Despite a government that continually expresses its support for hard working families, a recent report on poverty shows that a record 55% of people in poverty are from working households. The report also highlights the disproportionately high level of disabled people living in poverty and the increasingly severe effects of the housing crisis on poverty levels.

The annual report released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) comes as no surprise to the people of Manchester living in poverty, and the many organisations fighting against its inequities. Organisations such as: Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts (MDPAC), Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) and the National Union of Journalists Manchester & Salford Branch (NUJMS). All are familiar with the disastrous consequences to families at the sharp end of the government’s austerity cuts.

Hard working families

Ian Duncan Smith’s changes to the welfare system which promised to “make work pay” appear to be failing the poorest workers. One in every eight working people in the UK, 3.8 million people, are now living in poverty; this is one million more than a decade ago. Of the UK total of 13.5 million people living in poverty 7.4 million (55%) are in a working family, including 2.6 million children. Poverty is defined by being below 60% of the median income once housing costs are deducted.

In the UK 21% of the population is living in poverty in 2014/15, this is the same percentage as a decade earlier if population growth is taken into consideration. All working age groups have seen a rise in poverty, which is above that expected due to population growth alone (see table below), but it is the working families and those in the private rented sector that have experienced the greatest increases.

People in poverty (millions) measured after housing costs. Source: Joseph Rowntree Foundation
People in poverty (millions) measured after housing costs. Source: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Dr Peter Kenway, director of the New Policy Institute who carried out the study, said:

“An adult in poverty today is much more likely to be young, working and a tenant living the private rented sector than 15 years ago. But modern poverty is also increasingly linked with disability. After allowing for the higher cost of living, half of those in poverty today are either sick or disabled themselves or live with someone else who is.”

Manchester DPAC

There are 7.1 million people in poverty who are either disabled themselves or live with a person who is disabled; that is 50% of all the people in the UK living in poverty. In the UK 19% of the total population are disabled, indicating that disabled people are overrepresented in the poverty figures.

Rick Burgess is a member of Manchester DPAC, who campaign for justice, equality and human rights for the disabled. Asked about his opinion of the report he replied, “It just reiterates what we already know…”

Burgess believes that austerity driven cuts to social security are behind the increasing number of disabled people living in poverty he has witnessed in Manchester, saying:

“They are instrumental not only in increasing poverty but causing major harm up to and including loss of life. They are deliberate and worsening which is why the UK is the first nation in history to be found by the United Nations to be engaged in ‘grave or systematic violations of the rights of disabled people’… the UK government have rejected all its findings and refuse to even acknowledge their culpability.”

Social security for the disabled has been steadily chipped away by numerous cuts to their welfare payments. These include removal of the Disability Living Allowance and cuts to the Employment and Support Allowance of £30, equivalent to a third of their current weekly payments. They have been pushed repeatedly through an increasingly labyrinthine and stressful benefits system when forced to retake the much criticised work capability assessments, which determine which welfare payments they are entitled to.

Government ministers have argued that cuts to the ESA would incentivise them into employment. But there are high levels of discrimination against disabled people in the jobs market. Government initiatives, such as the old Two Ticks and current Disability Confident schemes, have failed to increase employment figures for the disabled and have been widely criticised as inadequate.

Half of people in poverty have a disability or live with someone who does. Source: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Since the financial crash in 2008, the austerity driven cuts to social security payments have been accompanied by increasingly negative messages about the disabled and unemployed, projected by the government and the mainstream media. A report by DPAC records numerous examples of government spin and lies, and bad journalism in the media, concerning disability and its possible link to rises in disability hate crime.

The cuts to social security and an increasingly bad press have had a predictably negative effect on morale in the disabled community in Manchester:

“There is less hope amongst people living in poverty. It appears our political and media establishment are happy with an increasing level of inequality and a permanently abused and growing underclass.” said Burgess.

Demonisation of the poor

Rachel Broady is a journalist from Manchester who also thinks that the reporting of poverty in the media is sometimes doing more harm than good. Broady was not surprised by the findings of the JRF report that levels of poverty were increasing in working households, saying:

“Time and again it is made clear that being unemployed isn’t the only route to poverty – low wages are a cause. The poor are scapegoated, treated as the enemy while bosses who profit from paying low wages are, for the most part, unchallenged.”

Disgusted at the way poverty was being misrepresented by harmful stereotypes and misinformation in certain sections of the media, Broady did something about it. As Equality Officer of the NUJ Manchester & Salford branch she created the NUJ guide to reporting poverty, which is now the union’s official guide for journalists reporting on poverty.

“Poor and politically-motivated journalism is contributing to the demonisation and stereotyping of people living in poverty. Newspapers in the hands of the likes of Richard Desmond and Rupert Murdoch actively choose to blame workers for their experience of poverty and to avoid discussing and highlighting the real economic and political causes of it… The NUJ guidelines are important because they can make journalists stop to consider what it is they are contributing to.”

The NUJ guide on poverty covers the issue of the ‘Poverty Premium’, which is the extra cost incurred by people on a low income. This can be due to the higher charges on prepayment meters used or the lack of a decent credit rating resulting in the use of high interest payday lenders.

This is also a theme of the JRF report and becomes particularly striking when costs are considered as a percentage of total income. For the past five years the value of benefits, and most wages, have not increased while at the same time the prices of food, clothing and energy have. The cost of energy in the UK has increased by 21% between 2010-15. This has left the poorest fifth of households, in 2014, spending 8% of their whole household expenditure on energy, whereas the richest fifth spent only 4% of their total on energy.

Similarly, cuts to the Council Tax Benefit mean that the tax takes three times as big a share from the poorest fifth incomes as it does of the richest fifth.

Housing crisis

The cost of keeping a roof over their heads is the biggest outgoing for most families, and it is this cost that is playing an increasingly large part in the changing poverty statistics. The housing crisis has seen rocketing private rents, an increase in insecure tenancies and the inevitable rise in homelessness. The JFR report states:

“Failures in the housing market are a significant driver of poverty”.

A rising population and the selling off of social housing while failing to replace that sold through Right to Buy, means that the Private Rented Sector (PRS) has increased dramatically. It has nearly doubled form 10% in 2002 to 19% in 2014-15.

Again it is the poorest fifth that pay the highest proportion of their net income on private rents, with 73% spending at least a third of their income on rent.

Rising rents for tenants are now being accompanied by increasingly insecure tenancies. Evictions by landlords have risen to 37,000 in 2015-16 from 23,000 in 2010-11. It is these evictions, from shorthold tenancies or due to rent arrears, that are the primary cause in the rise of those most severely affected by poverty: the homeless.

In 2015-16 there were 58,000 households accepted as statutory homeless, this has risen by almost half since 2009-10. But these figures fail to take in to consideration the hidden homeless, who are not accepted as statutory homeless by their local authorities. The numbers of hidden homeless increased dramatically when the Localism Act 2011 gave local authorities the ability to arbitrarily decide who would be accepted onto their housing lists, allowing many of them to slash their housing waiting lists overnight.

Housing action

Greater Manchester Housing Action are a group that have formed because of the escalating housing crisis in the region and the lack of a coherent plan at a national or local level to tackle it. A GMHA spokesperson said of the crisis:

“It is clear that the current housing settlement in Greater Manchester is not working. Rising homelessness is visible to anybody walking our streets; provision of affordable social renting is at an all time low; and the private rented sector is rife with overcrowding and abusive landlords.

“GMHA believes that devolution presents a historic opportunity to counter this trend, develop alternative housing solutions, and create a city-region where no-one is homeless and all residents can live in a safe, affordable home.”

A recent public meeting organised by GMHA compiled a set of democratically decided policy demands on housing issues, including: homelessness, social housing, private rented sector and alternative forms of housing such as co-ops. These policy demands will be presented to the GM mayoral candidates before the election next May.

Demand for change

The JRF released a report in September 2016 called We can solve poverty in the UK . The report set out a 5 point plan to tackle poverty that includes changes to housing, social security and employment:

“We all have a part to play in solving poverty”, the report states, and that is as true for Manchester as anywhere else in the UK. Organisations such as MDPAC, GMHA, NUJMS and many others are fighting for a more socially just society where poverty becomes an increasingly rare affliction. Our current situation shows we cannot rely on national and local government policy to reduce poverty. People power is needed if local groups fighting for social justice are to succeed, and the more people support these causes the sooner we will be able to end the scourge of poverty.

Conrad Bower

 – The full Joseph Rowntree Report ‘Monitoring poverty and social exclusion 2016’ can be found by clicking here

 – A summary of the report can be read by clicking here

Featured image via Flickr

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  • Conrad Bower

    Reporting interests include social justice, the environment, and human rights. A staunch advocate for the scientific method and rational debate for understanding the world - he believes only greater public understanding and engagement with the problems affecting society, can produce the progressive change we need. Co-founder of The Meteor.

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