Report sparks row over ‘callous’ UK poverty

Plain sight: Research shows there are 83,000 homeless people aged 16-25 on the UK’s streets.

How bad is Britain’s poverty problem? A UN expert has slammed the British government for causing “staggering” levels of poverty. However, not everyone agrees with his analysis.

“I got hungry because I was smelling the other food,” says 12-year-old John Adebola-Samuel. “I had to take my eyes away from it. The most unfair thing is the government knows families are going through hard times but they decide not to do anything about it.”

Adebola-Samuel was just one of many people who talked to professor Philip Alston last week. The UN’s expert on extreme poverty, he has been touring the UK, documenting Britain’s most deprived areas.

The report on what he found shocked many.

“It is patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty,” he reported. Witnessing “great misery”, he criticised a “draconian” welfare system; austerity policies unfairly targeting the poor; and ministers in a “state of denial” at the scale of the problem.

Overall, 14 million people are living in poverty, Alston claims, with 1.5 million people destitute ― meaning they live on less than £70 a week and are unable to afford the basic necessities.

For some, these findings represent a much needed call to action. The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty claimed the inquiry could prove one of the “most significant events in British civil society this decade, for one simple reason: for once, poor people get to speak their own truth to power.”

However, not everyone accepted the findings. “We completely disagree with this analysis,” said a government spokesperson.

This disagreement comes down to how poverty is measured. Alston’s figure of 14 million people includes those in “relative poverty”. These are individuals who live with less than 55% of the UK’s median income. The number of people in relative poverty has been broadly stable over the last decade.

However, the government focuses on “absolute poverty”. This is those with less than 60% of the median income as it was in 2010-11.

While the relative poverty threshold changes each year depending on the UK’s median income, the “absolute” threshold is fixed. According to this measure, one million people have escaped poverty since 2010.

How bad is Britain’s poverty problem?


It is shameful, some respond. Britain is a rich nation. Yet thousands of people lie destitute on the streets, countless more need food banks to survive, and benefits cuts are driving some to suicide. Quibbling over statistics will not solve the tragic fate of those living in poverty right now. We need action.

Not so fast, others respond. The UN’s intervention is alarmist and out of proportion. Official figures show that absolute poverty in Britain has halved in the last two decades. While there is a long way to go, we should not dismiss the good progress that has been made.

You Decide

  1. Consider this statement: In Britain, if you work hard you will succeed. Do you agree?
  2. Should rich people be forced to donate money to help those in poverty?


  1. What does it mean to live in poverty? Discuss this question in pairs or small groups, and write down your thoughts in bullet points. In your own words, write a definition of the word “poverty”. Share your definition with your classmates.
  2. Do some research into the level of poverty in other developed countries, for example: the US, Germany and China. How does Britain compare? In this global context, do you think Britain has a particularly bad poverty problem?

Some People Say...

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

Mahatma Gandhi

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In spite of differences in statistics, professor Alston claimed that there is “close to unanimity” among experts that Britain is not doing enough to combat poverty. By whatever measure is used, children are more likely to be living in poverty than other sections of the population. The number of children in absolute poverty has fallen in recent years.
What do we not know?
We do not know what impact the UN’s intervention will have. Alston also raised concerns about the impact of Brexit on the poor, predicting that low-income groups will “bear the brunt of the economic fallout from Brexit.”

Word Watch

Welfare system
The introduction of the Universal Credit system has been extremely controversial. While it is supposed to make claiming benefits easier, delays to its introduction and penalties against claimants have had a disastrous impact for some people.
A string of cuts to public services following the Great Recession in 2008.
14 million
This figure equates to around a fifth of Britain’s population.
Median income
Around £27,000. A median average is the figure in the middle of a set of numbers. Therefore, half of Britain’s population live with more than this amount, half live with less.
Relative poverty
For more on the difference between absolute and relative poverty, see the Full Fact link in Become An Expert.
According to figures from the Department for Work and Pensions. See the Full Fact link.
According to figures from the Department for Work and Pensions.

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