The claim comes some way into a report that acknowledges that on the face of things, poverty has rocketed. But if you unspin how statistics are compared, fill in a £37 billion hole of under-reported benefits income, and take into account low wages, then relative poverty was actually down to the targets set for 2004 and 2010.
And no-one noticed.
My first reaction was to ask why all the mainstream media had not jumped on this story. It’s an opportunity to further hide the realities of life for the poorest in our community. But then I realised they don’t even care that much about the destitution on our doorsteps.
The Foundation’s Living Standards Audit 2018, however, opens a can of worms. I guess, as any exploration of deprivation in the UK is bound to do.
It seems to me that measuring relative poverty is a red herring because it accepts that if everyone’s wages are down, living on next to nothing must somehow be okay. I assume that’s why the Joseph Rowntree Foundation focus on a ‘Minimum Income Standard’ below which people do not have “sufficient income to afford a minimum acceptable standard of living”.
The Resolution Foundation identified a major discrepancy between what the government says it spends on benefits and what claimants report: £44 billion-worth. Or £37 billion once people that don’t get surveyed are taken into account. I’m not surprised, knowing how many people think they don’t pay rent because Housing Benefit is paid direct to the landlord and doesn’t seem like an income at all.
Then again, when they compared statistics like for like they found the less surprising story that poverty has soared: “Relative child poverty may have risen to its highest rate in at least 15 years, despite high levels of employment”, the report claims.
The fact more people are in work and worklessness is down is some cause for celebration, especially in terms of the non-financial benefits this brings families. But Tax Credits and Child Benefit have been frozen and, despite wage increases at the bottom (through the Minimum Wage), inflation means we’re all worse off on average.
By coincidence, another article questioned the reliability of unemployment statistics. A Business Insider UK comment piece pointed out: “Unemployment in the UK is now so low it's in danger of exposing the lie used to create the numbers”.
The piece says either well-established economic theory is wrong or the stats are. In a jobseekers’ market, economists expect employers to have to increase the wages they offer but this isn’t happening. So many are in insecure and poorly paid gig ‘jobs’ or settling for minimum wage roles in the retail or care sectors, for example, but where are they coming from?
Quoting the Office for National Statistics, Business Insider says the stats make a false assumption about the numbers of unemployed people who are happy without a job. “In reality, about 21.5% of all working-age people… are without jobs, or 8.83 million people”, it said. This compares to the official unemployment figure of 4.5 per cent, or 1.49 million people. The difference is assumed to be a mix of stay-at-home parents, those on a job break and people who have given up looking for work.
It’s no wonder that people don’t know what to believe any more. We only need to look at the comments responding to the Independent’s coverage of the Resolution Foundation story. Reader responses to the findings are split down depressingly familiar lines; blaming immigrants for rising poverty or laying responsibility at the door of the Tories… and then a Brexit row breaks out.
I still struggle to blame people for their own ignorance about poverty. Politicians have been spinning self-serving and power-hungry versions of truth for years. Social media has only provided the opportunity to ramp up propaganda output to levels never seen before in peacetime. Print and commercial media, with notable exceptions, are explicitly driven by proprietorial interests and changing the landscape of reporting. I recently read an excellent article on how BBC flagship news programmes no longer challenge the status quo. There is little or no campaigning journalism to expose injustice or properly inform debate. Is there also little appetite for it?
It is down to us to demand that the reality of life for our poorest neighbours is exposed in the media and in statistical reporting. Until then, cutting and slicing statistics this way or that won’t change a thing. We’ll continue to end up with more policies and systems that are as mismatched to real people’s needs as Universal Credit.