Two Nations: the state of poverty in the UK

From Andy Cook, Chief Executive, Centre for Social Justice.

Two Nations: the state of poverty in the UK

18th December 2023

Andy CookRishi Sunak has been appearing before the Covid Inquiry. Captain Hindsight and his peers have grilled the PM about Partygate, Eat Out to Help Out, and a load of irrelevant potty-mouthed gossip about who said what to who.

It’s slowly dawning on the nation that little of any note will come from this grandstanding, particularly anything relevant to those most struggling in the UK. Fearing that, the Centre for Social Justice set up a special Commission which has spent the last year touring Britain’s backstreets to find out what is really going on. We have met with hundreds of small charities serving people in the most disadvantaged communities, and interviewed thousands of our very poorest citizens. The result, our “Two Nations” report launched this week, does not make for happy reading.

It paints a grim picture of a widening and desperate gap between the haves and the have-nots. Lockdown was tough for many people, but what discovered was that it poured petrol on the problems of our poorest communities, and they are nowhere near putting the fires out.

People in our poorest communities are now three times as likely to experience a mental health problem compared to the averages. They are more than twice as likely to be physically ill. And almost twice as likely to worry about the cost, security and quality of their housing.

We heard from people in many parts of the country who thought that work was now so insecure and poorly paid that there was little point in increasing their hours or even moving into work at all. Even if they do take home a few pounds more there is no chance of progression, hours are irregular with the risk of work disappearing at any minute.

But it’s also true to say that many of these problems are not new. For example, drug related deaths have continued to spiral since the pandemic lockdowns, but they were already rising before. Our Social Justice Commission suggests that 27% of 5–15-year-olds will have a mental health problem by the end of the decade, but if you speak to any teacher or copper, you will know that things have been going in the wrong direction for years. And while police-recorded violent crime has shot up in recent years, it’s been going up for over a decade – something that rich and poor alike told us they were hugely concerned about.

Of all the things we spoke about, more than money, employment, physical, or mental health, the majority agreed that a stable and secure family is the most important thing in determining your success and wellbeing. On this count, the UK has seen 40 years of devastation as world leaders when it comes to family breakdown.

So where does this litany of failure leave us? Well, if you are a taxpayer, a long way down the road to some answers. The costs of meeting these challenges are in danger of spiraling out of control. Next spring our Social Justice Commission will launch a manifesto to address the root causes of poverty identified in this report and start to reduce the burden on the public purse.

Yes, money matters, you can’t get far if you can’t afford to eat and clothe yourself. But for far too long, governments of every kind have viewed welfare spending as the answer to poverty. What we heard from our research is that it is not. We heard that meaningful work matters; parking people on methadone offers them little future; crime is ravaging our neighbourhoods; going to school matters; and a fulfilled life is more likely when it starts in a stable family.

I do not doubt that the Covid enquiry is important. But if we are serious about making Britain a better place to live, then our line of inquiry is the one that government needs to answer.

You can read the report, Two Nations: the state of poverty in the UK, here

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