One in four Britons now living in relative poverty

UK families live in greater luxury than almost anybody in the history of the world. Yet a new study shows one in four struggle to afford an ‘acceptable’ quality of life. How can this be?

A television, a car, home internet access and a week’s holiday in a country cottage. These might seem like luxuries. But according to new research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), they are all essential ingredients for an decent standard of life in the UK.

It might seem bizarre to suggest that all these things are necessary; but the JRF is a highly respected organisation. Their conclusions are the product of hundreds of intensive interviews with UK families, each asking the same fundamental question: what does a British family need to live the kind of life that society expects?

The report paints a picture of a full but frugal life. Clothes from Primark; simple home-cooked meals with an occasional trip to a budget restaurant; modest presents for birthdays and Christmas. The cost of all this for a family of four: £37,000 per year.

That is a lot of money – not far below the national average. In fact, around a quarter of British families fall below this ‘minimum income standard.’

Does that mean that all these families are living in poverty? No – at least, not in traditional terms. A family is only considered to be in ‘absolute poverty’ when they cannot afford basic things like food, housing and clothes. The international poverty line is estimated to be around £1 per day. Over a billion people worldwide must get by on so little.

By global and historical standards, everybody in the West is rich. British citizens rarely die of cold or starvation; they use gadgets that would have seemed like magic two centuries ago. Henry VIII was the richest man of his day, yet he would never have eaten a banana, let alone used the internet. He died aged 55 from a type of diabetes that would have been totally treatable today.

But for those who cannot afford a lifestyle that their neighbours take for granted, comparisons to Tudor kings offer little consolation: by the standards of their own society, they are deprived.

This is ‘relative poverty,’ and studies suggest that it has serious adverse effects. Brain scans reveal that rewards have far less psychological impact when we know others are earning more. International surveys suggest that a high level of relative wealth makes humans healthier and longer-lived.

The bread-and-circus line

‘Just as we always said!’ cry socialists: equality matters as much as material wealth. It is about time we stopped our obsessive accumulation of stuff, and started to share what we already have.

This, counter conservatives, is nothing but the politics of envy. If you are starving to death, they say, of course society should help you out. But if you are just moping because your friends have a more glamorous life than you, there is a simple solution: work for it.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather be a grand aristocrat in Medieval times, or a modern shop assistant with a computer and a car?
  2. Is income inequality inherently bad?


  1. What would you need in your life to have a basic but acceptable living standard? Make a list. then compare it with those of your friends. How much do they differ?
  2. Write an imaginary email exchange between the richest member of a poor Indian village and a bus driver in America, in which each tries to persuade the other that they have a better life.

Some People Say...

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’ Gore Vidal, b. 1925”

What do you think?

Q & A

How can you possibly compare a European without a TV to a Somalian without clean water?
You can’t, of course. In regions where people struggle to survive, this type of poverty is by far the most urgent. ‘Relative poverty’ will never replace ‘absolute poverty’ in importance, but many now respect it as a separate measure.
Is it a new thing then?
No. The first person to discuss the concept was the great economist Adam Smith: Greeks and Roman lords, he pointed out, could lead luxurious lives without ever troubling themselves about linen. But by the 18th Century, a linen shirt was indispensible for any respectable worker. The concept is getting an increasing amount of attention as inequality in Western society continues to grow.

Word Watch

Intensive interviews
The research was conducted using focus groups: participants from different backgrounds and classes were asked to discuss a minimum standard of living. This methodology has attracted some criticism for being subjective and unscientific, though the researchers themselves insist it is robust.
International poverty line
Of course, the actual income needed to live varies massively depending on where you are. In some places around the world, 50 pence could buy you a meal; in Britain, it is hardly worth anything.
Brain scans
Researchers challenged participants to complete a simple task, rewarding them with money depending on how successful they were. Though success stimulated participants’ excitement, this effect was significantly dampened when they were shown that another participant was earning more than they were.
International surveys
When a poor person in America is compared to someone with an equivalent quality of life in a poor part of India, the Indian fares better on almost every measure: they live longer, feel less stress and rate their satisfaction with life more highly.
There is evidence, in fact, that the effect is not limited to people. Many apes have sophisticated social hierarchies; and those who place lower in those hierarchies experience higher levels of stress and illness. Of course, wealth and status are not the same. But for many people they are linked, and this could go a long way to explaining why relative wealth has such significant effects.

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