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Can we really expect to eliminate poverty in an unfair society?

Written by Emily Day

Ecological Economics

The extent of poverty in the UK

In 2016 the government announced that there were 14 million people living in relative poverty in the UK. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) released a report earlier this year identifying a lack of progress in poverty rates over the last decade and the weakest growth in UK living standards growth for 60 years.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows the UK economy has continued to experience real year on year increase in GDP since the 1980s.  Good economic growth is usually thought of as the solution to falling living standards, but there has been a failure to provide any real evidence of the relationship between the two.

Why is our nation’s steadily increasing wealth not trickling down to those at the bottom? The UK government has historically prioritised resolving poverty through increasing the sheer size of our economy. The government focus our economic system on producing material goods instead of on increasing well-being.

Economic growth as a panacea

If it was possible to get rid of poverty through economic growth alone, we would be able to expect its steady elimination in the UK at the same rate as our increasing GDP. In 1992 ecological economist Herman E. Daly outlined the 3 economic goals of efficient allocation, fair distribution and sustainable scale. The only scenario where economic growth could really alleviate poverty, is if the financial rewards of a thriving economy were truly distributed more evenly throughout the UK. However, this is not the case.

Poverty is a state where people lack the means to live to a viable standard.  To tackle poverty and reduce income inequality, the UK government already uses tools such as income taxes and benefit payments. These benefit payments try to redistribute income by making sure that everyone receives a basic minimum. They make some attempt at tackling fair distribution. But poverty is still at-large in the UK.  Are we simply not paying enough as a minimum wage? How high do benefits payments need to be?

Poverty goes beyond a low income. The problem with policy tools such as the minimum wage is that it treats the symptoms of poverty rather than the disease. To address the underlying cause of poverty we need to look deeper. Low income poverty is commonly associated with difficulty participating in society, but it is not the cause. Our ability to participate in society is determined by the opportunities available to us. If a person is living in poverty, then they are typically less able to participate in something such as higher education which may allow them access to a higher income career. To address the problem of poverty, the government needs to create policies which ensure the fair access to activities such as higher education irrespective of someone’s household income. Currently the opposite is happening.

A good example of this is the official scrapping of maintenance grants as of 2016. Since then the nature of opportunities in higher education available to young people in England has changed dramatically for the worse. This will result in a lack of uptake in students at UK universities by discouraging students who cannot afford it. Consider that information published by the House of Commons names parent’s education as one of the top drivers of a person’s future poverty. Discouraging poorer students adds to the chain reaction which keeps them and their future children out of society. it is government actions such as these which make our society less fair. Such actions tighten the viscous circle in which people growing up in poverty are trapped.

Treat the cause and not the symptoms

The danger of minimum wage and welfare payments is their appealing power to instantly meet the need for a redistribution of income, which certainly serves a very useful purpose. However, like simply increasing GDP, it is not a solution to poverty. The immediate impact of welfare payments gives the illusion that the problem is solved.

To tackle poverty, we need to allow the social mobility of those suffering in it by redistributing more than just income. We need to offer opportunities which allow people to enrich their lives both now and years from now.

Our problem is our short-sightedness. For a politician to sell us the appeal of increased public spending in education not only requires cuts in other areas, but also patience for positive results to become visible.

To tackle poverty in the UK the government needs to adopt policies which ensure equal opportunities for higher education, career access and progression through the increase of public spending in these areas. But first, they need to find a way to sell it to us.


Emily Day

MSc Sustainability and Consultancy 2017/18