Inequality in Great Britain
Updated: Mar 20, 2021
With its super-diverse population paired with a long and rich history, Great Britain continues to rival the United States of America with its high levels of prosperity, education, and progress in science and technology. However, it also rivals America’s proclivity for the ongoing permission of severe and escalating inequalities.
A striking example is the vastly skewed life expectancies in the northern English city of Stockton-on-Tees. These citizens have a 17.3-year difference in life expectancy in just a 3-mile radius, showing a harrowing contrast in the quality of life between the upper and lower classes (Ons.gov.uk, 2018).
The remainder article will read more as a presentation of facts and figures, with context and trends added so as to provide a general audience more detail regarding the disparities in Britain. I have also provided a reference list of sources if you wish to read more on these issues.
My hopes in taking the time to research and write this is to spread awareness, encourage conversation, but most importantly to initiate action on the part of leaders and policy-makers upon these rectifiable issues.
Trends of Income and Food Inequality in the UK
At current the UK’s poorest 50% of the population hold around 9% of the nation’s wealth. In comparison, the richest 0.1% also own 9% of the country’s wealth (Equalitytrust.org.uk, 2019). Paired with and even worsened by Parliament’s Austerity Spending Fiscal Policy, the UK is ranked as the 5th highest in measures of income inequality (Income inequality, 2018). The ongoing nonchalance of this continues in conjunction with Brexit, adding yet more complexity to these issues.
Since 2014, life expectancy has been falling across most of England, especially in the suburbs. There also exists a frightening yearly rise in infant mortality, a trend not seen in any other European nation. Recent research has led many to believe that the government’s austerity measures have merged with pre-existing problems; strongly correlating with decreasing life expectancies (Dorling, 2019).
With inequality of income at record highs and trust in government at record lows (Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 - UK Results, 2018), more and more find a need for food banks. The number of food banks has indeed increased along with the disquieting normalization of their presence. For reasons unknown, the UK government has not stepped up and tried to create policies to tackle this issue, leaving the weight on charities and other philanthropic organizations (Garthwaite, Collins and Bambra, 2015).
In 2010, the number of people reliant on food banks was estimated at 61,000 (Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 - UK Results, 2018), which subsequently rose to over 1.8 million in 2016 (Loopstra, 2017). This massive surge taking place in only 6 years. To put it another way:
“Faced with increasing financial precarity and uncertainty, households and communities are regularly engaged in the hard work of ‘getting by’ on low-income social security in an attempt to secure, or at least come close to meeting, their basic needs.” (Edmiston, 2017)
Homelessness and Poverty in the UK
Homelessness, which generally exists in three forms, can be summarised as:
1. Statutory homelessness - to be legally defined as homeless you must either lack a secure place in which you are entitled to live or not reasonably be able to stay. Authorities may initially provide temporary accommodation to households who might meet these criteria, mainly families with children.
2. Rough sleeping - the most visible form of homelessness. Many people who sleep rough will suffer from multiple health conditions, such as mental health problems and drug misuse, they are also in greater danger of violence than the general population.
3. Hidden homelessness – people who are homeless but find temporary solutions, maybe by staying with family members or friends, hostels, squats or B&Bs, in overcrowded accommodation or ‘concealed' housing, such as the floors or sofas of friends and family.
Around a third of working age households hold no housing wealth. Of those renting
without housing wealth:
- 86% have less than the £8,838 needed for even a 5% deposit for a mortgage on an average first home
- 95% have less than the £35,350 needed for a full 20% deposit on a mortgage on an average first home.
- 87% have less than a quarter of the deposit needed (£10,452) for an average house
- 78% have less than a quarter of the deposit needed (£3,629) for an average house in Burnley (the local authority area with the lowest average house price).
The Prevalence of Social Housing in the UK
Social housing is basically a low-cost, rented housing system as well as low-cost home ownership for people who are not able to access the private market. These include council housing and homes provided by housing associations. It’s generally cheaper to rent these than renting through privately owned businesses and usually provides a long-term tenancy, giving renters the chance to put down roots. Yet there are now over 1.2 million English families on the social housing waiting list. According to the last Shelter Report:
- At least 320,000 people are homeless with almost 5,000 rough sleeping. Sadly, this is likely a huge underestimate as finding exact numbers is a difficult task. Such as the case for those who “hot-bed” and/or stay at friend’s or family’s residences when finding themselves without a home.
- There were 726 people who died homeless in England and Wales in 2018; a 22% rise from 2017. Most of those 726 people would have been street homeless or in emergency accommodation. Moreover, these rates do not include numbers of those who died homeless in Scotland.
- From 2017 to 2018, the overall number of homeless increased by 13,000 people. Between January and March 2019 in England, 70,430 households were assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness. Once again showing a significant rise, as this was 10.7 percent higher than the previous year (England.shelter.org.uk, 2018).
Around 21% of the UK population now live in low-income households, a ratio which has barely fluctuated since 2002. The number of private renters in poverty has doubled over the last decade, with the number of households accepted as homeless and the number of households in temporary accommodation both increasing for five years straight. The number of people in poverty in a working family is roughly 55% – a record high; and half of the people living in poverty are either themselves disabled or are have a disabled person living in their household (Tinson et al., 2016).
To further illustrate the extent of poverty in the UK, I am providing a final disheartening assortment of statistical findings:
- An estimated 14.3 million people are in poverty in the UK, which is roughly 22% of the population. Basically, every fifth person you see is living below the poverty line.
- 8.3 million of those who are impoverished are working-age adults, with 4.6 million children, and 1.3 million people are those of pension age. Put another way, 34% of children are impoverished; or, every third child you see in the UK is living in poverty.
- As of 2016, almost half (49%) of those in poverty are in “persistent poverty”; which are people who would have fallen below the poverty line in at least two of the last three years.
Brexit now presents an added administrative and organizational obstacle, but this does not mean that those in power should allow these trends to continue without taking the necessary steps to promote equality of their diverse inhabitants.
Though poverty rates did decrease somewhat after 2010 as the UK recovered from the financial crisis, they are now showing clear signs of rising again. How many statistical findings and first-person narratives must it take for policy-makers to find motivation to decide on policies for effective, positive change?
Dorling, D. (2019). Dying Quietly: English Suburbs and the Stiff Upper Lip. The Political Quarterly, 90(1), pp.32-43.
Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 - UK Results. (2018). Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 - UK Results. [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/Edelman_UK/edelman-trust-barometer-2018-uk-results/1 [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
Edmiston, D. (2017). Welfare, Austerity and Social Citizenship in the UK. Social Policy and Society, 16(2), pp.261-270.
England.shelter.org.uk. (2018). 320,000 people in Britain are now homeless, as numbers keep rising - Shelter England. [online] Available at: https://england.shelter.org.uk/media/press_releases/articles/320,000_people_in_britain_are_now_homeless,_as_numbers_keep_rising [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
Equalitytrust.org.uk. (2019). The Scale of Economic Inequality in the UK | The Equality Trust. [online] Available at: https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/scale-economic-inequality-uk [Accessed 11 Nov. 2019].
Garthwaite, K., Collins, P. and Bambra, C. (2015). Food for thought: An ethnographic study of negotiating ill health and food insecurity in a UK foodbank. Social Science & Medicine, 132, pp.38-44.
Income inequality. (2018). Inequality - Income inequality - OECD Data. [online] Available at: https://data.oecd.org/inequality/income-inequality.htm [Accessed 26 Jan. 2020].
Loopstra, R. (2017). Household characteristics and nutritional vulnerability of people using UK food banks. European Journal of Public Health, 27.
Ons.gov.uk. (2018). Health state life expectancies by national deprivation deciles, England and Wales - Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthinequalities/bulletins/healthstatelifeexpectanciesbyindexofmultipledeprivationimd/englandandwales2014to2016#the-slope-index-of-inequality-sii-for-life-expectancy-and-healthy-life-expectancy-in-england [Accessed 26 Jul. 2020].
Shelter England. (2020). What is Social Housing | Shelter. [online] Available at: https://england.shelter.org.uk/support_us/campaigns/what_is_social_housing [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
Tinson A, Ayrton C, Barker K, et al. (2016) Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2016. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.