Rising poverty among children and pensioners shows why Covid inquiry must consider its impact

New data showing a rise in child poverty and pensioner poverty prior to the pandemic shows why any inquiry into Covid-19 must consider the impact of poverty.

The Government’s annual Households below average income data released today provides the most up-to-date picture of poverty in the UK going into the pandemic. The figures show that:

  • 14.5 million people were trapped in poverty in 2019/20, including 4.3 million children, 8.1 million working-age adults and 2.1 million pensioners.
  • Poverty among children and pensioners has been on a rising trend for the six years prior to Covid-19. Around 31% of all children in the UK are growing up in poverty, an increase of three percentage-points, or around 600,000 children, since 2013/14.
  • 18% of pensioners are living in poverty, an increase of four percentage points or around 500,000 pensioners, since 2013/14
  • Poverty rates are around 50%, for people in lone parent families, social renters and people in households headed by someone of Bangladeshi ethnicity or Pakistani ethnicity (on average over the last three years). These are groups that have been hit hard by the economic impact of the pandemic.
  • Poverty rates are highest in England (22%) and Wales (23%) and lowest in Scotland (19%) and Northern Ireland (18%), on average over the last three years.
  • Work is increasingly not a reliable route out of poverty. It remains the case that over half of people in poverty live in a family where at least one adult is in work. Around three quarters of children in poverty were in a working family.
  • Almost a third of people in families in which someone has a disability were in poverty compared to just 1 in 5 people in families in which no one is disabled.*

The independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is calling for any public inquiry into Covid-19 to examine the impact of the UK’s high poverty levels going into the pandemic on its health and economic impacts.

Commenting on the figures, Helen Barnard, Director of JRF said:

“Going into the pandemic, 14.5 million people were trapped in poverty, with 600,000 more children and 500,000 more pensioners pulled into poverty in the last six years. Around half of all lone parents and people from Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds were living in poverty. In a society like ours, this is indefensible.

“The evidence we have so far from our own research and conversations with people experiencing poverty shows that the pandemic has made an already difficult situation much tougher. Millions of people who were already locked in poverty by insecure low-paid jobs and expensive housing found themselves at an increased risk of catching the virus.

“The UK went into the pandemic following a decade of deprivation as a result of policy decisions taken in previous years. Costs were rising and social security support had been cut or frozen. The government’s decision to increase Universal Credit by £20 per week at the start of the pandemic illustrated that our systems of support were not doing enough to protect people from harm.

“There is much talk of a forthcoming public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic, but we will only learn the right lessons if we equip ourselves to ask the right questions. The decisions taken last year and the way in which scientific and medical advice was acted on and when is clearly hugely important. But unless we also examine the link between the context in which we entered the pandemic and the enormously unequal impact it has had, we risk returning to the same situation. Instead, we must seize this opportunity to pursue a recovery that frees people from poverty.”

*Calculated excluding extra-cost disability benefits as income, as these are to pay for extra costs rather than improve someone’s living standards.