The five ‘I’s of poverty today

Last week I was asked to speak at the Society In The Loop conference about the experience of poverty in the UK today. To do that I drew a lot on the work we do here at Little Village, where we’ve responded to over 2500 requests for help from struggling families across London, since we launched in 2016.

The stories we hear every week are very difficult to stomach. Kids sleeping on sofa cushions. Babies living in rat infested properties. Kids walking around in shoes two sizes too big, without warm coats. Parents rationing nappies because they can’t afford the next packet.

1 in 5 people live in poverty. 30% of our children are growing up in poverty and that is due to rise to 37% by 2021.

But what does this look like in reality? At the conference, I spoke about how this experience shows up in five ‘I’s.

First, insecurity. In-work poverty — where a household remains in poverty even when one or more people are in work- is rising sharply. In fact, two thirds of kids in poverty now have a parent in work. The old adage that work is the route out of poverty is no longer true for many people. The rise of the gig economy, and the gradual wearing away of worker rights mean that there are now large grey areas between ‘working’ and ‘not working’.

Second, instability. If you look at the different forms of housing tenure over the last 50 years the most notable shift is in the sharp rise of the private rented sector. With that come high, often impossibly high rents, and very low tenant rights. Evictions have rocketed, and tenants often have very little control over the state of their property.

Third, injustice. Put simply, life costs more when you are poor. Companies penalise you for lacking access to cheaper credit, for not being able to buy in bulk. You pay more insurance by virtue of where you live, you pay more to borrow money (by disgraceful, immoral margins).

And it’s not just companies that are making this situation worse. This government has instituted a benefits freeze which means for example that child benefit will rise 2 per cent between 2010 and 2020. In contrast, prices are expected to rise by 35 per cent.

Every week at Little Village we see the intolerable pressure that household budgets are under. A crisis of spiralling debt can start with a simple problem like a broken washing machine or a car that needs fixing — or, as we see all the time — the arrival of a new baby with all the costs that that entails. People have no cushion. They are living on the edge and it takes very little to send them over.

Fourth, isolation. Post-austerity we are seeing public services cut to the bone. From universal services like children’s centres, to specialist services like drug and alcohol support, or mental health services. Thresholds are so high that you need to be in serious crisis to unlock help. Worse, the charities that have historically been there to fill the gap are having a really hard time of surviving too.

Finally, invisibility. We either assume poverty doesn’t exist, or it exists somewhere else far away, happens to other people not like me. And yet here it is, on our doorsteps: children without a bed to sleep in, people having to choose between heating and eating. The invisibility of this experience is compounded by a toxic media who really only ever portray one kind of poverty — the sort that we can demonise and judge and blame on the person rather than the system.

6 years ago I wrote a book about inequality in the US and the UK. Its argument was simple. The sharp rise in inequality we’ve seen in both countries is shaped by global trends like automation and immigration. And yet those trends are not beyond influence. Far from it — the political and policy choices we make can either augment or mitigate against a growth in inequality.

In other words, we have a choice. We don’t have to accept the recent rises in inequality, and the disgraceful projections about increased child poverty. Governments have the power to take action to address it. But will those choices be made, or will we continue to see the proceeds of growth being shared unfairly? I am worried that the jury is out on where we go next.