The Crazed Claim That Poverty Has Increased In The UK


One of the problems with starting new definitions of words and concepts is that it’s possible to forget that you are indeed using that new definition. So it is with poverty these days. Once poverty meant looking forward to tomorrow’s crust because there wasn’t one today. In modern times poverty is having less than 60% of what the average everyone else has. These are not even the same concept let alone the same thing.

Why the reason for the change? Because as Barbara Castle said way back in 1959, that actual poverty simply doesn’t exist in the UK any more. We solved all of that in the 1930s. Even someone homeless – which as a long term issue is almost entirely about addictions or mental health problems anyway – and rough sleeping has a higher living standard than many a working man in the 1820s, better than some slum dwellers of the 1920s in fact. Yes, yes, I know, hard to believe. But that’s just because us moderns don’t get what poverty really was. That current global definition of under $1,90 a day – that existed, just, in England into the 1900s. Note again that this is consumption to the value of $1.90 a day at modern prices in the here and now. That’s the value of housing, clothing, food and all – not bought, consumed.

Barbara Castle was right, that’s gone. Which is why the definition has changed to that relative matter, for what’s a campaigner to use against capitalism and markets if they’ve just solved the very problem being complained of?

Therefore we all stop talking about poverty and instead go on to inequality.

But then we get that problem. We might forget that we are talking about inequality. Which will lea us into error, as it does Larry Elliott:

While it is true that unemployment is at its lowest since early 1975, by almost any other metric – growth, productivity, investment and living standards – the recent performance of the economy has been woeful. Britain’s labour market was much less flexible in 1975, but back then work paid. Today, two-thirds of those in poverty live in households where at least one person is working – and people who are low-paid tend to stay low-paid.

And here is how poverty has actually changed over that time:

We seem to have killed poverty, possibly a the cost of a slight rise in inequality. Credit, House of Commons Library, Crown Copyright

Note that this is another definition of absolute poverty being used, not the $1.90 a day one. It’s the proportion of the people below that 60% of median measure, but fixed to the one year. So it shows how many live below that relative poverty standard with the relative bit fixed to incomes in one year.

Well, obviously, we can differ over this. But I would say that’s a decent victory over poverty bought, possibly, at the cost of a little bit more inequality. A deal I’m just fine with and I find it difficult to think of why anyone wouldn’t be. Unless they were a campaigner against summat or other and needed to change definitions in order to have something to whine about.

Oh, and arguments that something must be done about this tend to fail really, don’t they?