Causes of Poverty in the UK

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All main faiths include teachings and instruction on responding to poverty. Now hundreds of people appeal to churches to do more to address the causes of poverty.


By Gavin Aitchison

Religion and poverty alleviation have always been closely linked. All main faiths include teachings and instruction on responding to poverty, and many charitable projects have their roots in religious settings and organisations.#

This week, however, hundreds of people working in UK churches have signed an open letter to church institutions, calling on them to do more to address the causes of poverty, rather than only the consequences.

The letter was in advance of Church Action on Poverty Sunday this weekend, and has been signed by more than 480 current or former church leaders.

An extract reads: “Brexit debates and the recent general election have revealed and exacerbated painful divisions in society. Far too many feel left behind, ignored and marginalised. As local churches, we bear witness to these realities in communities the length and breadth of the UK, and to the powerful currents that continue to sweep so many into debt and destitution.

“The church cannot remain silent for as long as this situation continues to exist. For us, this is a matter of faith: it is about responding to the gospel priority to put the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable first. As churches, we must redouble our efforts not just to alleviate the symptoms of poverty, but to call out the root causes, systems and structures which ensnare so many in poverty today.”


The Joseph Rowntree Foundation consistently publishes comprehensive research on the issue. Its latest UK Poverty Report, published this month, defines poverty as an income below of 60 per cent of the median, after housing costs.

It found:

  • There are about 14 million people in the UK in poverty (22 per cent of the population) including:
  • Four million children
  • Eight million working-age adults
  • Two million pensioners

The poverty rate varies depending on the make-up of a household, and other factors. The previous year’s report said UK poverty had fallen from 25 per cent to 20 per cent between 1997 and 2005, but had since increased to 22 per cent.

The report said: “As a country, we have shown that we can substantially reduce poverty: we can choose to redesign the systems that sweep people into poverty and keep them there. Pensioner and child poverty were successfully reduced through concerted action. By contrast, there has been very little focused on reducing poverty among working-age adults without children.”

The 2019-20 report showed the increased likelihood of poverty among people who are disabled, or who have someone in their household who is disabled. In 2017-18, the poverty rate among non-disabled people was 20 per cent, but the rate for the UK’s 13 million disabled people was 31 per cent.

Another three million non-disabled people in poverty live in a household where someone is disabled, meaning almost half of the total number of people in poverty in the UK is affected by disability.

Adult carers are also more likely to be in poverty, the report found.

The foundation outlined four policy solutions:

  1. For as many people as possible to be in good jobs.
  2. Improved earnings for low-income working families, to address in-work poverty.
  3. A strengthened and improved benefits system, so it provides the anchor people need in tough times.
  4. More supply of low-cost housing and increased support for people with high housing costs.


Many religious groups are involved in food banks or food aid distribution, so people not in poverty are often made most aware of the issue through these projects.

The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank operator, released its latest mid-year statistics in September. The preceding six months had been its busiest on record, with the need for three-day food parcels increasing by 25 per cent, from 658,048 parcels in April-September 2018, to 823,145 in the same period of 2019. Founded on Christian principles, other religious and non-religious organisations also run food banks under its banner.

The Al-Mizan charitable trust supports people living in poverty through grants and delivers food parcels in Ramadan. Sufra Food Bank and Kitchen in Brent, London, runs a food bank, helps vulnerable, homeless and socially isolated people


Dr Ruth Patrick, lecturer in social policy and social work, York University: “With over four million children in poverty in Britain today, the extent of the poverty, hardship and even destitution faced by so many families should be right at the top of the political agenda. Poverty should shame and occupy us all. Britain urgently needs concerted and effective action to address poverty in all its forms, and to repair the social security system so it is once again fit for purpose.

“What is also important is for the politicians to do much more to listen and actually work with those with direct experiences of poverty and of the social security system. Only by so doing can they engage with the vital expertise that comes from experience, and make use of this expertise in developing effective policy solutions and strategies.”

Niall Cooper, director, Church Action on Poverty: “As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has painstakingly documented, we have been living in a decade of destitution, squeezed incomes, and rising essential costs. Households have been trapped by rising debt and many of the most important lifelines in society have been removed or eroded.

“We know up to eight million households are experiencing food insecurity and we hear frequently of people going hungry, skipping meals so their children don’t have to, and being left for weeks with no money.

“There are major policy decisions that the government can make to address the root causes of poverty, but churches at national level also have a big role to play. They must adequately resource those doing vital work on the front line of UK poverty, and ensuring that they prioritise the needs and cry of the poor across the UK.”

Gavin Aitchison is media co-ordinator for Church Action on Poverty


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