“I had no food in the house to feed my two kids,” says Aprel. “I’d lost my job through falling pregnant and the relationship I was in broke down, so I was on my own.”
Aprel had a history of drug use which, she says, “got me into a bad place”. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, then on top of that got postnatal depression. “Once I’d bought baby milk I was living on literally £3.20 a week. I was getting letters and phone calls non-stop from 13 different companies, from 8am to 8pm every day. I told them I couldn’t afford to pay them but they took my money anyway.”
Aprel is perhaps the classic image we have of someone on the poverty line. But “poverty” is such a wide-ranging term. What do we mean by it? There are many definitions of what it means to be living in poverty, the most commonly used one in the UK being “relative income poverty”. This is used throughout Europe, and is taken to mean households where the income is 60 per cent or less of the country’s median household income, which in the UK is currently around £25,000. So, if your household is bringing in less than about £15,000 a year, you’re in poverty.
We might also talk about “absolute poverty”, which means that the poverty level of an individual, household or group doesn’t change over time, even if the economy improves and society becomes more prosperous.
Then, if the word poverty itself seems a little distasteful, we might talk about “social exclusion”, for which we can look to the official Government definition: “The lack or denial of resources, rights, goods and services, and the inability to participate in the normal relationships and activities, available to the majority of people in a society, whether in economic, social, cultural or political arenas.”
However you slice it, poverty is bad news. And there are more of us living in it… and not just people like Aprel. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this month, one in every eight workers in the UK is now classed as living in poverty. That’s 3.8 million individuals who, despite having a job, are on the breadline. Taken as households, that’s 7.4 million people – 2.6 million of them children – who are in poverty. And that means a record high of 55 per cent of those classed in poverty are actually in working households.
“The UK economy is not working for low-income families,” says Helen Barnard, Head of Analysis at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. “The economy has been growing since 2010 but during this time high rents, low wages and cuts to working-age benefits mean that many families, including working households, have actually seen their risk of poverty grow.
“As it negotiates Brexit, it is vital that the Government does not allow its focus to slip from the domestic concerns that make a huge difference to people who are just about managing. This report shows that people on low incomes cannot rely on economic growth and rising employment alone to improve their financial prospects. Families who are just about managing urgently need action to drive up real-term wages, provide more genuinely affordable homes and fill the gap caused by cuts to universal credit, which will cost a working family of four almost £1,000 per year.”
These “just about managing” households have been big news recently, even earning themselves an acronym: Jams. Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May has promised to do something for the Jams. And that’s hardly surprising; working households tend to vote, and they’ll often cast their vote for those who make their lives a little easier.
“Theresa May has been talking a lot about the Jams, and it’s right that she should,” says Marianne Clough. “But apart from the just about managing families, there are those who are not at all managing.”
So the Naams, perhaps. Those who are in poverty but not the 55 per cent who are working. People like Aprel. Marianne is a spokesperson for Christians Against Poverty, a Bradford-based, national charity that helps people struggling to attain even a basic level of living. Aprel was one of their clients, featured in CAP’s 2015 client report. The charity is drawing up its 2016 report, to be released in early spring, and the picture isn’t improving.
Clough says, “We do interviews with people we have helped across the country for the client report, and there are clear indications that things are becoming more extreme for people right on the edge.”
CAP helps around 20,000 people every year across the UK, primarily by taking away the worry of being chased by creditors and acting as a debt relief organisation that negotiates on behalf of its clients to stop harassment and put together workable repayment plans.
The average household income of those they help is about £14,000 a year… with many of them far, far below that. Clough says, “Some of the people we help have no chairs to sit on, no carpets, nothing in the kitchen cupboards. We have people who have not put on the heating or the hot water for more than a year.”
Today CAP, along with the Trussell Trust, which manages food banks across the UK, revealed that almost half of the people referred to them needing food handouts are on pre-payment fuel meters, meaning that if they have no money they can’t pay for gas and electricity.
Health news in pictures
Health news in pictures
1/19 Vaping backed as healthier nicotine alternative to cigarettes after latest study
Vaping has been given an emphatic thumbs up by health experts after the first long-term study of its effects in ex-smokers. After six months, people who switched from real to e-cigarettes had far fewer toxins and cancer-causing substances in their bodies than continual smokers, scientists found
2/19 Common method of cooking rice can leave traces of arsenic in food, scientists warn
Millions of people are putting themselves at risk by cooking their rice incorrectly, scientists have warned. Recent experiments show a common method of cooking rice — simply boiling it in a pan until the water has steamed out — can expose those who eat it to traces of the poison arsenic, which contaminates rice while it is growing as a result of industrial toxins and pesticides
3/19 Contraceptive gel that creates ‘reversible vasectomy’ shown to be effective in monkeys
An injectable contraceptive gel that acts as a ‘reversible vasectomy’ is a step closer to being offered to men following successful trials on monkeys. Vasalgel is injected into the vas deferens, the small duct between the testicles and the urethra. It has so far been found to prevent 100 per cent of conceptions
4/19 Shift work and heavy lifting may reduce women’s fertility, study finds
Women who work at night or do irregular shifts may experience a decline in fertility, a new study has found. Shift and night workers had fewer eggs capable of developing into healthy embryos than those who work regular daytime hours, according to researchers at Harvard University
5/19 Breakfast cereals targeted at children contain 'steadily high' sugar levels since 1992 despite producer claims
A major pressure group has issued a fresh warning about perilously high amounts of sugar in breakfast cereals, specifically those designed for children, and has said that levels have barely been cut at all in the last two and a half decades
6/19 Fight against pancreatic cancer takes ‘monumental leap forward’
Scientists have made a “monumental leap forward” in the treatment of pancreatic cancer after discovering using two drugs together dramatically improved patients’ chances of living more than five years after diagnosis.
7/19 Japanese government tells people to stop overworking
The Japanese government has announced measures to limit the amount of overtime employees can do – in an attempt to stop people literally working themselves to death. A fifth of Japan’s workforce are at risk of death by overwork, known as karoshi, as they work more than 80 hours of overtime each month, according to a government survey.
8/19 Over-cooked potatoes and burnt toast ‘could cause cancer’
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued a public warning over the risks of acrylamide - a chemical compound that forms in some foods when they are cooked at high temperatures (above 120C).
9/19 Cervical cancer screening attendance hits 19 year low
Cervical screening tests are a vital method of preventing cancer through the detection and treatment of abnormalities in the cervix, but new research shows that the number of women using this service has dropped to a 19 year low.
10/19 High blood pressure may protect over 80s from dementia
The ConversationIt is well known that high blood pressure is a risk factor for dementia, so the results of a new study from the University of California, Irvine, are quite surprising. The researchers found that people who developed high blood pressure between the ages of 80-89 are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia) over the next three years than people of the same age with normal blood pressure.
11/19 Most child antidepressants are ineffective and can lead to suicidal thoughts
The majority of antidepressants are ineffective and may be unsafe, for children and teenager with major depression, experts have warned. In what is the most comprehensive comparison of 14 commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs to date, researchers found that only one brand was more effective at relieving symptoms of depression than a placebo. Another popular drug, venlafaxine, was shown increase the risk users engaging in suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide
12/19 'Universal cancer vaccine’ breakthrough claimed by experts
Scientists have taken a “very positive step” towards creating a universal vaccine against cancer that makes the body’s immune system attack tumours as if they were a virus, experts have said. Writing in Nature, an international team of researchers described how they had taken pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in the advanced stages of the disease. The patients' immune systems responded by producing "killer" T-cells designed to attack cancer. The vaccine was also found to be effective in fighting “aggressively growing” tumours in mice, according to researchers, who were led by Professor Ugur Sahin from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany
13/19 Green tea could be used to treat brain issues caused by Down’s Syndrome
A compound found in green tea could improve the cognitive abilities of those with Down’s syndrome, a team of scientists has discovered. Researchers found epigallocatechin gallate – which is especially present in green tea but can also be found in white and black teas – combined with cognitive stimulation, improved visual memory and led to more adaptive behaviour. Dr Rafael de la Torre, who led the year-long clinical trial along with Dr Mara Dierrssen, said: “The results suggest that individuals who received treatment with the green tea compound, together with the cognitive stimulation protocol, had better scores in their cognitive capacities”
14/19 Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
15/19 Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
16/19 Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
17/19 A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
18/19 Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences. Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
19/19 Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
David McAuley, chief executive of the Trussell Trust says: “A crisis in winter for someone on a pre-payment meter who can’t afford the bare essentials isn’t just shocking: it’s dangerous. We’ve met a grandmother who went without food and heating as she waited six weeks for a delayed pay cheque, a family using candles over the Christmas period because they can’t afford to put the lights on.”
CAP prefers not to bang political drums about poverty, preferring to put their energies into personal meetings at home with every one of their clients and, according to Clough, organising extensive meetings behind closed doors with banks, credit providers, power companies and politicians to bring about the changes required to lift the pall of poverty that hangs over the UK.
There is no shortage, though, of people more than willing to put the responsibility for the poverty crisis at the door of the present Government and its austerity policies of freezing benefits and slashing universal credit.
Naz Shah, the Labour MP for Bradford West, has known poverty herself. As a child, abandoned by her father, she and her mother and siblings passed from one squalor-ridden hovel to another around West Yorkshire. “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt,” she says. Shah pulled herself up by her bootstraps – her resourcefulness would make any Tory proud! – but she knows that she might not have been able to if she was in the same situation today with the extra-harsh strictures on those on the breadline.
“It’s a cycle, a spiral,” she says. “You feel like you’re at the middle of a tornado. People have got to have support to allow them to transcend those situations, but that support is increasingly just not there. Benefits and tax credits shouldn’t be seen as a hand out, they should be seen as a hand up, a way to help people help themselves out of the poverty trap.”
Now an MP in a city that has some of the worst levels of deprivation in the country, Shah is seeing first-hand how people are suffering. “I had a woman come to see me with a list of people she owes money to, including all her neighbours. She didn’t know what to do, who to pay with the bit of money she had.
“I see people who have jobs on the poverty line, because they are on zero-hours contracts and have no job security. People with two jobs, sometimes three, who haven't seen an increase in wages in literally years.
“The Tory way to solve this seems to be taking money from places with high levels of poverty and redistributing it to wealthier areas. How is this a strategy for economic recovery? It just stinks.”
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has its own ideas on what needs to happen to arrest the poverty spiral, including reversing cuts to in-work allowance, ending the freeze on benefits so they rise with inflation, and cutting housing costs for those in the private rented sector.
In the meantime, while Great Britain plc tries to balance the books through austerity politics, it is left to individuals and organisations to put sticking plaster after sticking plaster over the widening poverty gap in the UK. Organisations like the Trussell Trust and their food banks, who helped Maria Amos of the Wirral last Christmas. She says, “I had no money at all and couldn't afford to put the gas on. I moved the bed into the living room, like a bedsit. I couldn't afford to heat the whole house. The food bank helped me with a food parcel and a fuel voucher, and I was so grateful for the help they gave me.”
And CAP, who helped Aprel, living on pennies a week and bombarded by creditors until CAP stepped in. She says, “I’m debt free now; my life is new. The way that I spend now is different: I save a bit, which I didn’t used to. And I can afford things for my kids, like swimming lessons for my son, which he’s wanted for such a long time. I wouldn’t have realised how good life could be without CAP. I would still be putting my kids to bed and then getting high, if it wasn’t for their help. But with CAP I always had the reassurance that someone was there to help me, no matter what.”
The question is, are there enough sticking plasters in the world to cover the gaping wound of poverty that is blighting life in Britain at the end of 2016?