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.”

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.

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.

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. 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. 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?


  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.

Some People Say...

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

Mahatma Gandhi

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
By whatever measure is used, children are more likely to be living in poverty than other sections of the population.
What do we not know?
We do not know what impact the UN’s intervention will have. Professor 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

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.

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