Monday, May 25, 2015

Poverty UK-Style

Oxfam UK has estimated that: “36% of the UK population are just one heating bill or broken washing machine away from hardship”. The government has an obligation to ensure that the right for all human beings to be free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, as specified in a UN covenant to which the UK is a signatory, is upheld. The UK is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifies a duty to provide “material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition.”

In the United Kingdom there are nearly 5 million people today living as food insecure. Wendy Wills, an expert in food and public health, defines this as those who are unable to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food made available in socially acceptable ways, or who have the (regular) uncertainty that they will be able to do so. In 2014, more than 20 million meals were provided to people unable to provide for themselves.

Credit Suisse put the UK fifth in a ranking of nations by wealth, behind the US, Japan, China, and France. Based on 2010 UK Census figures, per capita wealth in the UK is about US$182,825, but this wealth is not distributed evenly across the population. While the wealthiest fifth of the population controls nearly 41% of the income, the poorest fifth have just 8%.

For those living in poverty in the UK today the amount of disposable income for the poorest fifth of households is about £156 per week. This is income after taxes and transfer payments and includes spending on clothing, getting to work, childcare, keeping warm, washing, communicating with others, paying for housing, celebrating birthdays, holidays, paying for school trips, uniforms and supplies, socialising and cooking (including not just the food but also the fuel to run the cooker, microwave, and refrigerator).

For many households (not just the poorest), the most flexible item in their budget is food expenditure. Families in this position are not concerned with the environmental or social implications associated with the food that they buy, but instead concentrate on “getting fed”. Because it is now less expensive to feed ones family on processed food (with higher salt, sugar, and fat content) than fresh food and as the cost of food is predicted to continue to rise, we can expect to see not just increases in the numbers of people going hungry and relying on emergency food aid, but also increases in the rates of dietary-related illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and malnutrition. These health implications will, in turn, continue to place greater pressure on an already-struggling NHS.


The Office for Budget Responsibility indicates that by 2020 there will be a further loss of a million government jobs (compared to the loss of 400,000 government jobs over the course of the last parliament). One can only conclude that income inequality will widen, a state that already has one of the highest divisions between wealthy and poor in Europe (only lower than Turkey and Portugal in 2010).

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