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One-third of Britons are too poor to ‘join in with society’

Many on lowest incomes cannot buy consumer goods, visit the cinema or go on holiday

Just under a third of people in Britain are excluded from mainstream society because they cannot afford to join in cultural activities such as going to the cinema, taking a holiday or buying consumer goods.

Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that the poorest 30 per cent are also prevented from “participating in society” because they have fewer social relationships and less trust in other people.

“Participating is about belonging. Many of society’s expectations require individuals and families to spend money,” the report, Poverty, Participation and Choice, says. “Like it or not, Britain is a consumer society in which people are assessed according to the income that they have, how they spend it and what they do with their time.”

Participation is defined by the report’s authors as “social relationships, membership of organisations, trust in other people and purchase of services”.

The research by academics at Oxford and Sheffield Universities, extends the work done by the renowned sociologist Peter Townsend who famously said that “poverty is relative” – ie, it prevents people from being full members of society.

The report found that participation in society falls as income falls, as might be expected. But participation bottoms out for the 30 per cent of households with the lowest incomes, for whom additional income then makes no difference. In other words, there is a cut-off point for being a full member of society.

Below this “participation floor” incomes may vary wildly. But extra money is spent on replacing worn-out goods or upgrading services, rather than buying extra things.

“Those [within the 30 per cent] with higher incomes do not have measurably increased living standards, greater social participation or higher levels of trust,” the report says. “The 30 per cent of people with the lowest incomes are forced to choose between the basic necessities of modern life; they must decide which needs to neglect.”

The research analysed information from a survey of 40,000 households, accounting for 100,000 people, representing a cross-section of Britain. They were asked what goods they owned, such as DVD players or dishwashers, and what activities they did, such as how often they went on holiday. Those on higher incomes owned or participated in nearly all the goods or activities. Those on lower incomes did not, and had to make greater choices.

Those with a good education and older people had greater membership of society, it found. The report, to be published this week, says that such social exclusion doesn’t affect the way children socialise, but means they perform less well at school.

Working parents tend to spend more time interacting with their children than those who don’t work but poorer parents spend more time helping with schoolwork as their children are more likely to fall behind.