It’s time to rethink how we approach poverty in this country

Poverty costs us all – but with the right plan we can do something about it, says Chris Goulden.

Half of people in poverty now live in working households and one in five workers is low paid – much higher figures than in many other nations. Poverty prevents our economy from firing on all cylinders and is a waste of potential. It costs us all.

Even though a majority of the public think there is ‘quite a lot’ of poverty in the UK today, popular and media debates on poverty remain highly divisive, relying still on stereotypes of the deserving and undeserving poor.

At JRF, we want to make the case that poverty is real but that it is not inevitable. With the right plan and commitment, we can do something about the high rates of poverty in the UK. That’s why we are producing our own strategy to deal with poverty and have set out our early thinking in ‘A UK without poverty’. This draws on the evidence from 33 reviews of policy and research as well as a new definition of poverty.

JRF defines poverty as not being able to afford to meet your basic needs – and this includes taking part in society and customs such as buying birthday presents. This means there are two core answers to the problem of poverty:

  • increasing people’s resources, or
  • reducing the costs of meeting their basic needs.

This doesn’t mean ending poverty is simple. Action is needed in a huge range of areas – more than just reform of the tax and benefit system, but labour markets, the costs of essential goods and services, issues to do with where people live and the choices that they make.

Poverty is costly, wasteful and risky. It affects a child’s educational achievement and reduces earnings in later life, calculated to cost the UK economy £29 billion every year.

Paid employment needs to remain the primary route out of poverty but over half of households in poverty have someone working below the Living Wage. Job insecurity is a problem as well as low pay. Half of men making a new claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance have made another claim in the previous six months. No strategy on poverty can rely on work alone – the needs of those who cannot work due to disability or caring commitments need to be catered for too.

Previous strategies have failed to deliver, lacking both a vision of a country without poverty and a clear route map from where we are now to a better future. The role of evidence has not always been central. JRF aims to remedy these failings through a comprehensive approach that deals with:

  • the nature of work at the bottom end of the labour market;
  • the cost of living, markets for goods and services and their regulators;
  • enabling people to reach their potential at school, at work and in their communities;
  • enhancing the civil society and private institutions that are important in people’s lives;
  • the choices that people make.

A poverty-free UK would not only be good for people who experience poverty; it would be good for everyone.