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Income poverty in Britain is on a steady downward trend and has fallen back to levels last seen at the end of the 1...
Income poverty in Britain is on a steady downward trend and has fallen back to levels last seen at the end of the 1980s. But there are significant differences in disadvantage between Scotland, Wales and the English regions, as well as evidence that improvements in school attainment and the number of young people gaining basic qualifications have stalled.

These are among the key findings from Monitoring poverty and social exclusion 2003, the independent assessment of trends in tackling disadvantage compiled by the New Policy Institute and published annually by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Taking stock of 50 different indicators ??? ranging from income and employment to education, health and crime ??? the report finds that 21 of the measures have been improving in recent years, compared with only seven that have grown worse. Indicators showing little change include health inequalities (where people on low incomes are more likely to suffer long-term sickness or disability and other aspects of ill-health), as well as the one in four 19-year-olds who lack basic educational qualifications - no better than the proportion recorded in 1999.

Regional variations

An analysis of regional variations, included for the first time across 26 indicators for which comparable data exists, also draws attention to differences in the scale of the problems of social disadvantage in different parts of England, as well as Scotland and Wales. For example:

- The East, South East and South West of England stand out as regions where most of the indicators are better than the average for Britain as a whole.

- The North East of England is the only region where poverty and social exclusion are worse than average on a majority of indicators.

- The proportion of the population living in low-income households is highest in Greater London (27%) and the North East (26%), and lowest in the East and South East (both 18%).

- Inner London is the most unequal part of the country, combining the highe st proportions of both rich (29% of people in the richest fifth nationally) and poor people (32% in the poorest fifth) anywhere in Britain. Homelessness is also higher in the capital than elsewhere.

- Recorded levels of treatment for drug misuse in the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside are four times those in the East and South East. Burglary rates are also higher than anywhere else in the country (three times those in Wales) although the number of burglaries nationally has almost halved in ten years.

- Scotland is typical of Britain as a whole on many indicators. However, health indicators ??? including the death rate among men below retirement age ??? are much worse than anywhere else (including the North West, the worst English region).

- Like Scotland, Wales has many fewer school exclusions than England. It also has fewer overcrowded homes and fewer burglaries. But unemployment among younger adults and limiting long-standing illness and disability among older adults are both noticeably worse than average.

Low income

Across Britain, figures for 2001/02 show the number of individuals in homes with incomes below the poverty line (defined as 60% of the median household income after deducting housing costs) fell to 12.5 million, or 22% of the population. Of these, 3.8 million were children, 2.2 million were pensioners and 6.6 million were working-age adults.

The figures compare with a peak of 13.4 million people in low-income households in the mid-1990s and are lower than at any time during the 1990s. There are signs that Britain may have started to move away from the bottom of the European Union 'poverty league' which it shared four years ago with Portugal, Greece, Spain, Italy and Ireland.

Lower poverty levels have been largely due to falls in unemployment. But the report records a lack of equivalent progress in the number of out-of-work adults who are not classed as 'unemployed'. The 1.6 million people aged 25 to retirement who are 'economically inactive but want w ork' (long-term sick, disabled and others) now outnumber the 'unemployed' by a ratio of two to one.

It also highlights the continuing problem of the high number of low income households where someone is in paid work: an average 3.5 million people were experiencing 'in-work poverty' between 1999 and 2002 compared with 3 million between 1994 and 1997


After falling steadily between 1995 and 1999, the number of 19-year-olds without five GCSE passes, NVQ Level 2, or equivalent qualifications has stalled. The importance of acquiring this adequate, basic level of qualification is underlined by a further indicator showing that half of all adults in their late 20s with no qualifications earn less than £200 per week, compared with one in six of those with the equivalent of five GCSE passes or better.

The report charts a modest decline over ten years in the proportion of 16-year-olds gaining low grades at GCSE (or Scottish equivalent), but notes that one in five still only achieve pass grades below C, and that a further one in 20 get no passes at all. Figures for 2002 also show that the number of 16-year-olds who are not in education or training was unchanged from 1999.

Among primary school children, the number of 11-year-olds failing to reach the expected Level 4 in mathematics and English improved rapidly between 1996 and 2000, but remained static for the next two years. However, the improvement in maths scores among schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils was maintained.


The most positive health indicator nationally is for premature death, where the rates for both men and women under 65 fell by a sixth between 1991 and 2001. Progress was also made between 1996 and 2001 in reducing the annual number of births to girls under 16, from 5,000 to 4,000.

However, obesity among women rose by half in the decade to 2001 to a point where a quarter of all women aged 25 to 64 were affected. Poorer women were twice as likely to be obese as women in th e richest fifth of the population. The report also notes that adults from the poorest fifth of the population are at double the risk of experiencing a mental illness as those on average incomes.

Further evidence of persisting health inequalities concerns infant mortality rates and low birth-weight where, if inequalities are changing at all over time, they are in both cases rising


The report finds a continued concentration of low-income households living in council housing and homes provided by housing associations. Half of all social housing tenants are poor, compared with one in six people living in other housing tenures. In addition, almost half the heads of household aged 25 to 54 living in social rented housing are out of work, compared with one in ten in other tenures. Low-income households are twice as likely to say they are very dissatisfied with their neighbourhood, compared with richer households. A third of social housing tenants report that crime, vandalism or graffiti is a serious local problem, almost double the rate among home owners.

The number of mortgage holders in serious arrears has hit its lowest level for more than decade. However, the number of families officially classed as 'homeless' and living in temporary accommodation has continued to rise sharply to reach 97,000 in 2003 compared with 45,000 in 1997.

Guy Palmer, co-author of the report, said: 'With five years' data available to measure progress since Labour came to office, it is much clearer where the government's strategy for combating poverty and social exclusion is being successful ??? and where it is not. There is still a long way to go before the number of people living in low-income households reaches the levels of 20 years ago, but the reduction in poverty levels to below those of the 1990s is a notable milestone and suggests real progress.'

Peter Kenway, co-author of the report, said: 'Despite tangible progress in tackling income poverty, it is clear that a number of key probl ems still need to be addressed, including low pay and disadvantage at work, lack of qualifications, health inequalities and the difficulties faced by many people who live in social housing. The regional comparisons we have provided show that Wales, Scotland and each of the English regions all exhibit different patterns. But it is a striking fact that by far the widest divisions between rich and poor are found in London, the seat of government itself.'

Read the full report here.

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