Poverty in the UK, 2008

10 September 2008

To coincide with the launch of the Get Fair anti-poverty coalition, Rebecca Paveley talks to people suffering from everyday hardship



WHAT does it mean to be poor in the UK today? For many of us, the Victorian notion of poverty may still persist in our minds: ragged, barefoot chil­dren, malnourished, overworked par­ents, and slum housing. Yet in 21st-century Britain it is possible to be in poverty and own a mobile phone.

Poverty is a relative concept, explains Chris Goulden of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Where once it was measured on the basic principle of the “basket of goods”, the official poverty line is now set at 60 per cent of the national median income (currently £377 a week), i.e. £226.

For children who are classed as disadvantaged, it is as much about their participation in society as about their diet and clothes. While it may be possible to buy cheap tech­nology such as mobile phones, these children may still not be able to af­ford to go on the school trips, which can be relatively expensive, Mr Goulden says.

The number of people officially in poverty is increasing in the UK; and they are most likely to be children, pensioners, the disabled, or single-parent families. While New Labour made inroads into cutting poverty when it first came to office, this has now gone into reverse. According to the latest figures, after housing costs are taken into account, there are 13.2 million people in poverty today — about one in five of the population.

Of these, two to three million are thought to be in extreme poverty, living on just 40 per cent of the average income.

Of these, two to three million are thought to be in extreme poverty, living on just 40 per cent of the average income.

A COALITION of charities is being launched today to urge the Government to action to “get fair” on poverty. The Get Fair campaign brings together large charities, such as Church Action on Poverty, Help the Aged, and Save the Children, with smaller church groups to focus public attention on poverty and the growing inequality gap between Britain’s rich and poor.


The campaign also wants to counter the widespread public per­ception that there is no real issue of poverty today. To challenge this, we spoke to six very different house­holds to look at the face of po­verty today in 21st-century Britain.

‘Having my bike stolen put me on the streets’

LESLIE is 44 and, he says, lives on his own. He was brought up in a chil­dren’s home outside London and doesn’t have any family. He has been sleeping on the streets in south London for two years now. His slide from a life with wages and a flat to homelessness began when he lost his bicycle, the key to his job security.

“I was a cycle courier in London, but then someone nicked my bike and I couldn’t work any more. I had a one-bedroom studio flat in Elephant and Castle, but then I couldn’t afford it; so I started sleep­ing out in Burgess Park (South­wark). I can’t get social security because I have no fixed address: I just get £3.50 a day. I’ve tried to work, but it would cost over £100 for a good second bike, and I can’t afford it.”

Leslie occasionally visits the Manna Centre, which works with the homeless, for food or assistance, but says: “I don’t like going to shelters. I go sometimes for a shower, and to get my feet treated. I buy food from Tesco’s and Asda late at night when it is really cheap. I do bits and pieces like gardening. Some churches help me out sometimes: they keep me ticking over.”

He is resigned to his state, and sees no way of changing it in the near future. “It’s just the way it is: there are lots of people like me. . . I keep myself off alcohol and drugs, but it isn’t easy. I can see people cracking open cans as they wake up on the streets to get them through the day.”

‘I’ll live off a packet of ginger biscuits a day’

“JOHN” is a 30-year old male, with engineering qualifications, living in Stockton. He has a house and a girlfriend with a baby, and an ex-partner with two children. He is living on Jobseeker’s Allowance.

“They take all your arrears: the council tax, arrears of rent, social fund. I get about 45 quid a week. I owe Tristar homes; I owe council tax; I owe Lloyds TSB; I owe NPower. . . I just can’t afford to live.


“They take all your arrears: the council tax, arrears of rent, social fund. I get about 45 quid a week. I owe Tristar homes; I owe council tax; I owe Lloyds TSB; I owe NPower. . . I just can’t afford to live.

“The things they take off are the Social Fund, the crisis loans just to get by when you’ve got no money, and budget loans because every time it comes up to Christmas when you’re skint, you’ve got two kids, and they say to you, ‘I want this, Dad; I want that, Dad,’ and you’re like, ‘I get 45 quid a week: how am I supposed to explain to a four-year old and a nine-year old that the latest toy, that’s 200 quid? It would take me months and months and months of saving; and so I apply for a budget loan every Christmas.

“And the other is council tax. When there’s been a break in your Jobseeker’s, or when you’ve been on the sick, they don’t pay it for so long, and it just builds up.

“There are no jobs out there. And I find that, if I get a job, I’m worse off. You pay full rent for work­ing over 16 hours, and I don’t get tax credits un­less I was claiming for my children. So by the time I’d paid for my house, paid my council tax, got my money to go to work. . . I’m left with nothing.

“When I get my dole [Jobseeker’s Allowance], I get £90 a fortnight. Then straight away I’ve got to put £20 on my electricity, £20 on my gas, £10 towards my TV licence, and £17 rent. So that leaves me with what? Not a lot — and that’s before I buy food, before I buy anything.”

John comes back to his parents’ home every day to eat. “The woman at my local shop thinks I’m mad because I go every day and I buy packets of gingernuts — the own-brand gingernuts — because if I haven’t been to my parents’, I’ll eat a full packet of biscuits to fill me up, knowing that it’s only gonna cost 38p. Rather than trying to have a meal or something like that, I’ll just eat a full packet of biscuits.”

‘Trip means I can’t get benefit’

MARIA, who is 57, has been sleep­ing out under London Bridge since returning from working in the United States to find that she wasn’t entitled to any benefits. She had spent two-and-a-half years working in the US as a cleaner, but she was working illegally, and her employer advised her to leave or be deported.


“I have no close family at home. Before I went to the States, I’d had an accident at work which damaged my left knee. When I went to the States, at first I stayed with friends, too, but I couldn’t do that for ever; so I started cleaning.

“Since I’ve been back I’ve tried to get work, but everyone asks straight away for an address, and when you say you haven’t got one, they aren’t interested.”

For articulate, gently spoken Maria, sleeping rough has been very difficult. “I started off at Elephant and Castle, but, as I was on my own and didn’t know anybody, I found that very scary and cold, and I moved up under London Bridge. It’s a bit warmer there, and I have two blankets now. I get food from a shelter, breakfast and lunch, when they close at 1.30. I make do until the next day.”

Every day she contacts the Jobcentre to see if she is entitled to money yet. They keep saying they are sorting something out — the problem seems to be her length of time overseas — but she has yet to receive a cheque. Against the odds, Maria sounds sanguine, however. “As long as I have clothes to put on and have a shower, I’m happy,” she says.

‘Fuel price rises are making it hard to cope’

Joanne, 27, is a single mum in Glasgow. She is trying to retrain to work in the care services, and is attending college every day. While she does this, childcare for her two-year-old is paid for, and her four-year-old has now started school, part-time. She also gets Income Support of £60 a week, and £90 a week in benefits for the children. But after her gas, electricity, rent, and other essential bills are paid, she has just £13 over a week, she says.

“Some days, if things are tight, I can’t afford to get lunch at college, and just have to wait until I get home in the evening.”

Christmas and times like birth­days are doubly difficult. “Because of things, I have got myself into a lot of debt, and don’t know how I can get out. I was given £47 clothing grants to get my four-year-old’s school uniform, but that doesn’t cover it at all. I think the shoes alone were £40.”

Joanne has to pay for her elec­tricity through a meter, and has really felt the sharp increases in fuel bills in recent months. “I used to put in £15 each week, but now it’s £25. It’s really difficult to manage.


I don’t see why, when pensioners get a winter fuel payment, single parents don’t as well. I don’t know how we’ll cope if prices go up more.”

‘Feeling hopeless, I jumped from a bridge’

‘Feeling hopeless, I jumped from a bridge’

HS ARRIVED in the UK from Afghan­istan in 2002, after his brother was killed and his father was arrested. He was just 17 years old and on his own; he was granted exceptional leave to remain for four months until he was 18, when he sought asylum.

He wanted to study but was told to find a job; so he started working in his local supermarket.

He says: “After the long ordeal I’d been through, I felt like I’d started rebuilding my life. I felt useful. I was finally able to support myself and to think that the hard times I’d been through in Afghanistan were finally over.”

But then he heard his asylum application had been refused, and he had to leave his job. He ended up on the streets.

“I couldn’t afford to buy any food, and I didn’t have anywhere to sleep. I would walk all night around the City and sleep in the daytime in the park. I became very depressed and hopeless, and felt that I didn’t know what I was doing. At one moment, I jumped to the canal from the bridge and ended up in hospital. When I was discharged from the hospital, I was on the streets again. I was surviving on generosity of some local people who would buy me food from time to time.

“I decided to go to police and ask for help. They’ve just kicked me out of the police station, saying that they were not able to help me. I felt completely lost at that moment, and I took 28 sleeping tablets outside of the police station. I didn’t know of what happened shortly after that, but the next day, about 30 hours later, I woke up in the hospital connected to various machines and tubes. I was very angry when I woke up.

“Believe me: the streets can be very dangerous. I have been offered drugs many times, which I refused. But refusing drugs can be also very dangerous thing to do in that environment.”

HS is now being helped by a Christian project, Restore, in Birmingham, which is assisting him with his asylum application.

‘Even a cup of tea with a friend costs too much’


CHRISTINE HEWITT, who is 63, is a widow living in a small council flat. She is trying to live off her state pension, plus pension credit, which gives her an income of £124.05 a week. She lives in Prudhoe, in rural Northumberland, and cannot afford to run a car to get around.

“It’s adjusting to a different lifestyle that is difficult. It is hard coming down from having an income to having much less. I don’t know how I would manage if I didn’t have an allotment: that helps me, with food prices going up.

“I’m really pleased that I can use the computer and the internet: that helps me get the best prices for things like fuel, and also for food shopping, I buy some things in bulk online. I had to choose between a television and the internet: I couldn’t afford both; so I went for the internet.

“I’m really pleased that I can use the computer and the internet: that helps me get the best prices for things like fuel, and also for food shopping, I buy some things in bulk online. I had to choose between a television and the internet: I couldn’t afford both; so I went for the internet.

“I’m barely coping. If my washing machine packs up tomorrow (and it’s a bit dodgy), I’d have a problem. I just had to buy a pair of shoes, and I have funny-sized feet; so they set me back £60. It was either saving money towards a new washing machine or else wear leaking shoes.”

Christine saves money by going to bed early to cut down on heating bills — sometimes as early as 7.30pm — and going out in the day to the library, because it is heated. But she says: “I’m lucky to have my council flat. I was renting before, but the rent doubled, and I’d have been out on the streets if I hadn’t been offered this.”

She finds her lack of choices frustrating.

“After I have paid for essentials like heating out of my £124.05, I have 11p left over a week. I do occasionally get brassed off: I have cut down to the bare essentials, and I don’t know what I’ll do if food prices go up much more. I even have to think very carefully about the cost before I agree to go out and have a cup of tea with a friend.

The Get Fair campaign, launched yesterday, is supported by mainstream Churches and charities in the UK; www.getfair.org.uk

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