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Number of people in poverty in UK hit record high before pandemic

Ian Jones
·5-min read

The number of people in the UK living in poverty hit a record high just before the coronavirus pandemic began, figures show.

A total of 14.5 million individuals were estimated to be in relative low income – below 60% of average household income – in the year to March 2020.

This was up slightly from 14.4 million the previous year, but a million higher than the equivalent figure a decade earlier in 2009/10.

The number of children living in poverty also hit a record high in 2019/20, up year on year from 4.1 million to 4.3 million.

Children in the UK living in poverty
(PA Graphics)

But the figures, published by the Department for Work and Pensions, show that average household income “increased significantly” ahead of the pandemic, rising from £455 a week in 2018/19 to £476 in 2019/20, after housing costs.

Comparable figures for UK households with below average income began in 2002/03.

The estimated proportion of UK children living in relative poverty in 2019/20 after housing costs was 30.7%, while the equivalent figure for all UK individuals was 22%.

Responding to the figures, Karl Handscomb, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation think tank, said: “The UK has experienced an historically weak decade for income growth, so it is welcome that it at least ended with a mini living standards boom. Sadly, the pandemic has put paid to any momentum on income growth.

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“While many higher income households have been able to work from home and increase their savings during lockdown, lower income households are more likely to have stopped working, experienced growing spending pressures, and seen their debts rise as a result.

“As Britain finally looks to emerge from the pandemic, this should remind us of the need to ensure the recovery reaches everyone across Britain – and particularly those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic.”

Pascale Bourquin, research economist at the Institute of Fiscal Studies, said the recovery in average household incomes since the 2008 financial crisis has now been hit by “two shocks” which have derailed growth.

“Rising inflation after the EU referendum choked off the nascent recovery in 2016, and the pandemic will have brought the welcome robust income growth seen in 2019/20 to a grinding halt,” she said.

People in the UK living in poverty
(PA Graphics)

“All this means that average incomes have only grown by 0.7% per year (or 9% in total) between the eve of the financial crisis and the eve of the pandemic: a very poor rate by historical standards and especially worrisome given the likely downturn in household incomes that lies ahead.”

Director of policy and campaigns at Action For Children Imran Hussain said: “The Government is in denial over child poverty, which continues to rise and threatens to torpedo its flagship plans for levelling up.

“Today’s figures show that, on the eve of the pandemic, levels rose to 4.3 million – that is children growing up in families who struggle to put food on the table, afford clothes or heat their homes.

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“Experts have warned that child poverty will rise even further after the pandemic, with working families facing a double threat this coming winter to their living standards as unemployment peaks and Universal Credit is cut. Three-quarters (75%) of children in poverty live in working families.”

Some 8.1 million working-age adults were estimated to be living in poverty in 2019/20, down slightly from 8.4 million in the previous year.

The estimate for pensioners was 2.1 million, up from 1.9 million.

Additional figures published alongside the poverty statistics show for the first time the estimated level of “household food security” for individuals living in low-income households in the UK.

Those households found to have high or marginal food security are scored as “food secure” – meaning they are considered to have sufficient, varied food to facilitate an active and healthy lifestyle.

Households with low or very low food security are scored as “food insecure”, where there is risk of, or lack of access to, sufficient, varied food.

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A total of 1.1 million children were estimated to be “food insecure” in 2019/20, the figures show, along with 1.7 million working-age adults and 100,000 pensioners.

Mark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s Society, described the food insecurity figures as “shocking”.

“Providing free school meals for all children whose families receive Universal Credit and permanently to those with no recourse to public funds would not only ensure that children get a decent meal each school day, but also relieve some financial pressures on families,” he said.

“A £10-a-week uplift to child benefit would make a drastic difference and the Government must also scrap the draconian two-child limit and benefit cap.

“We’re also calling for the Government to make sustained investment in local welfare assistance schemes at local authority level, which help families in financial crisis.

“Evidence shows that growing up in poverty casts a long shadow, affecting children’s physical and mental health, how well they do at school, and their future prospects. If the Government truly wants to build back better into the future, then it must make sure that no child is left behind.”

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