Is poverty a social problem in the UK?

Is poverty a social problem in the UK today?

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Whether or not we regard Poverty as a social problem depends on:

  • how we define and measure ‘poverty’
  • the extent to which we think individuals are responsible for their own poverty
  • our perspective on what we think the consequences of other people’s poverty will be for society as a whole
  • Whether we ‘care less’ about other people’s poverty.

In this post I’m going to focus on one definition of poverty: ‘destitution’, as defined by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (source below)

Is destitution problem in the UK?

The JRF defines destitution as when an individual cannot afford the basic material essentials which are necessary to leading a secure life. These essentials include housing, food, weather appropriate clothing and footwear, heating, electricity and basic toiletries.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1.5 million people in the UK were in ‘destitute’ at some point in 2017, the latest figures available.

It’s worth noting briefly that nearly everyone who was (and probably is currently) destitute was either homeless or in temporary or sheltered accommodation.

Destitution in the UK is a social problem…

If you believe that everyone has the right to the basic material necessities of life, then you’d probably regard the fact of such a huge number of people being destitute as a social problem. This certainly seems to be the view of those at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

If you watch the video below in which the JRF define destitution there are lots of references to how it’s not acceptable for people to be destitute today.

If you’re the kind of person that’s upset by other people’s suffering, then you’d probably also regard this number of people as being destitute as a social problem – it doesn’t take that much empathy to realise that the state of destitution is extremely unpleasant.

Not only can being destitute involve being hungry and cold and being excluded from many aspects of social life (because you’ve got no money!), it can also mean living in a state of anxiety over the future if you can’t afford to pay the rent, and maybe depression that your situation has no end in sight.

Destitution today might also be the breeding ground for future problems for individuals and society – a hungry child not concentrating in school will get lower educational outcomes and be less employable in the future; someone living in a cold damp house now is more likely to develop long term chronic health problems – both situations which could mean those people being a long term drain on the nation’s resources in the future.

A further reason you might regard destitution as a problem is because of the non-necessity of it! We clearly have the resources in the UK to ensure that every single individual at least has the basic necessities of life, and yet there are 1.5 million people who lead lives so insecure that they’re not having their basic needs met!

People are probably more likely to think destitution is a problem if the reasons for it are not the fault of the individuals experiencing it – if they have fallen into destitution because of ill-health, a relationship breakdown, abuse, losing a job, or even something as basic as a high cost of living (rent, bills etc.). In such situations, maybe it is desirable that the benefits system kicks in and acts as a safety net.

The extremes of destitution existing alongside extremes of wealth might bother some people because of the social injustice of it, especially if they believe that destitution exists because of the means whereby the rich have got wealthy.

Finally, destitution might well lead to crime and social unrest. If people are hungry they might turn to crime to feed themselves, and if they collectively come to perceive their situation as one that is not fair or just, social unrest may be the result.

So it would seem that there several reasons, emotional and rational for why you might perceive destitution as a social problem!

Destitution in the UK is NOT a social problem…

Firstly, if you’re being hard-nosed about it you might point out that 1.5 million people is not that many – it’s only 2.5% of the population. And according to the JRF 2018 report into destitution, this number is declining.

The definition/ measurement of destitution used by JRF is quite ‘soft’ – someone only had to go without two of those basic needs above for a month in 2017 and they were counted in the statistics. You might think it’s not that bad going hungry for one month in a year, it’s not starvation, it’s unlikely to lead to long term malnutrition.

Then there’s the fact that you simply might not believe in individual rights. You might believe that individuals are not ‘entitled’ to anything, and if they fall on hard times it’s tough luck.

Or you might believe in radical individual responsibility and think that if individuals are destitute, for whatever reason, it is their job to lift themselves out of it, in which case the problem of destitution isn’t a social problem, it’s an individual problem, although this particular view point is quite anti-sociological, in fact it’s possibly the very opposite of the sociological imagination.

Even if you’re more left-wing and believe that the individual is NOT entirely responsible for their own poverty, but rather it’s something to do with the system, then it’s not poverty as such that’s ‘the real problem’ – it’s whatever you believe has caused poverty.

Finally, even if there are identifiable correlations between destitution and crime/ social unrest, it might be that with more measures of control (e.g. harsher penalties, more police, as right realists suggest) we might still be able to mitigate the worst effects of destitution.

Conclusions. .

Whether you think destitution in the UK is a social problem very much depends on your values.

If you’re leaning towards the left you’re more likely to believe that povert has social causes and that more equality is good, so are more likely to perceive destitution as a social problem with social solutions.

If you’re more right leaning, you’re more likely to frame destitution as an individual problem, have less of a problem with higher levels of inequality and think that individuals and society can and should adapt to cope with a certain degree of destitution, which individuals largely bring on themselves.

Finally, whether you think it’s a problem or not depends on your definition and measurement of it, and TBH with the soft definition used by the JRF I’m actually finding myself leaning to the view that destitution in the UK is NOT a serious social problem.

Sources/ find out more

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Social Problems facing Britain in 2020…

My top 14 social problems facing Britain in 2020:

  1. Pollution and the environment
  2. Inequality, low pay and poverty
  3. Inflation/ cost of living/ especially housing
  4. unemployment and underemployment
  5. Race relations
  6. The Ageing population
  7. Crime, law and order
  8. Mental health – depression/ anxiety (/suicide)
  9. Sexual inequalities
  10. Drug and alcohol abuse
  11. Lack of faith (trust) in government
  12. Immigration/ overpopulation

This is a ‘first thoughts’ off the top of my head ranking based on a combination of what I know about these social issues and social theory/ research evidence.

Also, this isn’t comprehensive – I’ve taken the above from the Ipsos-Mori September 2019 survey – so really this is my ‘top 14’ social issues as identified by 1027 members of the British public in 2019.

This is what the British public thought were the most important social issues in September 2019….

Actually not quite, I’ve added in mental health and sexual inequalities just because I think they deserve a mention, unlike at least 95.5% of the British population sampled last September!

A broadly Marxist Rationale for my Ranking

I’ve put pollution and the environment at number 1 as if we don’t stop living within planetary limits soon we’re just lining up more social problems in the future – the more we consume and pollute the fewer resources there are to go round and the fewer resources the more inequality, the higher the cost of living, the more social unrest and so on.

Inequality comes second following Wilkinson and Picket’s work in the Spirit Level – inequality seems to be the number one variable correlated with all other social problems. I’ve included poverty with inequality as (simplifying to the extreme) in Britain we only really have relative poverty, which is a function of inequality.

At three is the ultimate economic challenge – keeping the cost of living down. I think this is fundamentally related to inequality – for example landlords owning several houses and renting them out make themselves rich while impoverishing their tenants.

I’ve included unemployment and underemployment at four as these is these are not only fundamentally linked to inequality, but also a future challenge as technological change strips out jobs from the economy.

Race relations goes in at five because Racism does still exist and it is the most common tool for scapegoating the causes of all other social problems. If we can just get rid of silly notions of Racism, the masses might direct their attention at the elites who create most of our social problems.

The ageing population is next as it’s something of a ticking time bomb – we haven’t yet addressed as a society how we are going to pay for the increased health and social care costs of people in old age in the context of a less favourable dependency ratio in future years.

To skip to the final two, I regard these as positive things – lack of faith in national politics I think is a necessary precursor to more decentralized, autonomous solutions to social problems and as to immigration and migration more generally, not only can this solve the ‘problem’ of the ageing population, I think in general we need more of it – if nothing else to combat the problem of racial prejudice!