The centrality of poverty

Glen Bramley

Poverty as measured by material deprivation through lack of economic resources remains absolutely central to understanding the causation and patterning of most aspects of social exclusion and a wide range of social outcomes. This is the strongest message emerging from Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK: Volume 2 - The Dimensions of Disadvantage, the second of the two-volume study based on the PSE-UK 2012 surveys. Attempts to wash ‘poverty’ out of the policy agenda and government target-setting are quite wrong and unsustainable.

This volume, which I edited with Nick Bailey, sets out to explore the different ‘domains’ of social exclusion and the ways that these relate to each other and to the core issue of material poverty. Having examined a wide range of disadvantages, the overall conclusion is that reducing poverty is probably the most effective way to promote key societal outcome targets. This is notably the case for health, as shown in the chapter by Prior and Manley, and wellbeing/happiness, as discussed by Tomlinson and Wilson.

PSE UK vol 2 full cover

The social harm caused by poverty is examined theoretically as well as through drawing on the PSE’s qualitative evidence in the contribution by Pemberton, Pantazis and Hillyard, who argue that several concepts currently in vogue within social policy discourse – such as resilience and risk – are inadequate in addressing this challenge. Increased risks of severe poverty and destitution, not unconnected to welfare reforms and cuts, are evidenced in the contribution by Bramley, Fitzpatrick and Sosenko, drawing on a combination of PSE and new special survey evidence.

Concern about poverty and exclusion cannot be separated from concerns about inequality, with particular current concern about the contrasting trends and policies affecting the poorest and the most affluent in the UK, as is illustrated by the examination of wider measures of living standards presented by Patsios, Pomati and Hillyard. The striking trend towards more of poverty overall being among working households, as well as the extent of forms of ‘exclusionary employment’, is the main theme of Bailey’s contribution. This is not the only example of greater ‘precarity’ across wider sections of the community, as there is also a marked shift in this direction in housing as more households live in insecure private renting paying higher rents with little security, while financial stress affects approaching half of the population (Bramley and Besemer).

Wilson, Bailey and Fahmy found that access to resources and support from social networks is less closely related to poverty and clearly for some households support from family, in particular, is often a key factor in coping with poverty – but in poorer communities family and neighbours may themselves be hard-pressed. Fahmy also shows that poverty does also limit the extent of civic and political participation, alongside factors like education and class.

The domain on which exclusion appears least related to material poverty is in fact access to local public and private services. Bramley and Besemer argue that this is ‘good news’, implying that through national and local policies, public spending and regulation, the natural tendency of market systems to reinforce inequality has been neutralised. Other good news stories include the above-mentioned examples of domains of exclusion which are not dominantly driven by poverty, improvements in some aspects of living standards and declines in some forms of exclusion (e.g. financial services), and gradual increases in reported happiness.  There has also been a dramatic fall in the incidence of poverty among the retirement age population over the last two decades.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence to support concerns about trends towards more marketisation and financialisation of aspects of life, lessening social cohesion and engagement, and promoting disillusion with the system. This is probably not unconnected with the unprecedented falls in living standards experienced by wide sections of the population in the later 2000s and early 2010s, in part due to cost of living factors like higher fuel costs (causing a marked rise in fuel poverty) as well as the increasing precarity of some people’s working lives and housing situations. On a majority of domains of social exclusion, the surveys showed that scores had worsened between 1999 and 2012, while people’s judgements about what things were necessities became more restrictive, reversing a long-term trend towards a more generous set of expectations.

The authors also note a growing ‘behavioural agenda’ around poverty, but are highly critical about some misuses of this perspective in relation to public understanding, policy agendas and targets. For example, family breakdown, educational failure and serious personal debt may in some cases cause or confound poverty, but very often they are also clearly consequences of poverty. Addictions can be a compounding factor in the poverty and exclusion of some adults, but these only account for a tiny proportion of the total number of adults in poverty.

Britain has moved forward and then backwards in terms of the adoption of national targets for the tackling of poverty, particularly child poverty, with poverty ‘airbrushed’ out of the national strategy for social mobility. Yet in this respect the devolved administrations, particularly in Scotland, have chosen to follow a different path, reinstating child and other poverty targets in legislation and developing an action programme to achieve these. Recent research-based initiatives by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation under the banner Solve UK Poverty have set out an ambitious and diverse policy agenda which it is argued would significantly reduce poverty in the medium to longer term. Yet in the shorter term the immediate prospect in forecasts by the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies are for a substantial rise in poverty, due in substantial measure to the further imposition of welfare reforms, cuts and the freezing of many benefits.

Overall, we believe the multi-dimensional perspective of ‘poverty and social exclusion’ has been shown to be justified and successfully implemented through the PSE Survey. In this volume we offer a new picture of the main distinct dimensions of poverty and exclusion, while arguing that it is important to pay attention to these distinct aspects to get a full picture of disadvantage in contemporary UK. For taking this research forward into the future we anticipate building on the kind of survey exemplified by PSE by seeing more use made of longitudinal/panel surveys and of linkage between surveys and administrative data to give stronger insights and evidence on causal processes and trajectories of poverty.

Glen Bramley is Professor of Urban Studies at the Institute for Social Policy, Housing and Equalities Research at Heriot-Watt University.

Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK, volume 2: The dimensions of disadvantage, edited by Glen Bramley and Nick Bailey, and Poverty and Exclusion in the UK, volume 1: The nature and extent of the problem, edited by Esther Dermott and Gill Main,  were published by Policy Press on November 29, 2017.




Publication date: 
Dec 8 2017