The inequality of poverty

One of the key issues tackled during Labour’s term was poverty. In 1997, the UK had one of the worst child poverty rates in Europe (20% of the population) and so Labour made a concerted effort to move more people out of poverty than ever before. Low income was defined as income below 60 per cent of median income. As Chapter 1 from the first “Data and reports” link below states:

Over the period 1994/95 to 2008/09, the percentage of the population below 60 per cent and 70 per cent thresholds of contemporary median income showed slight falls on both Before Housing Costs and After Housing Costs bases. …The proportion and number of the population below low-income thresholds … fell substantially over the same period – with proportions falling by around one half.

Over the period 1994/95 to 2008/09, there was a marked fall in the proportion of children below low income thresholds held constant in real terms. 2008/09 has shown a fall compared to 2007/08.

Despite these improvements, there is a high concentration of people just above the 60% of median income level. And, although poverty rates have fallen since 1997, income inequality remains stubbornly high, with a post-tax-and-benefit Gini co-efficient hovering around 0.38 since 1992, compared with around 0.30 in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

As recession set in, there were concerns about the effect it would have on poverty figures. However, according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), throughout 2008 and 2009 both children and pensioners saw their position improve, as hundreds of thousands were lifted out of poverty. According to the DWP’s annual Households Below Average Income report, mean take-home incomes grew for the seventh consecutive year – by 1% in 2008/9.

Whilst the most vulnerable seem to have survived the first test, the next will come with the substantial budget cuts the UK will see, as the government attempts to reduce the budget deficit. Poverty campaigners have warned that attempts to reduce the deficit must not be detrimental to poverty figures, by taking benefits away from those who need them. As Michelle Mitchell, the charity director at Age UK said: “Clearly there are huge challenges ahead for the new government, but now is the time to renew the fight against pensioner poverty and commit to eradicating it once and for all.”

Campaigners warn Coalition not to jeopardise falling poverty rates Guardian, Katie Allen (20/5/10)
Child poverty ‘historically high’ The Press Association (20/5/10)
Labour kept poverty in check, says IFS Financial Times, Nicholas Timmins (22/5/10)
Child poverty in Scotland increases by 10,000 in year Scotsman, Gareth Rose (21/5/10)
What the poverty figures show Guardian (20/5/10)
The untold story of poverty in working households Guardian, Peter Kenway (21/5/10)
UK pledges to reduce poverty Financial Times, Daniel Pimlott (21/5/10)
Don’t scrap child benefits, charities warn Guardian (20/5/10)

Data and reports
Households Below Average Income (HBAI) 1994/95-2008/09 Department for Work and Pensions (19/5/10)
Households Below Average Income (pdf file) National Statistics, First Release (20/5/10)
Effects of taxes and benefits on household income Office for National Statistics (see also, especially Tables 26 and 27)
Poverty and inequality in the UK: 2010 Institute for Fiscal Studies
A range of poverty data The Poverty Site

Previous blog
See also The poverty of poverty reduction policies


  1. What are the main causes of a) poverty and b) inequality?
  2. What is the difference between poverty and inequality? Can you think of any policies that might improve one of these objectives, but worsen the other?
  3. Explain how and why the recessions of the early 1980s, the early 1990s and between 2008 and 2009 could have led to poverty being reduced.
  4. The Financial Times article talks about different levels of poverty across the country. What can explain these regional disparities?
  5. The Coalition government has pledged to lift the income tax threshold to £10,000. What effect could this have on unemployment and poverty? How might this effect the poverty trap?
  6. The Guardian article ‘What the poverty figures show’ says that high levels of child poverty will cost the country at least £25bn a year. Why is this?