Single adults become 'the forgotten poor'

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A new class described as the "forgotten poor" - working-age adults with no children - is on the increase in Britain, a report to be published today says.

A new class described as the "forgotten poor" - working-age adults with no children - is on the increase in Britain, a report to be published today says.

More than 3.9 million childless adults live below the poverty line - 300,000 more than when Labour came to power in 1997. While poverty among children and pensioners has declined, rising numbers of single adults are blighted by low pay, homelessness and poor health.

The study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the New Policy Institute think-tank warns that initiatives to reduce social exclusion are stalling and leaving a growing underclass of adults in deprivation.

Guy Palmer, the director of the New Policy Institute, said: "The forgotten poor are couples without children, single people and the sick and disabled, all of whom have been ignored by government policy on poverty and social exclusion. We have this dramatic target for reducing child poverty, yet there is not a single target for reducing social exclusion among adults - there is not even a dedicated charity."

The report found that last year 12.4 million people were living in low-income households (defined as 60 per cent of median income), compared with 14 million eight years ago.

Since the Government's Social Exclusion Unit was set up in 1997, the number of children living below the poverty line has fallen from 4.3 million to 3.6 million, and pensioners in poverty have been reduced from 2.7 million to 2.2 million.

Yet, despite initiatives such as the minimum wage, and record falls in unemployment, the report found that working-age adults were more likely to be living in poverty today than when Labour came to power. While income support for couples with children has increased by a third in real terms, benefits for childless adults have stayed the same for 10 years.

Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on work and pensions, said: "When pensioners were given a 75p increase there was outrage, but single people on benefits have been getting about 50p, year after year. You cannot carrying on without them falling so far behind that they become detached from the rest of society."

Headline figures suggest that unemployment has halved in the past 10 years to 850,000. But the statistics do not include a further 1.5 million people classed as "economically inactive" but who want paid work, a figure that has only fallen by a seventh in the past 10 years. Almost one third of 19-year-olds lack even a basic qualification, and the proportion of 16-year-olds leaving school with no GCSEs has remained the same since 2000.

About 200,000 households were accepted as homeless by their local authority in 2003, a rise of 25 per cent on 2000; two thirds involved childless people.

Experts said the Government's early success in tackling social exclusion and deprivation was stalling. Out of 50 key poverty indicators, only 10 have improved over the past year, while seven have got worse.

Areas in which poverty problems are increasing include people without educational qualifications and those with chronic illnesses. Mr Palmer said: "When you look behind the headlines, the economy is not doing anything to help reduce poverty. The successes have been where the Government has very actively intervened, for instance by increasing income support for families.

"There are millions on the minimum wage, who can only get short-term jobs and have no pensions or savings. They are being positioned for even worse poverty in later life. What we need is for the Government to focus on this group as the logical next phase to reducing poverty and inequality."

A spokeswoman for the Social Exclusion Unit said: "The department welcomes the report as a contribution to knowledge and understanding. The findings support the need for government to focus on improving delivery for all."