The facts of life on a low income

The poor are not an underclass. According to a study to be published this week, they are people who want to work, want a decent home, and yearn for an income that will pay their bills.

The study, Life on a Low Income, produced by the Rowntree Foundation, depicts the lives of millions of people living on benefits and low incomes. Among them are mothers who devise all manner of ways to provide, against the odds, for their families. They manage the budget by shopping without children to avoid being pressured to spend more, and favour street markets, where they shop at the end of the day, buying old fruit and stale bread at bargain prices.

The Rowntree Foundation, the philanthropic organisation founded by the Quaker maker of chocolate bars, and renowned for its studies of the poor, interviewed 2,000 people living on the breadline. Its report explores the strategies people use to cope with low incomes, and reveals the boredom and isolation of life on little money.

"If an underclass is a group with different values and aspirations to the rest of us, then this research shows that people living on low incomes are not an underclass," said David Darton, of the Rowntree Foundation.

While the poor have had the reputation of being feckless, the study reveals them as careful managers. Some explain that they have to keep cash separately for specific parts of their budget but for most, juggling the budget means choosing between spending on food or heating.

Around 14 million people live on less than half of average earnings. The majority live in households headed by women, who themselves bear the brunt of the hardships of poverty, including doing without food rather than letting their children suffer deprivation.

Rather than the consumer-credit debts of the better off, those on low incomes have debts on basic household bills, such as heating and council tax. But these financial problems can put an extreme strain on marital and familial relationships.

While the study says that finding a job is the ideal way out of this low income morass, it also assesses that just pounds 15 a week more would improve low-income families' lives.

If the connection between earnings and the setting of social security payment levels had not been broken 10 years ago, the Rowntree Foundation says, many of those struggling to survive today would be managing.