17 July 2007

Polarisation of Poverty

Distribution of all households (2000): core poor, breadline poor, non-poor non-wealthy, asset wealthy, exclusive wealthyFor the third day in a row, we have yet another report highlighting the very real challenge of poverty in this country. This latest, a study from the social policy research and development charity Joseph Rowntree Foundation, reveals that Britain is moving back towards levels of inequality in wealth and poverty last seen more than forty years ago, and that rich and poor are living further apart.

Looking at how the geographical distribution of wealth in Britain has changed in the last 40 years, the authors of Poverty, wealth and place in Britain, 1968 to 2005 argue that in order to understand social inequality it is crucial to understand what is happening to those people and households that are not poor. They conclude that over the last three decades, "slowly and not particularly steadily, more and more families became excluded from what it was normal to be able to do." Households in already-wealthy areas have tended to become disproportionately wealthier, more households have become poor over the last fifteen years, and the widening gap between rich and poor has meant that there are fewer "average" households — neither rich nor poor.

The report raises serious questions about what Britain will look like in ten years' time if trends continue and concludes by asking, "Who wants to be born in a neighbourhood where, odds on, you will grow up poor? Who wants to be born average where so many are poor, where the rich are gaining more and more and the exclusive rich are such a tiny group? Who will put up with that and who is going to change this?"

The sad thing is, although the methods used may be novel and although the results may shed additional light on the debate, all these reports merely confirm what we all already know and can see around us. How many more diagnoses of this problem do we need? Surely the money used to conduct all this research would now be better channelled to investigating best practice elsewhere to identify possible solutions? Perhaps the charities will now take a lead from Iain Duncan Smith and the Conservatives' Social Justice Policy Group who, having first defined the problem, went on to make specific policy proposals for how we might heal our broken society and improve the well-being of us all.