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.