C'est la vie: we're more like the French than we knew

Britain grows richer, but the poor slip behind
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The Independent Online
Britain is becoming a better place to live - but only if you are successful. The latest snapshot of the nation's well-being shows a significant minority being left behind as health and wealth improves. Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent reports.

Britain is a richer nation than one-quarter of a century ago. Its people live longer, are more likely to be home owners and have a longer education, according to the latest edition of Social Trends. But at the same time a "significant minority" have been left behind - single parents and those without qualifications in particular - while for everyone relationships (personal and work-related) are less stable than they used to be.

Social Trends, the "biography of the nation", reveals that since 1971, real household disposable income has almost doubled. The amount of income deducted in direct taxes has also fallen from 14 per cent to 12 per cent. Total household spending was pounds 464bn in 1996, an increase of 83 per cent on the 1971 figure in real terms. But the most wealthy 1 per cent of adults have consistently owned around 20 per cent of the total marketable wealth over the last 20 years.

Seven in ten families now receive some sort of social security benefits - with spending on the sick and disabled trebling between 1981-82 and 1996-97. For those at the bottom of the pile life can be very hard: in 1995-96, 30 per cent of lone parents with dependent children in England said that they had been homeless in the previous decade.

Life expectancy continues to grow, increasing by about two years every decade. For babies born in 1996, a boy has a life expectancy of 75 years and a girl 80 years. Such is the ageing population that by 2021 one in five people will be aged 65 or over.

While life is longer, it is not always healthier. "While life expectancy has continued to increase, healthy life expectancy has remained virtually unchanged at age 59 for men and 62 for women," said Carol Summerfield, editor of Social Trends. "This suggests the extra years of life may be years of disability or long-term sickness rather than years of healthy life." This has stark implications for the benefits system and health service; nearly half of benefit payments are to the elderly and they account for a large number of health consultations.

Relationships are increasingly less stable. There were 322,000 marriages in the United Kingdom in 1995 - the lowest figure recorded since 1926. The divorce rate is the second highest in the European Union and about 1 in 65 children will be affected by divorce in Britain every year - twice as many as in 1971.

The labour market has also changed, making jobs increasingly flexible and the concept of a "job for life" has all but disappeared. Part-time work by men more than doubled between 1984 and 1997, although for women it went up by less than one-quarter.

l Social Trends 28 is published by the Stationery Office; pounds 39.50