March 4, 2024

Deepening poverty across the UK

By Isabel Taylor, Analysis Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

In January, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its annual UK Poverty report. This used the latest data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)’s Household Below Average Income dataset – which is used for the government’s official poverty statistics – and a range of other data sources to set out the most up-to-date picture of poverty in the UK.

The picture is stark. The report shows that 14.4 million people (around 4.2 million children, 8.1 million working-age adults and 2.1 million pensioners) lived in poverty in 2021/2022. Within this, 6 million people (around 1.5 million children, 3.8 million working-age adults and 600,000 pensioners) were living in very deep poverty, on the very lowest incomes. These 6 million people are so far below the poverty line that they would, on average, need to double their income just to move out of poverty.

There has not been a sustained fall in poverty for almost twenty years, when the overall poverty rate fell from 25% in 1996/97 to 20% in 2004/05. Apart from a small drop in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the poverty rate has remained at 21%-22% ever since. By 2021/22, when temporary Coronavirus support schemes started to be withdrawn and average incomes started to increase, poverty in the UK had already returned close to pre-pandemic levels.

These relatively stable levels overall mask deepening poverty in the UK. In 1995/96, around a third (32%) of people in poverty were living in very deep poverty. By 2018/19, this had increased to almost half (47%). Although this fell in the pandemic, it remains much higher (41%) than it had been a quarter of a century ago.

The overall poverty rate also masks the entirely unacceptable levels of poverty experienced by some groups. This includes:

  • Children in large, young or single parent families
  • Disabled people and informal carers
  • Households not in work (though around two-thirds of working-age adults in poverty actually lived in working households)
  • People in many minority ethnic households, particularly Bangladeshi and Pakistani households
  • Social and private renters
  • Households receiving income-related benefits.

This official poverty data only covers the start of the cost-of-living crisis. Since then, JRF’s cost-of-living tracker found that in October 2023, around 2.8 million (47%) of the poorest fifth of households were in arrears with their household bills or behind on scheduled lending repayments, 4.2 million (72%) were going without essentials and 3.4 million (58%) reported not having enough money for food.

There isn’t one single policy choice that will solve this deep level of hardship. We need a serious plan to address the levels, depth and extremes of poverty across the UK. This should include introducing an “Essentials Guarantee” into Universal Credit to ensure that everyone has a protected minimum amount of support to make sure they can afford essentials. But it also requires action to reset our social and economic fundamentals, starting with:

  • Helping people find secure jobs and helping people back into work where possible and desirable
  • Raising the basic level of workplace rights and protections
  • Protecting time for caring around work, while strengthening care services for families to rely on
  • Forging a ‘social safety net’ in people’s communities
  • Making future pension provision more secure
  • Helping people build up modest savings and avoid problem debt
  • Expanding access to secure homes.


This article is featured in our 20 March newsletter. Want to see more articles like this?

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