Income and Poverty

Is poverty in the UK in 2016 caused by employment, habit or circumstance?

  • Published: Dec 19, 2016
  • Author: Karen Barker
  • Category: Income and Poverty

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Labour and Life of the People Charles Booth (1889) Robarts Library, University of Toronto via Open Library

The day after we published Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2016, Indy Bhullar, curator for Economics and Social Policy at LSE library, shared this fascinating excerpt from Charles Booth’s famous survey of the East London poor, first published in 1889. He shared it because the percentage of ‘very poor’ households categorised as being in ‘great poverty’ by Booth due to having insecure, irregular and poorly paid work was the exact same proportion of people in poverty in the UK in a working family in 2016: 55 per cent[1].

 The reality that work does not offer a way out of poverty for everyone is not the only similarity with the present day to be found in Booth’s work. As is illustrated in Booth’s categorisation of the three ‘causes’ of poverty, the Victorians were very fond of parcelling the poor into different factions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. In the ‘deserving’ camp you had those in poverty due to ‘questions of employment’ - insecure and/or low paid work. The problems of insecurity and low-pay today are evident at the bottom of the labour market by the 3.8 million workers in poverty. Problems of insecurity have also been creeping up the income scale. The government’s rhetorical emphasis on these ‘just about managing’ families shows that today people in work but facing a precarious financial situation are still mostly considered in the ‘deserving’ camp in the national discourse.    

Also in the ‘deserving’ camp a century ago were those who found themselves in poverty due to ‘circumstance’ (the implication being circumstance beyond their control) which was seen by Booth as including having an illness or ‘infirmity’, or having a large family occasionally compounded with irregular work.  Similarities with today can be seen in the graph below detailing the modern ‘circumstances’ of families in poverty.

MPSE 2016 3B workless families.JPG

Booth estimated that 11 per cent of ‘very poor’ families were poor due to ‘illness or infirmity’.  In 2016, half of people in poverty are disabled or live with someone with a disability. In families in poverty where no adults were in work, over a third contained someone with a disability.  

Booth saw having a ‘large family’ as another driver of poverty. While the average family size has declined dramatically in the UK over the past century (the average Victorian woman had 5.5 children[2]), family composition still affects the risk of poverty. Lone parent families and families with three or more children have a higher risk of poverty[3]. Among workless families in poverty, 13 per cent contain a lone parent, and 26 per cent contain a pensioner.  In fact, almost 9 out of ten (89 per cent) of households in poverty contain at least one of the following: someone in work, someone who is disabled, a pensioner and/or a lone parent.

Booth’s belief that some poverty is attributable to laziness (‘idleness’) or immoral habits (‘drunkenness’ and ‘thriftlessness’) also resonates very clearly today. The circumstance of being in poverty (especially if you receive any working-age social security benefits) is taken as a sign by much of the media, political establishment and the general public to be a sign that you are feckless and lazy. Problems relating to addiction, from substance misuse to smoking are still viewed by many as ‘bad habits’, as a recent proposal from a CCG in Yorkshire to limit surgeries for smokers highlights.

While Booth referred to illness, disability and family composition as ‘circumstances’, many of the policies of the last five years- from the increased scrutiny of people receiving disability benefits to the limit that only two children per family will be eligible for support through Universal Credit and Tax Credits from next year- show that what Booth termed ‘circumstance’ are increasingly seen as bad ‘habits’ which must be quashed.

There are fundamental problems with attempting to draw a line between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. We need to ask ourselves what price, both financially and ethically, we are willing to pay as a society in the service of this paternalistic view of the poor.  In 2015/16, 93 per cent of JSA sanctions that were reviewed were overturned- this is just one of the many indications that mechanisms within our current system for separating the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’ are applied in contradictory and inconsistent ways. Is it worth significant public money being spent on gatekeeping to ensure no one with ‘bad habits’ is benefitting from our public safety net?  Is the possibility that someone ‘undeserving’ may get support from our social security system really worth other people who are disabled, raising a young child alone, or unable to find work suffering?

The chart above shows just a few of the varying circumstances of people in poverty.  It illustrates the impossibility for our social security system attempting to distinguish who ‘deserves’ support and who does not because a bureaucratic system lacks both the nuance and the ethical authority to ever comprehensively tease apart the complex lives of people into ‘habit’ or ‘circumstance’.  



[3] NPI analysis for CPAG (forthcoming). 


[1]  This is an interesting coincidence, although the two proportions are not directly comparable. Booth’s proportions were based on a sample of 1,610 heads of households in London classed as ‘very poor’.  Our proportions are based on households living in poverty from the DWP’s Households Below Average Income Survey of 20,000 UK households (which gives a robust estimate for the number of households in poverty across the UK).  


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