With awareness of poverty at an all-time high, people believe higher wages are the solution, says Ben Page.
Poverty in the UK: The public’s view
Public attitudes to poverty have changed. Media coverage of benefit cuts, unemployment, the use of food banks, fuel poverty and payday loans since the financial crisis of 2008 have heightened awareness that poverty in the UK is a problem, and that those living below the poverty line face very real challenges. During 2014 we have seen record levels of anxiety over poverty – the highest we have recorded in 40 years of surveys. In July, one person in five spontaneously raised poverty/inequality as the biggest problem facing the UK, and if you add in mentions of low wages it rises to one in three.
Increased awareness of in-work poverty has challenged the assumptions many people used to hold about who is affected by poverty and why. While concepts of the deserving and undeserving poor have never gone away, and have been revived in the last decade, a growing realisation that national economic growth is de-coupled from household incomes has caused people to consider what might need to happen. It helps explain why, despite Ed Miliband ‘s poor personal ratings as a leader, Labour remains ahead in the polls. Only 19 per cent expect their household to benefit from an economic recovery in 2014, and Labour’s policies are seen as looking after “people like me” by 48 per cent of people, compared to 35 per cent for the Conservatives. In contrast, the Conservatives maintain a 25-point lead on overall management of the economy.
Awareness and understanding of the extent of poverty has led to greater empathy both about the reasons for poverty and the impact it has on individuals, families and communities. The fact that a large proportion feel their own situation is precarious has also engendered sympathy; there is a sense that anyone can end up living in poverty – it is no longer just something that happens to other people, the feckless or workshy.
While the public believe that inequality will always exist in the UK – someone will always need to be at the bottom – they do not believe that ‘the bottom has to be so low’. Instead, they suggest that as a society we can decide what it means to be ‘at the bottom’ and give people the opportunities they need to be able to change their lives. They support higher taxes on the wealthy (and the ‘mansion tax’) – at least in principle.
Work is seen as the solution to poverty by the public. But not any work. Most people want the state to ensure that work pays a sufficient amount so people can have a decent standard of living, without having to rely on the state to top up their income. There is scepticism about whether employers will increase low wages without being incentivised to do so. A multi-agency solution involving government, employers and communities is what the public see as a solution: they are pragmatic about what will be needed to make this happen. The party that cracks this should reap rewards, but as ever in politics, if doing so was either easy or quick it would have happened long ago.