Surviving the Cost of Living Crisis: Case Studies

Qualitative case studies of how real people are managing the Cost of Living Crisis is a useful way to provide insight into the reality of poverty in the UK in 2022, adding some necessary depth to poverty statistics which can be rather inhuman.

A very useful contemporary resource which does just this is a recent documentary from Panorama which aired in April 2022 and is called simply ‘Surviving the Cost of Living Crisis‘.

The documentary follows three working families – two two parent families and one single mum. All the individuals in the documentary have decent jobs and some even bring in the median income in the UK but all are living in relative poverty and having to make difficult decisions around how to spend their money.

One family earns £2000 a month, but after the mortgage, bills and food they are left with £63 a month to spend – which would just about cover a meal out for the family. The father of this family has a 75 mile round trip to work every day and they have found rising fuel prices recently have taken up a lot of their spare cash.

Another of the case studies is a single mum who works part time as a nurse – she can’t work more than three days because she can’t afford the cost of child care – and besides being employed she is dependent on food banks and hand-outs from friends. After her mortgage she is left with £80 a week fork food and everything else for her and her three children.

The documentary shows the dilemma of ‘heating or eating’ with some families having to stretch a few pounds on an electric or gas metre out for several days – expensive key metres don’t help here.

The adults of these families are going without food – one husband eats only one meal a day for example. And this causes stress to older children – who are aware that their parents are going without food and possibly say they are not hungry when they really are in order to make sure their parents eat more.

The documentary does a good job of showing how much stress being in poverty causes is also clearly a good deal of anxiety around future price rises and how they are going to cope.

The Video is available on YouTube here, at time of writing, but I don’t know how much longer it will stay up!

Find our More/ Related Posts

Wealth and Income Inequalities in the UK 

What is Poverty? 

The Extent of Material Deprivation in the UK 

The Effect of Poverty on Life Chances

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Resources for Wealth, Poverty, Income Inequality and Social Class

good resources for teaching wealth, poverty, income inequality and social class. Useful further reading for students studying A-level sociology!

Here you will find links to some contemporary sources for further reading organised into the following categories

  • Annually published statistics and reports
  • News articles from the last five years (often based on the above)
  • Videos and Documentary resources
  • Committed organisations dedicated to studying this specific topic.

I will endeavour to update this list at least every three years, but with so much material already on ReviseSociology.com this might be a challenge!

These resources are intended for students studying an introduction to A-level Sociology – for the main blog posts introducing the topic of social class and inequalities please see the relevant links on the introduction to sociology page.

Annual research studies on income and wealth inequalities in the UK

ONS – Household wealth in the UK (published biannually in January)

ONS – Household Income Inequality (published March every year).

Allianz World Wealth Report (Published October every year).

Social Class and Inequality In the News in 2022

The Heat or Eat Diaries from The Guardian – a varied series written from a mixture of people living in poverty, academics and journalists.

Working class people feel like they ‘don’t’ fit in’ to middle class working cultures – An excellent article from The Conversation based on research into how middle class cultural capital makes working class people feel like they don’t belong in middle class jobs – because of cultural differences rather than their ability.

Covid-19 increased social inequality in the UK – A Revise Blog Post outlining some of the ways in which the Pandemic made society more unequal.

In the news in 2021 and before

Videos and Documentaries on Social Class and Inequality…

Made in Britain

The Made in Britain Series from The Guardian gives video cameras to those who are themselves living with the cost of living crises and supports them to make videos of their own lives. I’m not sure what research method you could call this – video diaries I guess, with technological assistance from professional film editors?!?

Panorama – Surviving the Cost of Living Crisis (2022)

Why are so many people living in Poverty? News Night (2021)

Selected Contemporary Research Studies

How many people are in poverty in the UK? – A nuanced attempt to try and estimate the number of people in relative poverty

How does student debt affect life-chances?Links to education and social class inequalities – and yes, as you may have thought, being in debt because of having to pay fees does have a detrimental affect on your future life-chances.

Poverty is the main cause of violent crime in LondonAnother way in which poverty has a negative influence on life changes, links to the crime topic.

Organisations  

Mainly focussing on UK poverty, for more on Global Poverty see Globalisation and Global Development!

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) – A committed organisation working to solve UK poverty through research and advocacy

Nuffield Foundation – works to improve equality of educational opportunity

The Equality Trust – focussing on research on the harmful effects of social inequality on societies and individuals

The Social Mobility Commission – a government funded (but ‘independent’) organisation which monitors social progress (or lack of it) towards (or away from) social mobility.

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Sociological Perspectives on the Cost of Living Crisis in the UK

Inflation in the UK hit 9% in April 2022, mainly due to the rising cost of energy prices and food prices, the main cause of which was supply-line shocks caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, but also because of the longer term disruption to business caused by two years of the Covid-19 pandemic….

At least that’s the ‘official analysis’ of the causes of the cost of living crisis by the government in this recent report: ‘Rising Cost of Living in the UK‘ but while it’s hard to deny the fact that prices of basic goods and services are rising, some sociological perspectives may well go a little deeper than this in their analysis of the causes of this crisis, while others fail to explain its existence altogether…

Globalisation… and the declining relevance of Nation States…

EVEN if we look deeper at the cost of living crisis than official lines of analysis, it is still the case that global events are affecting Britain here.

Britain has very little control over the global forces that are influencing rising prices.

Moreover the British Government seems incapable of doing anything to help people. This of course is because we have a neoliberal government in power who believe in helping people as little as possible, especially the poor but even if we had a more left wing government in power it wouldn’t be able to do very much to soften the blows of the increasing cost of living other than taking on more debt by bailing people out.

This seems to be a case of Nation States being too small to deal with global problems as Anthony Giddens has pointed out in the past.

Marxism applied to the rising cost of living….

As with many ‘applications’ of ‘Marxism’ I’m applying some Marxist concepts here in a broad sense!

Most obviously Marxists would remind us that this cost of living crisis is affecting the poorest MORE than the richest – the top 10% will feel the effects of the crisis much less than the bottom 10%.

And for the bottom 10% of households by income a 10% immediate increase in the cost of living (NB it’s not just energy and food, rents have also gone up) really is a matter of choosing between ‘eating or heating’.

And Marxists would go deeper than this – reminding us that a crisis such as this was only a matter of time because Capitalism is ultimately doomed to failure. Even without the Pandemic and the War in Ukraine this rising cost of living affecting the poor more than the rich would have happened eventually, or Capitalism would have had some other ind of crisis which resulted in recession and more inequality.

In a world of finite resources and increasing population, with more developing countries developing large middle classes (such as India) this simply pushes the prices of everything up – labour, goods, resources, everything is more expensive – eventually the exploitation of the poor that cheap consumer items and food and energy are based on must come to an end.

At some point we have to start thinking about how we live in a post-capitalist world according to Marxists.

‘Micro Perspectives’ applied to the Cost of Living Crisis

This is an interesting article from the Conversation which argues that the government needs to measure poverty depth more accurately in order to effectively tackle the cost of living crisis.

It points out that not all people living in poverty face the same challenges – for example life tends to be harder for people with children rather than single people.

It also points out that government help needs to be more targeted on those that need it most – so far only 1 in 3 pounds of relief money has gone to the poorest 50% of households.

Perspectives which might struggle here..

Functionalism would struggle here, this is just dysfunctional! And clearly people aren’t all in this together!

And PostModernism – there’s nothing hyperreal about this, it’s very REAL, about energy and food prices costing enough and people going cold and hungry.

Although maybe IF people are living in hypereality this could help get them through – maybe the government jus needs to subsidise people’s Netflix subscriptions…?

Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This topic is most likely to be useful in the Theory part of the theory and methods exam – it is a contemporary event that can be used to illustrate understanding of sociological concepts and perspectives.

31% of Children in the UK are living in Relative Poverty

The latest research from the Nuffield Foundation has found that 31% of children in the United Kingdom are living in relative poverty in 2021.

The percentage rises to 36% for children under five years old.

The rates of child poverty have been increasing on average for the last five years.

Child Poverty and Ethnicity

There are some large differences by ethnic group, with Bangladeshi Households having the highest child poverty rates, more than twice the national average, and Indian families having the lowest.

Family type and Child Poverty

It’s probably no surprise that single parent families have the highest rates of child poverty, with child poverty rates of 60%.

Defining and Measuring Relative Poverty

The Nuffield Foundation collects its data on poverty from the Households Below Average Income statistics, which define relative poverty as household income below 60% of median income after housing costs.

The relative poverty figures are then adjusted for family size, which gives us the following amounts of income per week in 2021:

  • £248 or less a week for a lone parent with one child.
  • £305 or less a week for a lone parent with two children.
  • £342 or less a week for a couple with one child.
  • £399 or less a week for a couple with two children.

Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This is an important update for the families and households module.

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Find out More

You can read the the full report by the Nuffield Foundation here.

Only 18% of Senior Civil Servants are from ‘Working Class’ Backgrounds

A recent study from the Social Mobility Commission found that only 18% Senior Civil Servants are from lower social class backgrounds, what we might traditionally call ‘working class’ backgrounds’, and this is down from 19% in 1967!

The majority of senior civil servants are from privileged, higher social economic backgrounds, many having benefited from an independent (private school) education.

The proportion of employees from low social economic backgrounds varies a lot according to role, region and department.

For example, 40% of those those working in operational roles, delivering services are from lower SEBs compared to just 19% working in policy (policy jobs tend to be more prestigious).

And only 12% of people working in the Treasury are from low SEBs compared to 45% working in ‘work and pensions’.

And 22% of of London based civil servants come from low SEBs compared to 48% working in the North East.

The report is based on a survey of 300 00 civil servants so is very representative and 100 hour long interviews to explore why there is such a class divide in the senior ranks.

Why are the working classes underrepresented in the senior civil service?

The title of report points to an explanation – it is called ‘Navigating the labyrinth’ for a reason.

The authors put it down to a number of ‘hidden rules’ surrounding career progression in the civil service which create cumulative barriers that make it more difficult for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to make it into the Civil Service.

For example, there are some roles within the civil service that act as career accelerators but getting into these roles depends on who you know, such as having access to already senior staff and ministers, and those from lower SEBs lack this kind of in-house social capital.

There are also dominant behavioural codes within the senior civil service, which those from higher SEBs are more familiar with, they come naturally to them, one aspect of this is ‘studied neutrality’

The report describes Studied neutrality as having three key dimensions:

  1. a received pronunciation (RP) accent and style of speech
  2. emotionally detachment and an understated self-presentation
  3. prizing the display of in-depth knowledge for its own sake (and not directly related to work).

On the later point, some of the lower SEB interviewees in the study mentioned that there is a lot of talking in Latin, which many senior staff would break into sometimes during meetings, far from necessary from doing the job!

A final factor is that those from SEB backgrounds are more likely to specialise in a particular career path, which isn’t necessary for career progression.

Does the class divide in the senior civil service matter?

According to those in the senior service, no it doesn’t, because they see themselves as ‘neutral advisors’.

However, from a more Marxist point of view clearly it does! Just from a social justice perspective we have here a classic example of cultural capital blocking those from lower social backgrounds progressing to more senior positions, and those with cultural capital (from higher economic backgrounds) having an advantage.

And, despite claims to neutrality it’s unlikely that those from privileged backgrounds are going to advise on policies which promote more social justice and greater social mobility as that would be undermining the advantage they and their children have with the status quo!

Family diversity by Social Class

How does family life vary by social class?

How do aspects of family life such as marriage, divorce, cohabitation, birth and death rates vary by social class?

This post has been written to fit the A-level sociology specification, families and households topic.

While social class and income levels are not the same thing, I’ve had to use Income as a ‘proxy’ for social class given that the research tends to look at family variation by income rather than class more generally.

Middle class couples are more likely to get married than working class couples

According to The Spectator there is a social class ‘marriage gap’ – those in the top class (professional/ managerial) are 48% more likely to get married than those in the bottom social class (cleaners).

Poor teens are much more likely to get pregnant and have babies than rich teens

According to The Poverty Site, teenage motherhood is eight times as common amongst those from manual social background as for those from managerial and professional backgrounds.

Also, the underage conception rate is highest in the North East of England.  Its rate of 11 per 1,000 girls aged 13 to 15 compares to 6 per 1,000 in the region with the lowest rate.

Professional women have babies later than ‘working class’ women’

According to ONS research from 2014 (yes, even in 2020 you have to go back this far to find it), professional women tend to have babies later than ‘working class’ women.

Only 3% of births to women under 30s are to women in higher managerial or professional classifications, but this figure rises to 14% for women over 40.

NB – the above doesn’t factor in how many women are in each category of social class, I include that table below…

So it’s difficult to tell from the above! But it does seem that the higher up the social class scale you go, the later in life women have babies!


Previous research from the Uni of Southampton found that half of women born in 1958 who obtained no educational qualifications had a child by the age of 22, while for those with degrees the age was 32.

This means that the term ‘generation’ could actually mean different things to different classes.

Source: Daily Mail Article from 2012.

Variations in ‘Life Paths’ by Social Class (American focus)

Research published in 2017 by Opportunity America shows considerable variation in marriage and divorce rates, and ‘life paths’ by social class.

The research divides ‘social classes’ by ‘poor’ ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ and shows that:

  • 56% of people aged between 18-55% in the Middle and Upper classes were currently married, compared to only 26% of those who were ‘poor’.
  • Despite having lower marriage rates, the ‘poor’ also had higher divorce rates: 46% of ‘poor’ 18-55 year olds had ‘ever been divorced’ compared to only 30% of middle-upper classes.
  • The fertility rates also vary, being 2.4 and 1.7 respectively for the above two groups.
  • The Life Paths also vary, as below:

NB I quite like the above chart, it’s go a hint of the personal life perspective, life-course analysis about it!

Questions to consider

  • The final piece of research is from America, to what extent would you expect to find similar variations in family life by social class in the UK?
  • Give the lack of contemporary data, how might you track the relationship between social class and family life more accurately?

Thoughts and comments

There is only limited data available on the relationship between social class and family life – so much so that you often have to go back almost a decade to find the latest research. It’s very much a gap in official statistics!

Using ‘Income’ data rather than class data is a limitation of the research, the same limitation as when using Free School Meal data as a proxy for social class in the differential educational achievement debate.

Sometimes it is even impossible to find data on the relationship between income and family life – for example, there are no official statistics collected on the relationship between income and divorce, according to this response to a question from the ONS.

Social class and educational achievement statistics

The relationship between social class and educational achievement is one of the main topics within the sociology of education at A level.

The problem is, the government does not routinely collect statistics on the relationship between social class and educational achievement!

Instead, we have to reply on statistics which look at the relationship between household income and educational achievement, rather than the relationship between social class and educational achievement.

Household income is related to social class, but income alone does not tell us exactly which social class someone is from. Some parents might work in traditionally ‘working-class’ jobs which could be very well paid, such as the building trades; while other parents might be earning a limited amount of money working part-time in traditionally middle-class jobs – as private music teachers for example.

Also, income does not necessarily tell us about the cultural aspects of class – how well educated parents are or how much social and cultural capital they have, for example.

Thus you must remember that household income indicators are only proxies for social class, they may not show us precisely what a child’s social class background is.

Two sources we might use to to examine the relationship between social class and educational achievement are:

  • Free School Meal (FSM) achievement rates compare to non FSM achievement rates
  • Data on independent school results compared to government schools results.

The Achievement of Pupils Eligible for Free School Meals

Three is a 13.7% achievement gap in the ‘attainment 8’ scores of pupils eligible for Free School Meals compared to non-FSM pupils

In 2019 parents in households with a gross annual income of no more than £16190 were entitled to claim for Free School Meals. (Source).

This means that approximately the poorest 1/6th of households are eligible, so the above statistics are comparing the results of children from the poorest 1/6th of households with the richest 5/6ths all lumped into one.

One limitation with the above statistics is that if you were to stretch this comparison out and compare the poorest 1/6th with the next poorest 1/6th and so on up to the riches 1/6th, you would probably see much starker differences.

Independent School Results Compared to State Schools

If we look at the top 10 independent school results compared to the top 10 state schools, we see quite a difference in results.

In order to be able to pay the fees to get your children into an independent school, you have to be comfortably in the top 10% of households. There are a few scholarships for pupils from poorer households, but not in significant numbers!

Top 10 independent schools

Top 10 state schools

You can see a clear 8-9% difference in achievement in favour of the fee-paying independent schools.

One advantage of the above stats is that it’s much more likely that you’re seeing the solidly upper middle class in these schools, rather than this just being about income.

However, we are only talking about the the top 5-10% of the social class scale, we are not able to make social class comparisons more broadly.

Conclusions

If we use the above data, we can see there is a drastic difference in the achievement rates at the very top and the very bottom of the household income scales.

IF we think household income is a valid indicator of social class, we can also say there are huge social class differences in educational achievement based on the above statistics.

However, we don’t have systematic, annual data on the relationship between the vast majority of middle income households and educational achievement.

Sources

DFE Education Statistics

The Extent of Material Deprivation in the UK

2019 statistics show a decline in the number of households in material deprivation

Material deprivation* refers to the inability to afford basic resources and services such as sufficient food and heating.

To put it more simply, all of those who suffer material deprivation in the UK  exist in a state of relative poverty, and some may exist in a state of absolute poverty.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) recent publication: Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2019 is a good source informing us about the extent of material deprivation in the UK today. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that “families are classified as materially deprived if they feel they cannot afford a certain number of items or activities, with greater weight assigned to items that most families already have.”

According to the IFS, between 8-15% of households are suffering from material deprivation, depending on what threshold you use. (If you want to know how the thresholds are worked, out click on the link above!).

In order to figure out how many households are suffering material deprivation, households are asked whether they can afford a number of items, such as the ones below. The more items a family can’t afford, and the higher up the list they appear in the chart below, the more likely a family is to be classified as ‘materially deprived’.

You can see that there is a downward trend in material deprivation between 2010-11 (careful, the chart above is over a longer time scale!)

Related concepts

The above study focuses on the trends in material deprivation as well as trends in both absolute and relative poverty. All three indicators are different ways of measuring poverty.

Related Posts 

Evaluating the Extent of Material Deprivation in the UK

The effects of material deprivation on education

Something Extra…

*A fuller definition of material deprivation is provided by the The OECD which defines Material deprivation as ‘the inability for individuals or households to afford those consumption goods and activities that are typical in a society at a given point in time, irrespective of people’s preferences with respect to these items.’ It’s work noting at this point that this is a relative rather than an absolute measurement of poverty.

Historical Material

I wrote this back in 2015, it’s my old version that I didn’t want to delete! It shows you some different, historical definitions/ measurement of material deprivation

The government’s material deprivation rate measures the proportion of the population that cannot afford at least four of the following items:

  1. To pay their rent, mortgage, utility bills or loan repayments,
  2. To keep their home adequately warm,
  3. To face unexpected financial expenses,
  4. To eat meat or protein regularly,
  5. To go on holiday for a week once a year,
  6. A television set,
  7. A washing machine,
  8. A car,
  9. A telephone.

As can be seen from the statistics below, the number of people suffering from ‘severe’ material deprivation has remained stable in recent years, but the numbers of people struggling to pay for holidays and meet emergency expenses has increased. Percentage of population unable to afford items, UK 2005-2011

Displacing the Poor from London (and its relevance to critical victimology)

Local Councils in London are increasingly resorting to moving poor homeless families out of London, because they can’t afford to meet their housing needs within London. In most cases they’re being moved to Kent and Essex, but in sometimes moves are made much further afield:

What the map above shows is the literal relocation of the poor – shifting poverty out of London and into poorer parts of the country. It’s the real life version of what happened at the end of ‘People Just do Nothing’.

The main cause: the high price of housing in the capital, fuelled by 30 years of cheap mortgages and foreign speculative investment on property in London.

The negative consequences for the poor 

At the very least these families are being removed from all of their local social connections and having their children’s schooling disrupted,  but in some cases they suffer much worse: cramped housing conditions and being housed in the same block of flats as ex criminals, as the recent case study of Terminus House suggests….

Various London councils have housed hundreds of poor recently-made homeless Londoners at Terminus House in Harlow, Essex, several miles outside of London.

The building is a 1960s 14 story, former office block converted into flats and run by the private company Caridon Property since April 2018.

The problem is that the complex is also home to several ex-offenders, including at least 25 people recently released from prison, and it’s something of a crime hot-spot, with high levels of anti-social behaviour, burglary and criminal damage.

Police figures show that in the first 10 months after people moved in, crime within Terminus House itself rose by 45%, and within by 20% within a 500m radius of the property.

Relevance to A-level sociology 

This strikes me as a great example of how the poor in London are the victims of local council policies (not defined as illegal of course) – they get moved out from their local areas, and then are more likely to become the victims of crime. It illustrates perfectly how the poor are more likely to be victims of social injustice and crime than the rich!

Sources 

https://www.essexlive.news/news/essex-news/harlow-terminus-house-nightmare-tower-2721068

 

How many people are in poverty in the UK?

The easy answer is to say around 22% of the population, roughly 14 million people. The long answer starts with the sentence ‘it depends on how you define and measure poverty’, in which case you get various different statistics on the poverty rate.

Statistics on poverty in the UK

According to the Social Metrics Foundation, which seems to be endorsed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation….

  • 22% of the UK population are in poverty, equivalent to 14.2 million people: 8.4 million working-age adults; 4.5 million children; and 1.4 million pension age adults. Source: The Social Metrics Foundation, 2018.
  • 1% of the total UK population (7. 7 million people) live in persistent poverty. Source: The Social Metrics Foundation, 2018.

This definition of poverty is broader than any previous definition because:

  • It takes account of all material resources not just incomes. For instance, this means including an assessment of the available assets that families have; •
  • It takes into accounts the inescapable costs that some families face, which make them more likely than others to experience poverty, such as the extra costs of disability, and costs of childcare and rental and mortgage costs; •
  • It automatically defines anyone who is ‘sleeping rough’ as being in poverty.

However, it also sets the relative poverty line at 55% of median income rather than 60^ of median income (as the government has done for many years), seemingly because to keep it at 60% while making all of the other changes above would put too many people in poverty?!? See page 63 of the report for more details:

poverty rate UK 2018.png

 

According to the Government’s own data:

  • 16% of UK households were in relative low income households (before housing costs)
  • 22% of UK households were in relative low income households (after housing costs).

Relative low income households have an income of less than 60% of median household income (equivalised), which is equivalent to £296 per week (or approximately £1000 per month). Source: Households Below Average Income, published March 2018.

Households in poverty UK.png

7.3% of the UK population (4.6 million people) are in persistent poverty. This study defines ‘persistent poverty as being in a relative low income household (using the BHAI definition of this) consistently for 3 years. Source: Persistent Poverty in the UK and the EU: 2015.

Which of these is the most valid measurement of poverty?

You’ll notice that there’s some different between these figures, especially between the Social Metric Commissions’ persistent poverty rate and the ONS’ poverty rate – 12% compared to 7%, so it really matters which of these is the most valid!

Given that the Social Metrics Commission’s definition was agreed by a large panel of people, which included government representation, I’m going to say the SMC’s definition/ measurement is the most valid.

Whatever measurement you use, poverty statistics are a terrific example of how statistics are socially constructed.

 

 

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