Poverty in the UK

There is a pernicious kind of argument which continues to crop up online, and it is the suggestion that there no such thing as real poverty in the UK.

Often there’s a comparison with Africa – because poor and starving people in the UK don’t look like the images we see on NSPCC adverts, so therefore they don’t exist, right?

“Are you telling me people in this country are going hungry? Seriously? I really have great trouble believing that. I don’t think people in this country go hungry. Are these people buying lottery tickets? Are they maybe buying the odd cigarette? I’d like to have some of these starving people in Britain produced.

There are real people starving in the world, and they’re not in the United Kingdom”
– Edwina Currie October 2011


This is a wholly facile argument. The existence of poor people in African countries does not negate the existence of poor people in the UK.

Another common suggestion is that the poor in Britain aren’t really poor – instead it’s just that they’re wasting their income on ‘non-essentials’:

“Claimants will only be able to make priority purchases such as food, clothing, energy, travel and housing. The purchase of luxury goods such as cigarettes, alcohol, Sky Television and gambling will be prohibited.”

– Alec Shelbrooke MP, December 2012 (promoting his ‘Welfare Card’ bill in Parliament)

Solid gold Lamborghinis are an unwise use of social security funds

But are these ‘non-essentials’ really luxury items?

They’re all legal. They’re all cheap (unless abused – which is an issue in and of itself).

Are we really suggesting that the poor should have just enough money to afford food, and maybe shelter, but no more?

That the poorest in our society should have no life whatsoever, beyond ‘survival’? Do we really think that is going to end well?

Sky TV subscriptions are a particular target – even though they’re often things that people are tied intobefore they become poor (and it’s prohibitively expensive to cancel a subscription early).

I don’t have a subscription myself, so I had to look up the cost: it’s £21.50 (plus another £14.50 line rental) per calendar month.

So about £8.37 a week.

Sky branded cigarettes - an obvious luxury

That means that – for most people – cancelling their Sky subscription wouldn’t even cancel out the impact of the bedroom tax (average cost: £14 per week).

But it would mean cutting off their phone line, and internet access – which means (as of October) cutting off their access to any and all benefits, and isolating them and their children in their home (without any TV, if they’ve been relying on Sky for a while…).

To save £8.37.

Even so, many of our poorest don’t actually have pay-for-TV subscriptions.

7% of Brits cannot afford fruit or vegetables every day;
5% can’t even afford meat or fish every other day.
7% of parents skip meals to so that their children don’t have to.

8% can’t afford to send their children on school trips.
4% of children only have second-hand clothes.
6% of children have no computer or internet access at home.

9% of households can’t afford heating bills. 10% of households are damp, and can’t afford to either treat it or to move away.

This is what British poverty looks like, now – today.

We don’t see it, because we train ourselves not to – or because they’re displayed before us as freaks on the Jeremy Kyle show, or just because quite a lot of it really isn’t very visible (it is, after all, happening in other peoples’ homes)

And when Brits do die from poverty they invisibly freeze to death at home, or kill themselves when they can no longer cope. We don’t have people starving in the street (but maybe only because we have 350,000 people getting food from Food Banks). We do have children going hungry in the classroom, and their parents going hungrier.

Bread AND gruel? Now you're just taking the piss

Some (but by no means all) of these people will have things – they may have a Sky TV subscription, they may smoke or drink. They may own TVs or games consoles.

It’s often because people become poor – so they may very well still own the things they did from beforehand. But it’s mostly because in Britain today, those things are cheap. 

But in any case, owning a TV doesn’t mean you magically have enough food for your children every single day. Even if you sold it, you’d have enough for a meal – and then your children would be starving in a house with nothing to do.

Food, shelter and heating are expensive – as well as being expenses you absolutely cannot escape, that recur constantly.

Read the Poverty and Social Exclusion Report 2013 for more.

5 thoughts on “Poverty in the UK

  • 13th May 2013 at 07:58

    The pseudo-arguments to “disprove” poverty seem to be the same in every European country:

    a) Point at even poorer people somewhere else. Optionally: tell poor people in your own country that they should even be grateful (!) that they don’t starve to death (regardless whether they all really don’t).

    b) Pick out a favourite strawman-luxury-item and demand they do without it. In Germany, the most common “luxury” item that poor people are supposed not to have – according to popular media and politics – are flat-screen TVs. As if there is a cheaper alternative besides having no TV at all (maybe that’s what they actually want to say?).
    Even more extreme, though rare, example: telephone. Once an idiot here seriously claimed that having _telephone_ were luxury and the poor should not be entitled to even that. Well, I cancelled the conversation and all contact with that guy soon afterwards when he also demanded long-term unemployed be sent forcefully to “work-camps” (he might as well just have said “concentration”).

    c) Pick out examples of people dying indirectly of poverty, and explain how they were actually wrong/it was their own fault/they could have done just Z instead, where Z usually means one of a number of completely self-deprecating things, sometimes even including prostitution.

    But the disturbing truth behind all of these is the quite frightening fact that there are, today, large swaths of people who have never taken any of the human rights to heart, and do not give a damn about other humans (or animals, while we are at it) suffering or dying, unless it is themselves or their closest relatives or friends.

    • 13th May 2013 at 11:34

      ’m not sure if it’s scarier that it’s happening all over Europe (because that means it’s happening all over Europe), or at least a little bit cheering (because that means “we’re all more alike than we pretend”)

      I must admit I’m surprised that anyone is talking about work camps and the like in Germany – occasionally some nutcase over here suggests something of the same (and we say “but isn’t that just like Victorian Workhouses?” which kinda shuts them down), but concentration camps have a rather more special – or at least more recent – resonance with Germans, I would have thought…

      The human rights thing is particularly upsetting though – we’ve got some very high profile politicians (including members of our current government) who are seriously talking about withdrawing the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights…

      The idea that someone can just suggest repealing Human Rights is truly terrifying.

      (and the reasons they have are truly ridiculous – suggesting that a piece of legislation primarily drafted by an English lawyer is somehow a ‘European law’ being foisted upon the UK’… it’s almost like they’re parodying themselves)

      • 13th May 2013 at 13:59

        “The idea that someone can just suggest repealing Human Rights is truly terrifying.”

        The terrifying thing for me is that people will happily sign away their own rights because they think it’ll lead to other people (people they don’t like) being shafted. Fuckyounomics in action.

      • 14th May 2013 at 07:44

        “I must admit I’m surprised that anyone is talking about work camps and the like in Germany”

        The guy was no one of political or media influence, just someone I knew personally (or thought I had until then).

  • 21st May 2013 at 08:46

    I sometimes wonder whether rich people, I’m being unfair, let’s call them daily mail readers, look in the mirror and think: ‘by jove, for surely I must be some kind of incredibly thick cunt’

    Does this person, who hateth the poor for scrounging, not realise that denying the poor money actually makes life worse for him? The old man’s pub, the greasy spoon, the fruit stall, places the rich mailer will never tread in lest he gets infected by a foreign type, are places that thrive because the poor spend their money there, only now that the benefits cuts are in full force, they don’t. Means the old man’s pub owner, greasy spoon worker and fruit stall handler are all out of a job, which means there’s more poor people and a more crippled economy.

    And even if the rich mailer couldn’t give a gobbling cock monkey about the poor getting poorer, or think nothing of letting UKIP know where the spare key is kept, don’t they see the fundamental flaw in all of this?

    If all the poor people in the UK stop getting Sky, how are Sky going to make up for the loss in revenue?

    By raising the subscription fee which YOU have to pay you rich moronic tagnut from hell


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