Social Research on Inequality and Poverty in the UK in 2019

Overview by Gillian R Smith

Many of the research pieces I summarise for the Social Research Association’s fortnightly e-news are on the themes of inequality and poverty. The last year has seen the publication of many pieces of influential research and I briefly summarise some of them – with links to reports here. 

In a year when the UN  special rapporteur on extreme poverty described poverty in the skynews-poverty-uk_4508092.jpgUK as ‘systematic and tragic’ the reports published this year paint a picture of continuing, and in some respects deepening poverty, particularly in certain geographical areas and amongst some social groups. Moreover, social mobility appears to have stagnated.

Looking to the future, a number of significant new initiatives were launched this year and are due to report over the next few years, including the Deaton Review which will aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of inequality in 21st century Britain.

Overall Trends in Poverty and Inequality

A number of important reviews of overall patterns of poverty and inequality were published over the year. 

A  paper from CASE at the LSE examined economic inequalities in the UK in the two decades since 1995-96.  The analysis shows that economic outcomes improved for all population groups in the first decade, whilst the second decade witnessed near-stagnation accompanied by continuing high levels of inequality. 

The paper also shows how the apparent stability of inequality in the period since 2006 masked the way in which the nature and depth of economic inequalities changed after the economic crisis. In particular, this period saw substantial, albeit complex differences between and within groups, with younger adults losing out compared to older people.

A  report from the Social Metrics Commission looked at the extent and nature of poverty in the UK today and how this has changed since 2000/01. It concluded that 7 million people are now living in ‘persistent poverty and that, despite fluctuations, overall rates of poverty have changed relatively little since the millennium, but this trend hides significant changes in rates of poverty among different groups.

The methodology was developed and published last year and the government subsequently agreed to produce ‘experimental statistics’ based on this approach (see below). 

The State of the Nation 2018 – 19 report from the Social Mobility Commission also shows how inequality is still deeply entrenched in Britain, although, interestingly, Scotland and Wales are slightly more socially mobile than the rest of GB.

Moreover, it concludes that social mobility appears to have stagnated over the last four years to the extent that the better off are nearly 80% more likely to end up in professional jobs compared with those from a working class background. The report shows how inequality is pervasive at all stages of life and makes a number of recommendations aimed at Ministers and policy makers, school and university chief and employers. 

Poverty has a number of consequences for those experiencing it, including homelessness, poor and unstable housing circumstances, food poverty, educational disadvantage and fuel poverty hob-680x280.jpgand numerous reports appeared on these and other themes. For example, a report from the Committee on Fuel Poverty highlighted that progress in England is stalling.

Caitlin Robinson of the University of Manchester argues that the causes of fuel poverty are multi-dimensional and changes to the housing market have exposed a new subset of households to fuel poverty. Caitlin concludes that current flagship policies are unlikely to address many of the structural drivers of fuel poverty amongst precarious households and that policy makers in Westminster should look to Scotland for inspiration in designing a more ambitious and wide-reaching fuel poverty strategy.

Geographical Inequalities

The flagship English Indices of Deprivation was updated and published this year along with a number of other important studies that uncover the geographical patterns of poverty and inequality and change over time.

The 2019 English Indices of Deprivation data release contains a wealth of information about the location of multiply deprived areas across England.
In addition to a comprehensive summary the release provides links to: a Technical Report and comprehensive guidance documents, along with a series of supporting data tables, interactive tools and Open Data facilities to aid user’s exploration and mapping of the data.

0_Deprivation-constituency-mapJPG.jpgIn many respects the data show that deprived areas are located in the same places as in the previous update published in 2015. As previously the data shows how deprived areas are dispersed across England –  as many as 61% of local authority districts contain at least one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England. 

Overall, the local authority districts of Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Knowsley, Kingston upon Hull and Manchester contain the highest proportions of neighbourhoods amongst the most deprived in England. However, a significant change from 2015  is that many London Boroughs – including Tower Hamlets in particular  – have seen a reduction in the proportions of their neighbourhoods that are highly deprived (relative to the rest of England).

Researchers at the University of Sheffield also published their ‘Atlas of Inequality’ that maps  levels of inequality across 149 commuting zones – known as Travel To Work Areas (TTWAs) – across England.  The research used three separate measures of inequality: the Gini coefficient; the 20:20 index – a measure of economic imbalance within areas; and ‘Moran’s I’ which measures the geographical clustering of different income groups. 

The report again contains a wealth of information. Commenting on the results, Professor Rae, said: “Our atlas highlights the fact that no one measure of inequality paints the full picture and that methodological diversity is needed before we start to think of solutions to inequality at a local, sub-national and national level”.

And, new research published by the Local Trust and Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI) suggests that places to meet, connectivity – both physical and digital, and an active, engaged community are vital to securing better social and economic outcomes for people living in deprived neighbourhoods.

The research combined multiple national data sources to create a statistically-robust ‘community needs’ index to identify 206 ‘left behind areas’ (wards) in England. Particular concentrations are evident in post- industrial areas in northern England and in coastal areas in southern England, but also on post-war social housing estates on the peripheries of cities and towns.

Future Research  

Looking to the future, a number of significant new initiatives were announced.

The Deaton review’ of Inequalities was launched. This is a wide ranging, five year cross national study that will draw on experts from across a number of disciplines in order to build a comprehensive understanding of inequalities in the 21st century.  It is being co-ordinated by the IFS and aims to understand inequalities in living standards, health, political participation and opportunity, not just between the rich and poor but by gender, ethnicity, geography and education too. 

An initial report focused on existing evidence relating to the UK.  The overall message is that widening inequalities in pay, health and opportunities in the UK are undermining trust in democracy. 

As noted above, the DWP announced that it will publish ‘experimental’ statistics that reflect the Social Metrics Commission report on measuring of poverty. The key difference from the current official measure, based on households below average income, is that the commission’s measure takes account of the costs that different people face such as costs of disability, and the liquid assets they have access to. Many commentators argue that  this more accurately reflects the realities and experiences of living in poverty.

DWP say they will also be assessing whether and how the commission’s measure ‘can be developed and improved further’ and propose to publish these ‘experimental statistics’ after poverty statistics based on the current measure come out in 2020.

ONS announced that they are working to improve the coherence of statistics on homelessness by bringing together homelessness statistics from across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for the first time. forsaken-1273885__480.png

The new work suggests the profile of homeless people may be changing and that there has been an increase in the complexity of homeless household needs in recent years, particularly in relation to physical and mental health conditions.

ONS has also been working with the Centre for Homelessness Impact (CHI) to look deeper into the causes of homelessness across the UK. There is also ongoing work with organisations that support and represent people who are homeless so that as many people as possible can make sure they are counted in the 2021 census.

Finally a report from the Resolution Foundation, in association with UCL, concludes that much good work has already been done to highlight the inequalities faced by disadvantaged groups across the UK. However, it reminds us that the bigger challenge now is how we mainstream all of this thinking into the policy making machine. 

The report also highlights evidence gaps relating to absent data, the failure to ask the right questions, and an incomplete understanding of the effectiveness of different policy interventions. It draws out 5 key lessons for how to develop a consistent and effective approach.