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Relative poverty in our absolutely unequal world

Posted by Katherine Trebeck Senior Researcher

6th Sep 2010

Every now and again I am told that there is no poverty in the UK. I am told, invariably by people who have not met any of the thirteen million individuals who live in poverty in the UK, that because there is no visible famine, no slums lacking basic amenities and no one living on less than $1 a day, there is no poverty in this green and pleasant land.

This is a view that seems to be shared by over two in every five adults (surveyed in the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey) who state that there is 'very little poverty' in Britain today.

Two questions spring to mind (or to my mind at least). Firstly, are pockets of poverty any less terrible than pervasive poverty? The UK is a rich (so-called 'developed') country. It is also a very unequal country (in European terms, piped only by the likes of Romania, Portugal, Bulgaria and Greece). In an unequal rich country the experience of poverty is characterised by constant reminders of what one lacks, of the difficult trade-offs that people in poverty need to decide every day and of missing out on what others take for granted.

People are bombarded by messages that they must consume, look a particular way, own certain items, drive certain cars and live in houses that are decorated in a certain manner. But without purchasing power (namely, sufficient income) to join in on this competitive consumption, being poor in terms of low income means poverty in other senses as well - the feeling of having no real choices, the experience of stigma and often accrual of debt as people are forced to borrow to get by.

The problem with a notion that relative poverty is not real poverty is neatly described by a participant in a recent study looking at the impact of modern culture on wellbeing: "in a third world society, I would be a millionaire, with money, a home, warmth. But I'm low down in my society...because now I'm on income support and disability [allowance]".

Secondly, asking if relative poverty is true poverty is, at best, a form of poverty comparison ('my poverty is worse than your poverty'), and at worst, a dangerous distraction. The question we really need to ask is what is the price of wealth, which, to paraphrase Churchill, is held by so few at so great a cost to so many?

There are enough resources in our world to go around. Even in the UK there is more than enough for everyone. Surely that's the real injustice?

For more information on public attitudes towards poverty in the UK, please also see Oxfam's paper 'Something for Nothing'.

Blog post written by Katherine Trebeck

Senior Researcher

More by Katherine Trebeck

Katherine Trebeck