UK Poverty 2017: the story behind the statistics

Following the launch of UK Poverty 2017 last week, Helen Barnard explains how this influential piece of work came about.

In 2016, JRF published our strategy, We can solve UK poverty. It was the culmination of four years of gathering evidence, testing policy ideas and shaping a strategy to solve poverty across all groups and in every part of the UK. The publication was a big moment for JRF – but it was immediately clear that it was just the start of the hard work. The whole organisation was united around our vision of a prosperous UK without poverty. We agreed that our new strategic plan would focus on delivering that vision. 

For 16 years we had published an annual assessment of trends in UK poverty, called ‘Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion’. This had begun when JRF operated primarily as a funder and publisher. Rather than being in-house experts, we funded academics, charities and others to carry out research and write reports. We can solve UK poverty was different. It had involved many individuals and organisations – carrying out evidence reviews, advising on policy and sharing their experiences.  But the final product was written by a team of JRF staff. It required the organisation to make choices and recommendations – not simply report what the evidence said. This process changed our view of how we should be monitoring poverty across the UK. We focused on what would be most effective to enable us to hold to account all those who our strategy said would need to act in order to solve UK poverty – governments, businesses and employers, communities, charities and many others (including ourselves). 

This led to a big decision – to create an in-house Analysis Unit which would be able to shape and carry out monitoring, ground the organisation in deep understanding of poverty trends, and provide policy-focused analysis. Taking this step meant that we could use all of the experience and insight we gained from developing and launching We can solve UK poverty. We started from scratch, thinking about what we should be monitoring to truly understand UK poverty, to judge if we are progressing towards our goals and what will give us early warning signs of things improving or risks of them getting worse.

Over the year we made many decisions about what our new monitoring offer should look like. Some of the biggest were:

  • Taking the long view: UK Poverty 2017 looks back over 20 years. Understanding how poverty has changed in recent times is important, but making sense of those changes requires a longer look. Seeing how poverty has changed over the last two decades showed us, among other things, that poverty can be solved – the big reductions in poverty among both pensioners and children demonstrated that the UK is able to make the choice to reduce poverty. Rises in poverty for these groups in recent years show how urgent it is that we make that choice quickly.
  • Telling a causal story: monitoring can mean simply reporting how indicators change over time. This is valuable but taking action requires more than this. We need to understand what has driven changes to poverty in order to judge what actions are needed for the future. The UK has seen big falls in poverty during some parts of the last two decades. We were able to identify the major drivers of these – rising employment, support for low-income working families and pensioners, help with housing costs and rising home ownership among pensioners. We analysed what factors led to rising poverty in more recent years. We identified those factors which were still in place but were no longer leading to falls in poverty, and those factors which themselves had changed. For instance, employment has continued to rise but stopped leading to big falls in poverty. By contrast, the rise in pensioner poverty was driven largely by Pension Credit (which goes to low-income pensioners) not keeping up with rises in inflation or average incomes. 
  • UK wide: many aspects of poverty can be monitored at a UK level but there are some areas which can only be examined by looking at England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland individually. That is particularly true of devolved policy areas such as education and housing. This year’s UK report includes sections looking at some of these areas across the different parts of the UK. We have also produced short stand-alone reports focusing on how poverty has changed in each of the devolved jurisdictions. 
  • Year round: each year we publish our monitoring report, but over the year new data comes out, meaning that many indicators have changed before the next report is published. Alongside our new-style monitoring report we have launched a new data dashboard. This gives an at-a-glance look at poverty across the UK – levels, trends, drivers and consequences. The dashboard provides constantly updated charts and statistics throughout the year. It also distils some of the story told in the report to give users context and explanations for the trends they see.

So where next?

This year has laid the groundwork for our in-house monitoring and policy analysis. Next year we will build on this. One area that we are particularly excited about is providing more understanding of the dynamics of poverty – how people move up and down in their living standards, who gets stuck and why, what enables people to improve their living standards, what leads them to fall into poverty. We will also be increasing our analysis of poverty in different places and reviewing the best ways to monitor some of the less well understood aspects of poverty, such as impacts on health and relationships.