Poverty and the distribution of wealth

Wealth (the combined value of savings and assets) is distributed very unequally in the UK.

  • In 2001 the wealthiest one per cent of the population owned 33 per cent of the nation’s wealth.
  • The least wealthy fifty per cent owned only 3 per cent of the nation’s wealth.

Defining poverty: When we talk about poverty in Britain, we rarely mean that people are living in absolute poverty, which is when someone simply doesn’t have enough money to survive. What we are actually talking about is relative poverty. This refers to an income which is significantly below the national average, thus making an individual poor compared to the people around him. In the UK it is extremely rare for someone to starve to death, but many people struggle to pay for decent food or new clothes.

Measuring Poverty: The government measures poverty in the UK by looking at people’s income. Poverty can also be identified by the absence of things most of us regard as necessary – electricity, for example, or the involuntary lack of nutritious food. It might also be measured in terms of whether a person believes himself to be living in poverty.


The life cycle of poverty

During an individual’s lifetime, there are periods when he is more likely to face poverty. Someone may face poverty during their childhood, for example, and then escape it by leaving home and getting a job. Once he settles down with a girlfriend he may find himself with children which drags him back down into poverty. When the children leave home he escapes poverty, only to fall back into it when he retires and loses his income.

What causes poverty?

Some people place blame on the individual or an ‘underclass’ of people who are responsible for creating their own poverty. They may argue that

  • There is a culture of poverty in which those from poor backgrounds are socialised into poverty and therefore see it as a normal way of life. Education and savings become of secondary importance and so they are more likely to remain poor.
  • There is an ‘underclass’ of people who have grown entirely reliant on the welfare state and see little motivation to break out of their welfare dependency.
  • The cycle of deprivation, in which people are materially and culturally deprived, is responsible for locking future generations into a cycle of deprivation.

On the other hand there are those who believe that the fault of poverty lies not with the individual but with the way society is structured.

  • Marxists believe that the split between the rich and the poor is the unavoidable result of a capitalist system. Whilst those at the top hog all the power and wealth, there will always be those at the bottom who are struggling to survive.
  • Others believe that low welfare state benefits are the reason why people are living in poverty and that benefits should be increased to lift people out of a state of poverty.


Who is at risk of living in poverty?

There are certain groups of people who are at more risk than others of living in poverty. They include:

      • People with few or no qualifications.
      • Families with young children.
      • Single pensioners.
      • Lone-parent households.
      • Households which contain unemployed adults.
      • Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage households.

In general, women are more likely to face poverty than men.