ensure that the Local Housing Allowance – the amount of housing benefit private renters are entitled to – keeps up with the cost of local rents. In the longer-term we need a step-change in the delivery of new low-cost rented housing. Only by building the 80,000 affordable homes a year that are needed can we ensure that everyone has a decent, secure and affordable home.

Tackle in-work poverty

The third main barrier to escaping poverty is the fact that many people get trapped in low-paid work. One in eight workers in the economy is living in poverty, and our research has shown that three quarters of low paid workers are still in low pay a decade later. This is because not only are their opportunities to progress limited, but they have not been equipped with the skills required to seize opportunities when they arise.

By making sure that everyone has basic literacy, numeracy and digital capability, we can equip people with the skills they need to get into work and to progress in their careers. The Industrial Strategy presents an opportunity to ensure everyone has the skills needed to thrive, and to ensure more good quality jobs are available across the country.

We know poverty wastes people’s potential and holds them back. It costs our country dearly – not least our health service, which is under enormous strain.

That’s why we’re taking part in the Health Foundation’s initiative to co-design a Collaboration for Wellbeing and Health to take action on the wider determinants of health.

By getting to grips with poverty, we can create a healthier, more prosperous society for everyone.

Campbell Robb is Chief Executive of the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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But 'getting to grips with poverty' means enacting social and fiscal policy and making choices that are inherently 'political' because they are based on values and ideology as well of course as self interest. How to argue, for example, with someone who says high(er) taxation is bad for economic activity. Yes, there's an empirical argument, which shows that argument is false. But the main argument is going to be about fairness. High(er) tax is needed to make society fairer and so 'get to grips' with poverty.

Barbara Penny

Theresa May made lots of the right noises about making ours a society that works for everyone when she took over as Prime Minister but it has only got worse. Hollow words are no good and we have to get rid of the Tories if we want a more equal society


By making sure that everyone has basic literacy, numeracy and digital capability, we can equip people with the skills they need to get into work and to progress in their careers. The Industrial Strategy presents an opportunity to ensure everyone has the skills needed to thrive, and to ensure more good quality jobs are available across the country.
My comment: As an adult with learning difficulty (LD) who has tried a number of state funded 'computing for work courses' may I suggest you research this in more depth because my experience of them has been that even when the course tutors/organisers are shown documented evidence of LD it does not get passed on so the adult with LD issues will often get deleted from the course because they cannot cope with the time framed structure and miss session and then they are simply written off so don't appear in the course statistics.I went with the flow of the courses but even when learner support was eventually provided the hands of the excellent learner support were still tied by the same course session time frame which is just what it says on the label 'computing for work' what it don't say on the label is that LD is no excuse for the failure of the course structure.

Janet Rogers

Whilst I fully endorse the important issues raised in this blog, please could we stop implying that Wokingham hasn't got ANY poverty challenges? Wokingham United Charities exists to tackle disadvantage in our community and we work especially with people living in three neighbourhoods well up the deprivation scale. As govt funding formulae rightly targets larger areas with a high level of need, it means statutory funding for disadvantage in Wokingham is almost non-existent. This means even basic support services don't exist, arguably increasing the relative disadvantage of our deprived communities :(


Hi Janet, re 'we work especially with people living in three neighbourhoods well up the deprivation scale. As govt funding formulae rightly targets larger areas with a high level of need',
For general information ,could you comment with some examples about the extent of health issues in particular mental health issues are in the ares you refer to and as to if any evidence has been documented? if not this is a good place to put something on record.

Janet Rogers

It's all documented - Look at IMD Data for the 3 LSOAs (i.e. sub ward) of Wokingham 013C, Wokingham 020A, Wokingham 018D. Young People in Norreys (013C) increasingly struggling with mental health / anxiety disorders with virtually no youth provision. (We have just provided emergency bridge funding for the only youth counselling service in the town). We also see parents skipping meals to pay for kids school stuff so are funding a project to address this. Similarly, a high proportion of adults with learning difficulties experiencing isolation / anxiety - anecdotally levels increasing due to environment factors (i.e. no stimulus locally) & lack of/cost of transport ("access to services" domain in IMD). In 018D, health issues very poor housing (due for 'regeneration') - last week we halped a young family struggling with asthma, exacerbated by living in a garage with a young baby. We find lots of adults with LD in poor housing, suffering isolation/anxiety issues again in Wokingham 020A, compounded by low education levels so struggling to access what limited provision there is. Adjacent (<1 mile) to each of these neighbourhoods, flash new housing estates with lots of new community facilities are springing up reinforcing the perceived failure of our forgotten neighbourhoods. That's why we are targeting our grant funding into these our 'priority areas'.

carol martin

While I can see an argument for increasing LHA to reflect local rents I think that is a chicken and egg situation. How long would a transition period be-it has to be sooner rather than later.
In my experience, to an extent , it doesn't matter what you put the LHA rate up to-l/ls are in business-nothing wrong with that -but they can make excess profits due to shortages. We need to move fast to bridge the gap between demand and supply. We should be pushing down rents now or else you will widen the poverty gap i.e make getting into work even less attractive for people who have to flit from 1 job to the other but would love to be in work rather than not. Work must always pay-that means it must pay set against whatever you can get in Benefits and take account of the costs involved in going to work-travel, food etc. It must also take into account-but I don't know how you put a monetary value of abstracts-yes Health is obvious but also the sheer self respect and dignity that comes from providing for yourself with as little financial aid from the State as possible.
I mean that you are your own person free to choose how you live your life.
Bournville Village Trust would be a good example. Up the road from me there is a private venture Poppy Island Shirley-it is going to be mixed tenure. It is a Charitable Trust. I understand that it will include properties to buy for people over 55 that they will never have to move out of unless they need urgent hospital care.

carol martin

In broad terms Housing should be a "true market". I understand that in other European countries the market only operates at the high end-basically as a proper business. To quote JRF back at you-"good capitalism".
It should operate like every other market-either your business plan works or your business fails. My Council has had to, from day one, pick up the collapse of Carillion-this crisis is only weeks old but building contractors say they can virtually guarantee everyone a job, including enabling apprentices to finish their course.
The main issue seems to be the pension Fund but I know that it will be complex to unravel that and legal proceedings may follow. That is simply a case of what can you salvage without doing damage to the whole economy. That is for the economists to work out. Our job as voters is to say we will recover every last penny from whoever not "made a mistake" or an error of judgement. Were errors made that we would expect highly qualified professionals to consider what the outcomes would be? That is beyond an error-the rest of us have been accountable in our workplaces for very minor "errors" in comparison

Jane Landon, strategy adviser, Healthy Lives

We are very interested to read this and earlier comments sharing first-hand experience and reflecting on the political and economic contexts that challenge efforts to tackle poverty. We have notified the blog’s author of these comments and will be keeping in mind the points that have been raised when thinking about future work. Thank you for sharing your perspectives with us.

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