A new report published today by the Social Metrics Commission (SMC) highlights the scale of the challenge facing new Prime Minister Boris Johnson when it comes to tackling poverty across the UK. The report reveals that 4.5 million people are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 7 million people are living in persistent poverty.

The SMC’s 2019 report is an update on its 2018 publication proposing a new measure of poverty for the country, and follows the Government’s announcement that it would develop experimental national statistics based on the approach. The new report provides a detailed overview of the extent and nature of poverty in the UK today and original analysis that shows how this has changed since 2000/01.

It shows that, despite fluctuations, overall rates of poverty have changed relatively little since the millennium. The current rate of poverty is 22%, which is the same as last year and only slightly lower than the 24% seen in 2000/01. However, this trend hides significant changes in rates of poverty among different groups. Poverty rates amongst pension-age adults fell steadily from 19% in 2000/01 to 9% in 2014/15 but have since risen slightly to 11%. Similarly, poverty rates among children dropped from 36% in 2000/01 to 31% in 2014/15, but have now risen slightly to 34%.

Download the full 2019 report

Key findings

The key findings from the 2019 report are:

  • Overall poverty: There are 14.3 million people in poverty in the UK. This includes 8.3 million working-age adults; 4.6 million children; and 1.3 million pension-age adults.
  • Depth of poverty: On average, those in poverty have moved closer to the poverty line now than would have been the case in 2000/01. However, a third (31%) of people in poverty – 4.5 million people – are more than 50% below the poverty line, and this proportion has not changed since the millennium.
  • Persistent poverty: Just under half (49%) of those in poverty are in persistent poverty, meaning they are in poverty now and have also been in poverty for at least two of the previous three years. This totals 7 million people, including 2.3 million children, 1.2 million people living in lone-parent families, and 1.8 million of those living in workless households.
  • Depth & persistence of poverty: Poverty persistence is particularly high for those in deep levels of poverty. Three fifths (59%) of those living more than 50% below the poverty line are also in persistent poverty, compared to just over a third (36%) of those living within 5% of the poverty line.

Analysis also shows that:

  • Nearly half (48%) of people in poverty – totalling 6.8 million people – live in a family where someone is disabled.
  • The poverty rate for people living in families where all adults work full time is just 10%, compared to 58% where all adults work part time and 70% in workless families.
  • Poverty rates amongst families from ethnic minorities are particularly high. Nearly half (46%) of people in families with a Black head of household and 37% of people in families with an Asian head of household are in poverty, compared to 19% of people in a family with a White head of household. However, 76% of those in poverty live in families with a head of household who is White.
  • Poverty rates vary across the UK. Compared to the UK average of 22%, poverty rates are higher in Wales (24%) and London (28%) and lower in the South East (18%) and Scotland and Northern Ireland (both 20%).

The SMC’s Lived Experience Indicators show that:

  • One in five (18%) people in poverty live in a family where no one has any formal qualifications. This compares to 9% of those not in poverty.
  • One in ten (8%) people in poverty rarely or never feel close to others, compared to 4% of those not in poverty.
  • One in five (21%) people in poverty live in families where adults believe that people in their neighbourhood cannot be trusted. This compares to just 9% of people not in poverty.
  • Over two thirds (69%) of people in poverty live in families where no adult saves, compared to 38% of those in families not in poverty.
  • As the UK’s employment rate has increased, the proportion of working-age adults in poverty who are workless has fallen by nine percentage points since 2000/01 to 52%.
  • Since 2000/01 people in poverty are six percentage points less likely to be in a lone-parent family and three percentage points less likely to be a single pensioner. They are four percentage points more likely to be a single adult.

Commenting on the report Philippa Stroud, Chair of the SMC and CEO of the Legatum Institute, said:

“I established the Social Metrics Commission in 2016 because I believed we needed a better understanding of poverty in the UK and a robust evidence base for policymakers to use to make decisions about how to tackle it. For too many years there has been a divisive debate about how to measure poverty, which has distracted focus from the action needed to drive better outcomes for the most disadvantaged people in society.

“It is concerning that overall poverty has remained at almost the same level since the early 2000s, under Governments of all colours. But it is also clear that beneath the surface there are significant differences in the experience of poverty among different groups of people. Decisions made by policymakers can have a significant impact on who is in poverty and how deep and persistent that poverty is. These new findings highlight the urgent need for a more united and concerted approach.

“The Commission brings together perspectives from the right and left, and all of us are committed to establishing a consensus on poverty measurement. I call on people and organisations from across the political spectrum to support this new approach so that we can all put our energy into creating the policies and solutions that build pathways out of poverty.”