Since Labour’s historic pledge to eliminate child poverty in a generation, poverty data has been at the forefront of political debates. The recession has created unemployment and has moved more people below the poverty line, at the same time as causing rising inequality
The causes of poverty are diverse and a recent government commissioned report has drawn attention to just one of the key factors that is pushing more families into poverty – energy bills.
Fuel poverty has become more of a concern with the cost of household bills rising and this has led to calls for more money to be invested in cutting energy bills. Fuel poverty has been redefined by Professor John Hills, the author of the report, to focus on those households with a low income and also with relatively high energy bills.
Fuel poverty is undoubtedly concerning from a moral point of view – indeed, knowing that some families are unable to afford to heat their homes causes disutility for others. However, there are also wider economic implications. If families are unable to provide heating, this may adversely affect their children’s ability to learn and complete their homework, thus negatively affecting their productivity today and arguable causing further problems in their future. While this may have little effect today, the cumulative effect on economic productivity could be substantial in the long run. Inefficiency for the macroeconomy is therefore a problem, as a child’s productive potential will not be fully realized. Furthermore, there are also health concerns, as the government notes – fuel poverty is linked to 2,700 deaths per year. Again, this creates a blight on society, but it also poses economic problems, not least due to the strain on the NHS.
Fuel poverty has long been identified as a problem that needs addressing and as the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said:
‘Fuel poverty is a serious national problem and this government remains committed to doing all it can to tackle it and make sure that the help available reaches those who need it most.’
Action is already taking place to insulate the poorest homes, as a means of cutting their energy bills and the government’s ‘Warm Homes Discount’ aims to provide help to the lowest income households in paying their bills. However, there are concerns that more households will move into fuel poverty, as this new definition doesn’t include those slightly wealthier households who still have high bills or the poorer households with relatively low bills. With the economy still in a vulnerable state, the latest data showing further rises in unemployment and household bills becoming increasingly expensive, the issue of fuel poverty is unlikely to disappear any time soon. The following articles consider this issue.
Fuel poverty seen for 3 million households by 2016 Reuters (16/3/12)
Fuel poverty to rise to 8.5m, report warns (including video) BBC News, Damian Kahya (15/3/12)
Nine million will live in ‘fuel poverty’ in the next four years Independent, Simon Read (16/3/12)
Fuel poverty to rise sharply Telegraph, James Hall (16/3/12)
Call for urgent action on fuel poverty Financial Times, Sarah Neville (15/3/12)
Fuel poverty worse than estimated The Press Association (15/3/12)
3 million fuel-poor households by 2016, report claims Guardian, Mark King and Zammy Fairhurst (15/3/12)
- What are the causes of poverty?
- How has the definition of fuel poverty changed? Is the change a good one? Think about the equity and efficiency of such a change.
- The BBC News article says that government measures to alleviate fuel poverty could be regressive. What is meant by this and why could this be the case?
- What are the economic consequences of fuel poverty?
- We can estimate poverty by looking at the poverty headcount or the poverty gap. What is the difference between these two measures? Which one is a more accurate measure of poverty?
- Are there any other actions that you think would be effective in alleviating fuel poverty? Would they be cost effective?
- Why does Age UK fear ‘the current proposals to improve energy efficiency through the Green Deal and energy obligation schemes are a woefully inadequate response to one of the most serious issues facing our country today’?