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Monday, 13 December, 1999, 09:58 GMT
Are the poor really getting poorer?

Despite Tony Blair's crusade against social exclusion, poverty increased during Labour's first year in office according to a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

But critics have taken issue with the report's approach, claiming "the poor" are better off than ever, it is simply that the income gap between haves and have nots is widening.

Is poverty really on the increase in the UK? Or is it just that standards are continually rising?

Your Reaction

I hope that one day all of those "pontificating" here about the poor and how they live never have to experience the "pleasure". I recoil in horror when I see the words "scroungers, lazy, etc.....c' think most people WANT to be that way.....they are victims of the welfare's a social problem not one caused by individuals.....
Mike, Brit in Singapore
I work for the psychiatric services within a deprived London area. We are entrenched in a hopeless fight against poverty, low attainment, bad housing, bad education, awful parenting skills and a round of helpless personality disorder. We have an underclass that is without hope let alone money.
John Bland, UK

It really irritates me to see so-called poor people sitting around doing nothing. If they have children then they should stress the importance of getting a good education, so they can better themselves and not get caught in the poverty trap. Life is what you make it.
Sarah, USA

If there is a question of narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots, at least in commerce and industry, I suggest that employees from "the shop floor" up be accorded a share of company profits. The work force is the heart and soul of the operations of any enterprise. There is no value in retaining large profits if it means the internal stability of the company and its power to sustain growth are compromised as they would be if the staff are not adequately rewarded for their efforts. Consider the welfare and prosperity of its humblest and most lowly employees and the employer is going to be rewarded with loyal and unremitting support for its goals and aspirations. On the other hand greed and avarice tend to isolate the wealthy.
Simon Cameron, United Kingdom

I don't think people in developed nations are actually poor, they only are relatively poor to their richer countrymen. Try living in one of the Third world slum areas for a day and then start discussing about rich and poor.
Peddu, India

Well it seems to me the welfare state has become completely out of hand. Surely it should be a way of helping people to help themselves. Too many people think its their 'right' to this money source thinking it is money from the government, but it is not; It is their friends and neighbours money they're squandering.
Peter Brophy, USA (UK ex pat)

I totally agree with other people that "real" poverty is not seen in the UK. What annoys me are the scroungers that are happy sit around on welfare, do nothing all day then complain because they have no cash. Get up and earn some!
Tony, UK

People who think there is no real poverty here in the UK must be going about with their eyes closed. To have a civilised country, we need to care about people who are experiencing hardship. I have been unemployed and believe me, living on benefit is not easy at all. The problem with Britain today is the greed of the rich and their arrogant attitude about it. This is a post-Thatcher legacy.
Peter Benjamin, England

Poverty to my mind is an absolute and it cannot be that difficult to devise a measure to index poverty in terms of the minimum income required to keep people clothed, housed and fed. Anyone who claims poverty in the UK - who receives all their appropriate state benefits - would, I am sure, be deemed to be living the life of luxury by people who do endure real poverty in places such as Africa, Asia and, closer to home, Eastern Europe. Bearing in mind our existing welfare culture, it would be the greatest folly to address defined 'poverty' via the benefit system, as this would create a lack of incentive. It would also alienate those on low (medium and high) incomes that do invest their time and effort in working for a living.
Julian Holley, England

It perplexes me that the more the the 'poor' compound the situation by having more children and bring them up to be scroungers, the more the government gives them and takes from the people that work to keep this country what we want it to be. I can completely understand why people scrounge for a living, after all, the government insist on making it so easy.
Garth, England

The government should replace benefit payments with some kind of voucher system enabling the deserving to exchange these four key items such as clothing, heating bills and food, but which prevents purchases of cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, second cars, satellite TV, etc.
Matthew, UK
In my experience there are many people who 'choose' to live off benefits rather than earn their living. These people usually have children, cars, satellite TV and drink or smoke. This cannot be described as a 'poor' standard of living. The government should replace benefit payments with some kind of voucher system enabling the deserving to exchange these four key items such as clothing, heating bills and food, but which prevents purchases of cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, second cars, satellite TV, etc. This would enable a common 'base' standard of living to be established, and those who wish to gain luxury items beyond the basics would be forced to get out of bed and earn a living just like the rest of us have chosen to. Benefits must be made a short-term aid to the poor, rather than a long-term lifestyle choice for the lazy or irresponsible.
Matthew, UK

While we are arguing about the dole-ites rights to beer and fags, there are genuinely poor people out there - and rich middle class families still collect their family allowance with no means testing. I can't see that family allowance is necessary in a lot of cases - when I was at school a lot of my friends used to get the whole allowance as weekly pocket money! Why not divert the money to where it's needed? Losing 17 (or however much it is now) won't hurt a lot of better off families, but may just help out those who actually NEED the money.
Sarah, UK

What annoys me is that I run my own limited company and last year personally contributed nearly 30k in VAT and taxes. Should the unthinkable happen and I am unable to find work, then I am not entitled to any benefits as I am a Company Director. Please someone tell me where is the justice in that!!!! Come On Tony its about time you came down harder on those people like ANON, who dare not even put his name on the mail. That's courage for you.
Brad, UK

Poverty does not just mean not having stuff like videos etc. In Britain there is also a poverty of spirit and opportunity. On some estates a family will have 3 generations of members unemployed. Some of the younger men will never work in a full-time job. They will move from one training course to another preparing for a job that will never come. The only immediate role model young women have is the unmarried mother of 3 next door and the only people who are seen to have the trappings of wealth are the drug dealers. The usual progress from school to college to employment does not exist in some of the housing estates of Britain. Rather there is a route from truancy to juvenile crime to unemployment to jail, drugs and jail again. Unless we break the chain poverty will continue and the gap between the rich and the poor will continue to grow. Solving the problem is hard enough but I would question whether there is a will to solve the problem.
Gordon, Scotland

The line for poverty is not set at the correct level. People expect to have all modern conveniences that previously would have been considered luxuries. Television and videos should be considered as luxuries and not a basic requirement.
Philip Ross, England

I was raised by a divorced mother as one of three children. My mother worked for as long as she could but various health problems meant that in the end she had to give up work. For the most part these difficult times were under Conservative Rule. We were honest. She never worked on the side and when my brother and I started to work, despite the fact our wages were low, we paid the rent on our mothers council house and the Poll Tax. From my own experience, If you are honest and on benefit or low wages, believe me you are poor.
Susan , UK

It is not all down to a lack of money. But impoverished imagination and aspiration has a lot to do with the poverty that covers all society. You can chuck as much money as you like at people, but if they don't have the inclination or resolve - where is it going to get them. School work from an early age should be geared to contribute to a child's well being and standing in the community - so that when (s) he starts life (s)he is not overwhelmed by what confronts him(her) - but feels in a position to contribute to life and to continue to learn from life.
Robin Bate, Scotland

The problem isn't that the poor are getting poorer. The problem is that the proportion of the population who are poor is increasing, and the opportunities for them to escape from this trap are becoming scarcer. Try taking a look at the vacancies offered at most job centres, to see what I mean. No wonder they spend what little they have on beer, fags & satellite TV. In their position, so would I.
Patrick Lewin, Swede, in England

The poverty debate is somewhat misleading due to the definition of poverty that is being used. Any household with earnings less than half the national average are deemed to be in poverty. This is, in fact, not a measure of poverty but rather a measure of inequality. Whilst undoubtedly there is genuine poverty in the UK, the recently published figures are not a useful basis for informed debate.
Mr. Tontola, Finland

The place where you will see the most satellite dishes is always a council estate.
Niall Gooch, UK
Funny how the so-called "poor" are always the ones with cable, Adidas/Nike clothes, hi-fis, money for smoking, drinking etc., own brand products. The place where you will see the most satellite dishes is always a council estate. The "poor" need to sort out their priorities.
Niall Gooch, UK

Vernon Bigg must have read my mind. Please read his comments again. People not taking responsibility for themselves is a wide and important issue. I'm sorry to say however, that the 'It must be someone else's fault' attitude, is something we're slowly adopting from the US
J Begley, England

My grandfather started work "down pit" when he was fourteen, just after the General Strike of 1926. The qualification - you needed a pair of shoes. He had to borrow a pair to get the job. His children were happy to receive a stocking filled with an orange and nuts for Christmas.
We still have real and desperate poverty in the UK, but I simply can't believe that it is as bad today as in my grandfather's day. The standard by which we measure poverty has been raised, along with the living standards of millions of people. Inequality can only be lessened through education and opportunity.
Tony Young, Germany

Simply put, the poor are not getting poorer - standards are being raised and people are enjoying a better life than before. Also, people keep complaining about the gap widening between those who have money and those who do not - what they fail to take into account is that some of us worked very hard to learn and develop needed skills.
Don't blame us if you smoked behind the bike shed rather than learning something early on in life and now you have to work in a warehouse. Some of us struggle every day to keep up with the ever-moving world whilst so-called poverty-stricken people sit in the pub half the day drinking and the other half the day watching Sky Digital at home...
Paul Charters, England

Have you tried to survive on 48 a week state benefit?
Cara, UK
It's true that poverty in the UK is incomparable to that which exists in the developing countries, but I think it's time that the UK recognised the "forgotten". Have you tried to survive on 48 a week state benefit? The minority of the "poor" cheat the system. Many hard workers who have no intention of "living of the state" find it hard to survive as they come home with less than 100 a week, others hold down three different jobs just to get food on their family's table.
If you were homeless, surely you would allow yourself the "comfort" of a cigarette or an alcoholic drink?....These people barely/do not have a roof over their heads! Also, how many of the "poor" have access to the internet to respond to this blinkered, self-righteous discussion?
Cara, UK

Poor? The last time I saw genuine poor people was in the jungles of Sumatra and Borneo. These were people who had to scratch to find enough to eat and a place to sleep - people with nothing and no prospect of ever having anything.
People in Britain and the US aren't truly poor. When was the last time you saw someone living without electricity and some form of plumbing? When was the last time you saw someone who couldn't afford food and couldn't find anyone to provide it? Our poor are rich in comparison to the truly poor. The word has been taken by our politicians, and changed to suit their purposes.
Jim, USA

This issue, I believe, points to one that looms even larger in our lives. I feel a number of factors have contributed to the growing disparity of wealth in our two countries. Namely, the decline of the labour unions, the Thatcher and Reagan tax cuts, privatisation, the flight of the middle class from our cities (along with their capital), the decline of the manufacturing base, etc.
However, it appears that, the growing disparity of wealth in the US and UK points to a larger issue of greater enormity...our countries' inability to adequately adjust to the changes that the ever-quickening pace of technological advancement has thrust upon us.
Joseph Waters, United States

In global terms, there is no poverty in the UK. The problem is expectations created by the nanny state that the Labour Government is creating, which works on the "Take from the worker, and give to the scrounger" principle.
John Atkins, Brit in Singapore

Too many people are sitting at home on benefits and not bothering to look for work.
Alison Cuff, UK
What is 'poor' exactly? Doesn't the definition depend on where in the world you live? There aren't many people in this country without adequate food and shelter, for example. But there are those that are disadvantaged. The recent survey regarding universities show us that. The problem in this country is the 'welfare system' - too many people are sitting at home on benefits and not bothering to look for work as they know that they will probably be worse off if they did take up employment! Overhaul the welfare system and ensure that the poor are given the same opportunities as the rich and we might be able to do something about the so-called poverty in this country.
Alison Cuff, UK

It is all very well for the armchair critics, who reckon the poor aren't really poor, to make glorious statements. But I doubt that they have any personal experience of real hardship. Neither have I. However the old Labour trick of bringing the rich down to the level of the poor is happening today. It would be so much better if they concentrated their efforts on helping the poorer families to get a good start in life.
Andrew, UK

Cut the welfare and make these lazy slobs work for a living instead of penalising the working middle class! The gene-pool is being filled with dishonest lazy people's children - whose purpose in life was to accelerate their single mothers to the top of the housing list. That's why I don't live in the UK anymore. I was sick of scrounging for a living whilst tolerating the crime and violence.
Alex, ex-pat living in US

I believe in sharing the wealth. In Europe everybody is better off, but unfortunately the rich get richer, while the situation for the poor is only marginally improving. I suggest to increase taxes for the well-paid (they can afford it) and reduce taxes for the ones that can hardly get by.
In Holland, the highest income tax bracket is 60% (my Dutch income used to fit in that bracket), and look at the economy: it's booming! Of course I am not forgetting about the really poor people. They are not in Europe or North America! As we are all living on the same planet, we should share the resources and wealth with everybody! Why can't we do that? Sometimes I am ashamed that I am a human being...
Werner de Jong, Dutchman in Canada

Without family planning administered by local, state and national agencies, population will always exceed the available wealth, making poverty inevitable.
JT Ross, USA

There is only one kind of poverty in the UK nowadays: poverty of the spirit.
Iain McNaughton, UK
It is crazy to define "poverty" as "having less than some fraction of the average wage". A country that says "you are poor if you have less than half the average income" will have a lot of "poor" people. Let's stop defining poverty in relative terms: the "poor" of today have luxuries that previous generations could only dream of. There is only one kind of poverty in the UK nowadays: poverty of the spirit.
Iain McNaughton, UK

Of course the poor aren't getting poorer. But the belief that they are is being pushed in order to justify a left wing social agenda.
Hugh, UK

The standards are continually rising, here in the States the poverty level was raised for political purposes, I suspect that happens in Britain as well.
Richard T. Ketchum, USA

What is often overlooked is that wealth inequality and relative poverty actually cast a doubt that wealth IS being created and wealth increases are REAL. After all, wealth is simply the stuff people want, and wealth creation happens when the amount of such stuff increases. Wealth gives the owner, among other things, a greater say in what CONSTITUTES further wealth and what should be produced for wealth to increase. For this reason, and the fact that the needs of the rich are inherently different from those of the poor, income inequalities and large sacks of poverty are extremely dangerous for a purely economic reason: Unless wealth is distributed well, we have no way of knowing whether the wealth we are creating is really stuff which will improve many people's lives, or luxuries needed by only a minority.
George, UK

In absolute terms the poorer are getting richer but this is an illusion because statistically speaking the income difference in UK between different groups is already among the highest in the world. the uneven and possibly unjust distribution of available income makes it look like poorer would be getting poorer. This illusory problem should be addressed before it runs out of control and allows for developing of extremely polarised society. Mikko Toivonen Finland
Mike Toivonen, Finland

Of course things are getting "better" for the poor. Generally, as societies advance things get better for all. The question is, at what rate do things get better for different groups? I would say that things advance at a faster rate for those who are better off, meaning the gap between the poor and the rich gets larger. So although things are getting better for the poor, they're not getting better fast enough.
Tristan O'Dwyer, UK

It is questionable whether the poor are better off. Since living here I have seen many many homeless people who have virtually nothing. Whereas the rich are richer than ever. The growing gap between the richest and the poorest is THE issue of our time.
G Howard, Brit expat living in US

The apparent increase in poverty is a natural by product of the Welfare State. Since the Second World War, generations have grown up expecting the government to house, clothe and feed them. Until people take responsibility for themselves and their families - and that means not having children if they cannot afford them - then the available funds which governments and society has available to support genuinely deserving cases will be too thinly spread. Interesting to note that the majority of "poor" always find the cash for cigarettes.
Vernon Bigg,UK

Who would have thought that poverty would increase under a Labour government. Tony Blair's arguments countering the published results of Bristol University and the Joseph Rowantree Foundation would have counted more if his government's quickly cobbled-together report did not use such selective resources and out-of-date statistics. The fact that Tony Blair was only too willing to go with this flawed report indicates once more that his government rate presentation much higher than real actions based on sound policy. A strategy on poverty based on soundbite politics is no strategy at all. Real people will suffer unnecessarily because of this.
Malcolm McCandless, Scotland

We cannot judge poverty today against that of 50 or 100 years ago. Of course in some ways people have it easier - they have heat, light, healthcare, appliances, and a welfare net - so is the plight of the poor today preferable to destitutes in the late 19th century? Yes, but is the living standard of today's poor acceptable by the standards we use to judge our society? The answer has to be no. There is more than enough wealth to ensure that nobody should be forced to live in the poor conditions we see around us, north and south, every day.

Isn't a bit stupid to expect that Labour could halt the momentum of 17 years of Conservative rule in only a year or two? Frankly I'm not surprised that the poor appear to be getting poorer. If you had read the pre-election Economist special issue, you would have seen that in "real terms" the poorest 10 per cent of the population did become worse off during Conservative (mis)rule, although the general gap between rich and poor widened even more spectacularly.
Dave Strickland, US

It's certainly true that money can't buy you hapiness, but I guarantee that grinding poverty will buy you misery. No wonder nobody smiles "oop north".
Bob, UK

Define poor. Is it inability to afford a second car, inability to buy your second packet of ciggies for later today or inability to go to Florida? They live in a healthier environment, and live longer. They may not be able to afford the trappings of the rich, but then few of us can. My family is hardly wealthy (our family holiday is in the Lake District), but we are happy, and live comfortably, and that is what matters above all else. The song "Money can't buy me love" springs to mind.
Alex, Wales

Please tax us more! Taking 40% from us annually could never be enough. A tax rise could provide a bonus for people sitting at home watching Richard and Judy to buy more beer and fags.
G White, UK

There is no such thing as poverty in the UK. If you want to see real poverty try visiting the slums of Rio or San Paulo in Brazil.
Miguel Oronne, Brazil living in UK

Are the poor really getting poorer? This was one of Marx's main arguments, and a lot of people even today still think that it is true. However the poor are getting richer, and the middle class are getting poorer. Why? The poor are taking advantage of the welfare system, many of them say that "I don't have a job" or "I don't have the ability to work", but the truth is that they have jobs, cash jobs that is, so they don't have to pay income tax. However, many of the "honest" middle class people work hard to earn a living. If one want to see the poor getting poorer, cut the welfare system.
Joe, USA

I haven't worked for years and neither has my girlfriend. we have three kids, a car, a computer, & cable TV. Both of us smoke and we like a drink. According to the government we should be in poverty, but we're not. How come? By scrounging off the state.
Anon, London

If poor people are getting poorer how come they can all afford to satellite TV, cigarettes, and lengthy trips to the pub?
Simon Maldick, UK

Certainly it is important that the lot of the poor improve steadily and Great Britain is to be commended for accomplishing that. But there is more to this issue. Questions of social antagonism and envy can lead to political instability or (more likely) political stupidity if the living standard gap between the rich and poor becomes too vast. This is a problem we also have in the USA. The poor here are better off than ever and our massive economic expansion has greatly reduced grinding poverty.
However, the gap between rich and poor remains troubling. There is no way to easily remove this gap without counterproductive policies of radical income redistribution. The most important issue is how easy it is for the poor to ascend to the middle class. Does everyone have access to a decent education and are they free from discrimination because of their background of poverty. It is a very American view, of course, but class mobility is the most important issue.
Rath Andor, USA

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See also:
08 Dec 99 |  UK
Poverty report challenges Blair
05 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Blair: North-South divide 'a myth'

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