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Poverty: still with us

March 20th 2017

Victoria Winckler crunches some of the latest figures on poverty in Wales and finds some good news and worrying trends.

The latest figures on the number and proportion of people living in poverty in Wales came out last week with barely a whimper.

At first glance, there’s no news at all.

The headline rate of poverty for the three years to 2015/16 is unchanged in Wales as in the UK as a whole.  The dial is stubbornly stuck at 23% of the population.

For specific groups of people, there’s a small – one percentage point – increase in the poverty rate compared with the previous year’s figures:

  • child poverty is up from 29% to 30%
  • poverty amongst working age adults is up from 22% to 23%
  • poverty amongst pensioners is up from 17% to 18%

I don’t think we should get very excited about most of these upswings, because they probably result from the way in which the Department for Work and Pensions rounds the figures to a whole number.  What matters is the trend over several years and any changes in material deprivation. And this is where it gets interesting.

Has child poverty turned a corner?

The overall rate of child poverty in Wales has stayed at around 29-30% for several years. In contrast, the number and rate of child poverty in Britain has increased slightly.

As a sense check, it’s worth looking at the proportion of children living on a low income and in material deprivation.   In these stats, low income means a family with an income of 70% of the median (rather than the poverty threshold of 60%) and material deprivation means being unable to afford items like a warm winter coat or a school trip.  And here there’s some good news.

The proportion of children in low income, materially-deprived families in Wales has fallen from 17% in 2013/14 to 15% in 2014/15 and to 14% in the three years to 2015/16. A decrease over several years suggests that the fall is real rather than a statistical quirk.

So, there are some grounds for optimism in respect of children.

Is pensioner poverty re-appearing?

Rather less positive are the figures for pensioners in Wales. While the current poverty rate for this group of 18% is up just one percentage point on the previous year, that was two percentage points up on the year before, which in turn was one percentage point up on the year before that. So there is definitely an upwards trend. And it’s one that isn’t evident in Britain as a whole.

What’s going on?  Frankly, we don’t know. It certainly doesn’t square with the reports that pensioners have never had it so good. But with an increase for the fourth year in a row, the increase in poverty amongst pensioners looks like more than just a blip.

So what should we make of it all?

What are we to make of this mixed mag? We can draw three conclusions.

1. Poverty is still a huge problem in Wales.

It hasn’t gone away because there’s no longer a Welsh Government strategy. Poverty is a terrible blight on people’s lives, affecting their health, life expectancy, educational attainment and relationships. Its effects last for years, often long after people’s incomes have increased. And poverty costs the Welsh public purse an absolute fortune too, with around £1 in every £5 spent by the Welsh Government going on dealing with the consequences of poverty.

Action is needed now as much as ever.

2. Poverty is changing

There’s some positive signs of child poverty easing, countered by some indications that pensioner poverty is on the up. Neither is cause for celebration or hand-wringing, but both trends need to be watched carefully and strategies adjusted (if we had some).

3.  It doesn’t have to be like this.

Local, Welsh and UK governments could run things very differently – our recommendations with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation set out a clear, evidence-based agenda for action.  Last weeks’ figures are a reminder that they must not just sit on the shelf.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation. Find out more about our work on solutions to poverty here




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