The new poor: The social demography of poverty in modern Britain is changing fast – and tackling it will take more than slogans


In the 20th century, social reformers who wanted to find out more about “the condition” of the poor didn’t have to look far. In London, they took themselves off to the East End, in Glasgow, to the Gorbals. Of course, Britain had its genteel poor, whose plight was mined by a host of writers, from Trollope to Orwell. Generally, however, the poor were defined by geographical location and by a visibly ragged appearance. Today, as the new Rowntree Foundation report shows, it is a different world. Poverty in modern Britain not only comes in many guises but is often found where once it was least expected. According to Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion, those meeting the definition of poor – a fluid concept – are increasingly young, in work and living in private accommodation.

These findings will provide ammunition for Labour as it struggles to recover from Emily Thornberry’s run-in with white-van Britain and reposition itself as the ally of the have-nots. It would be a shame if discussion of the report turned into a battle of clichés, however. The phenomena the report describes deserve more serious debate, and these ills cannot be solved easily, nor will they be, if politicians pick and choose gobbets from the report as ammunition. It would be wrong, for example, if the fall in poverty among pensioners – now at a record low – was used to reinforce the stereotype that selfish oldies have stuck their noses in the trough with the complicity of politicians who calculate that pensioners vote more than young people. This idea should be knocked on the head. The fact is that the elderly used to be treated appallingly in Britain; now that we no longer treat quite them as disgracefully, the cry is heard that they are spoiled and greedy.

Growing poverty among those in work, which includes the young, is, obviously, invidious. But semi-invisible phenomena are hard to address. Smartly dressed young men or women hurrying to poorly paid jobs in the retail sector, for example, do not correspond to traditional ideas of people in need. Many of them, especially if they are immigrants from developing countries, would probably resent being defined as poor in any case.

One alarming fact in the report is that most self-employed people earn markedly less now than they did five years ago. This should disturb everyone, because the rapid rise in self-employment is constantly extolled as a good thing – the welcome liberation of the workforce from the old tyranny of office and factory life. Now we can see that this new freedom is often a ticket to a lifetime of insecurity.

But it is not clear how any government can reverse the steady erosion of the earnings of the self-employed. There is no magic bullet here, just as there is no single solution to the rise in poverty among young graduates. A generation ago, a university degree guaranteed a “good” job. Now it doesn’t – partly because these “good” jobs don’t exist at all any longer, for technological reasons, or do exist but have lost much of their old value, or have been farmed out abroad. Presumably, we do not want to reverse the quantum expansion in higher education that created a better-educated population in the first place, even if one side-effect of this is a fall in the value of a degree.

Some practical solutions are at hand. Increasing the amount of social housing is one. Too much income of poorly paid younger workers drains into the hands of private landlords, in London especially. Cracking down on zero-hours contracts and raising the minimum wage may also be good ideas. But we need to recognise that record high levels of employment in this country are partly a result of what is euphemistically termed “flexibility” in the labour market. Countering long-term trends towards poorly paid, insecure work, in other words, will require making tough choices.