The UK is in danger of sliding back into the “Two Nations” of the Victorian era marked by a widening gulf between mainstream society and a depressed and poverty-stricken underclass.

Breakdown Britain, which launched the Centre for Social Justice 20 years ago, conducted an unflinching inquiry into what life at the bottom of society was really like. This landmark report revisits key areas identified two decades ago as drivers of poverty, namely family breakdown, addiction, worklessness, serious personal debt, and educational failure. The analysis, conducted against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, sheds light on the exacerbated challenges faced by the most deprived communities.

This report reveals a widening gap between those who can get by and those stuck at the bottom, a gap that was further stretched by the impact of successive lockdowns. The lockdown measures, meant to curb the spread of the virus, had severe consequences on various aspects of life for the most disadvantaged. Mental health conditions, saw a significant increase during lockdown.

“700 percent rise in calls to domestic abuse helplines”

Reflecting on the past two decades, the report acknowledges some progress, such as a decline in unemployment and improved literacy rates among young people. However, these positive trends are overshadowed by the overarching sense that life has become more challenging, poverty more entrenched, and the benefits of progress not felt by those at the bottom of society.

The economic vulnerability of the most deprived is highlighted, with work often proving financially unrewarding due to poor-quality, insecure jobs and stagnant wages. The welfare system ends up topping up the incomes of over two million people, creating a scenario where being economically inactive due to sickness becomes a more viable option for many.

“Over 2.6 million inactive due to long-term sickness, driving surge in Universal Credit”

The issue of crime is underscored as a significant concern for both the general public and the most deprived communities. While overall crime rates have decreased, violent crime remains high, eroding public trust in the justice system. The report emphasises the concentration of crime within a small percentage of families, indicating systemic issues that need attention.

“8% of victims confident they would see justice”

Housing emerges as a critical problem, with poor quality, expensive, and insecure housing affecting the most deprived disproportionately. Communities are also torn apart by addiction, with a notable increase in deaths related to substance misuse. The third sector, crucial in providing support, is under strain, as small charities face funding challenges despite increased demand for services.

“Nearly 5,000 people died of drug poisoning last year”

Family breakdown is identified as a root cause of various societal issues, affecting the poorest families the hardest. The UK is noted as an outlier in family fragility among its counterparts, with a high percentage of single-parent families. The impact on children is evident, with disrupted attachment, developmental delays, and increased vulnerability to mental health issues.

“68 per cent of the general public think that a stable and secure family life is the most important factor in determining a person’s success and wellbeing”

Mental health problems among children have risen significantly, with concerns raised about the loose application of mental health terminology. The educational system is also grappling with the aftermath of lockdown, with a substantial number of children missing more school than they attend.

“1 in 5 young people left facing mental health challenges after the pandemic”

The report paints a distressing picture of a society grappling with entrenched poverty, exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It calls for comprehensive measures to tackle the root causes of poverty, emphasising the urgency of addressing the challenges faced by the most disadvantaged to prevent further social and economic deterioration. The reflection on the report prompts a critical examination of societal priorities and the need for targeted interventions to create a more equitable and compassionate society.

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