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Is it helpful to talk about ‘relative poverty’ in the UK?

Tom White

3rd October 2014

Economics examiners like you to be able to differentiate between two types of poverty. We come out with statements like “of course you don’t get absolute poverty in Britain”. But I’ve just been reminded that it’s not so long ago that some people in the UK lived a very threadbare existence. Even today there are pockets of shocking deprivation.When the issue of poverty crops up in the UK, we tend to be referring to relative poverty. But might there be good reasons to stop using that term?

I was prompted to write this blog after coming across some shocking images of life for the poorest in Britain in the late 1960s. One photo caption says:

Mrs M huddles with her four young children in the council house that they share with her husband in Balsall Heath, Birmingham. Their home has no bathroom, no hot water and the inside walls are running with damp. The children slept on sodden seat cushions covered by a couple of old 'macs'. They are pictured in January 1969, when a thick layer of snow lay outside and the windows were broken.

Are the people in these photographs (here or here) on the edge of absolute poverty, or would that be an exaggeration?

But what caught my attention was John Lanchester, writing in the Guardian, who argues that we should stop talking about poverty in the UK and instead simply refer to inequality.

I hope you follow the inequality debate and understand some of the issues arising from social exclusion in the UK. What level of income is needed for a decent standard of living? How is income and wealth distributed in the UK? Why is inequality rising?

If you get by on less than £13,920 (60% of the median UK household income of £23,200) you are officially poor. But Lanchester's point is that this doesn't correspond to most people's idea of poverty (think of those sad scenes captured in the photos). He thinks that describing the 13 million people in the UK on these low incomes as living in poverty just hardens the hearts of voters and makes a sceptical public feel less kindly towards welfare claimants. (If you look at the photos above using the link to the Daily Mail you'll see exactly what I mean).

So his argument is that if we want to tackle the problem of 'poverty' in Britain we should be honest about its name. It's not 'relative poverty'. It's inequality.

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