What do Britain’s new poverty numbers actually mean?

Different stats tell different stories — but if you listen to the people struggling, a disturbing picture emerges

March 23, 2023
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2NW22MT Euston, London, UK. 27th February, 2023. The sad sight of a homeless man sleeping on the pavement outside Euston Station with an empty cup hoping for people to give him money. Credit: Maureen McLean/Alamy

Is Britain in the grip of a poverty crisis—or not? The average busy citizen doing their best to follow the news will soon get lost in answering that question if they rely on numbers alone. 

Last week, they may have caught the chancellor boasting in the Budget that the government had helped lift “two million people out of absolute poverty.” 

In response to the annual stats covering 2021/22 just released on Thursday morning, they might now hear campaigners highlight that a million more Brits have just dropped below the most commonly used breadline.

Then, if our concerned citizen were not already confused enough, later in the day they might hear a government source give an altogether more soothing account of the very same data. Yes, a minister will be able to honestly whisper, these are testing times and the numbers have ticked back up a touch—but they are still somewhat down on where they stood before the pandemic.

Amid the current squeeze, that would sound decidedly reassuring. And yet within the last month, our same news-reading citizen may also have clocked that rough sleeping—surely one of the starkest markers of absolute poverty—has just shot up by a quarter in a single year. Only this week they may have also heard about rocketing food inflation running at its highest rate since the 1970s, which can only entrench the more than ten-fold increase in recorded recourse to foodbanks witnessed over the last decade. 

In sum, an argument about numbers is likely to leave even those who try to keep up with these things befuddled. They might do better to lend an ear to the people who are feeling most pinched. 

People like 53-year-old David in Drumchapel for example, out of work and dependent on benefits since a hip injury did for his job as a security guard a few years ago. He relayed to Scotland’s leading social reporter, Dani Garavelli, that: “I only eat one meal a day—and at least one day a week that meal will be cereal.” 

Whatever stats you might be armed with, you’d be hard pressed to persuade David that there wasn’t a rapidly building poverty problem. Or indeed Jo, booted out of her home in the idyllic Isle of Lewis on a landlord’s whim, and forced to uproot her two children to post-industrial Falkirk on the other side of Scotland. Or indeed Stella, a London mother who frequently works “two jobs, three jobs” but who has nonetheless found herself, in her 50s, sleeping in the front room of her brother’s flat. 

Without this sort of testimony, collated for my forthcoming edited collection of essays Broke it can be hard to chart a way through a welter of statistics that seem to point in many different directions. Of course, anecdotes are always selective, so it’s important to look at the numbers too. But after several months submerged in this kind of gruelling reportage, I think I’ve developed more of a feel for which numbers matter most. 

While there is nothing suspect about Thursday’s official data, there are several ways in which it could mislead. 

For one thing, for the first six months of the year they covered, emergency pandemic measures—most importantly a £20 a week boost to Universal Credit, sufficient to push some families above the breadline—were flattering the figures, just as they did throughout last year. When analysts get their hands on the data, it will be interesting to see if they can identify an increase in poverty in the year’s second half, after this relief was summarily withdrawn.

For another, at this particular juncture, there must be questions about how reliable a guide to living standards the “snapshot” weekly income used in the figures really is, particularly at the bottom end of the scale. I say that because we know (from Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of budgeting apps) that the pandemic saw the poor run down savings (or build up debt) while the rich, who were economising on restaurants and holidays, saw their “balance sheets” get stronger. For many with the frailest finances the real issue isn’t now income as such, but the management of debt. 

Third and finally, there is the question of rapidly building destitution at the very bottom of the scale—too far down to register in the overall income distribution. The leading academic analysis of the real hard end of poverty, based mostly on tallying the numbers turning to various “crisis” services for acute problems like homelessness, suggested that destitution was up by half over the last two pre-pandemic years. In parallel, our analysis at JRF registered deployed a lower breadline—of 40 per cent, rather than 60 per cent of median income—and charted a sharp rise in “very deep” poverty over the 2010s. The pandemic benefit “lifeline” may have briefly improved matters after that, but its withdrawal in October 2021 will surely have set things back once again. Indeed, if there were not a new problem of hunger stalking the land, you would have to wonder why this year’s official statistics are the first where it was deemed important to collect numbers on foodbank use.

In sum, while our busy news-watcher could be forgiven for concluding that, with poverty, there are simply “lies, damn lies and statistics,” we can’t just give up on measuring the problem. Instead, informed by what the people on the sharp end tell us, we have to strive to gauge it properly. And when we do, the picture we find is disturbing indeed.