Hope in Dark Times
If you’re interested in how different aspects of poverty have changed over the years since the Coalition Government came to power, you’ll want to have a look at Monitoring poverty and social exclusion 2015. Even if you don’t want to read the detail of this annual report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, there’s a simple visual summary: each aspect of poverty under consideration is awarded a green, red or grey dot to indicate change for the better or worse, or no change. The green dots, sadly, are in the minority.
The good news is that there have been real improvements in some areas. In health inequalities – an area that faith-based groups are often working to address – gaps in life expectancy are reducing, albeit slowly, between men in deprived and average areas, and between men and women. And employment – including full-time employment – is up: something that is vital not only for providing income but also for protecting mental health and helping people feel they are contributing to society.
Despite all the noise surrounding the flagship Universal Credit policy, it’s still too early to understand its impact in statistical terms. By May this year the people receiving the benefit formed a very small proportion of all those receiving out-of-work benefits. But at FaithAction, we know from our members that the introduction of Universal Credit has had a real effect on the lives of many individuals they work with, and not always for the better. We need to make sure those stories are heard, as well as the statistics, in judging the impact of the policy.
And then the Joseph Rowntree report has plenty of grim findings. Inequalities in education – a subject close to my heart from my research days – are persisting: children receiving free school meals (a sign of low household income) are still less likely than their peers to pass five good GCSEs. This is an area where simply trying to raise achievement across the board does not work to close the gap: we need to find a way of targeting our efforts.
Despite the rise in employment, there are more people in work who are still in poverty: just over half of those in poverty are either in work or living with an adult who works, up from around 40% ten years ago. More people are feeling the effects of benefit sanctions, and the poverty rate among people with a disability has risen over the past couple of years.
The current housing situation is one of the most serious causes for concern identified by the report.
Numbers of people evicted from rented accommodation are up; numbers in temporary accommodation are up; and the proportion of families in the poorest sector of the population who have no savings to fall back on is 69%, up from 57% ten years ago. The report’s authors conclude:
“there is now a growing group, a subset of those in poverty, whose circumstances, both in terms of material wellbeing and security, are far worse than five or ten years ago … It is a group of people whose entitlement to state support in hard times has been restricted, and whose problems frequently manifest themselves in housing crises.”
We know it is very often faith-based organisations that step in to fill the gap and help people when they have no other source of support. For anyone motivated by care for their fellow-human, it’s very hard to ignore a neighbour in need, and faith-based groups often have the means to help: volunteers, buildings, skills and experience. While there are differing views on the extent to which faith-based organisations should be ‘picking up the pieces’ when state support is absent, FaithAction is here to celebrate the solutions that they are finding – since these can hold valuable lessons.