Poverty in Britain is as widespread now as it was in 2000, an authoritative study reveals, dealing a blow to Gordon Brown’s efforts to re-establish his credentials as a champion of the poor.

Thursday’s report shows that poverty, unemployment and home repossessions started rising again in 2004, well before the recession.

With poverty emerging as an election battleground, the findings will be uncomfortable for the prime minister and raise further doubts about Labour’s success in tackling social exclusion – a defining aim when it won power in 1997.

The study, by the New Policy Institute on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, shows that 13.4m people live in low-income households earning less than 60 per cent of the national average – the same level as 2000. The number of very poor households earning less than 40 per cent of the average is at its highest level for 25 years, at 5.7m.

“There is much in the government’s record that is positive, but on the core subjects of low income and employment the picture is bleak,” said Peter Kenway, the report’s co-author.

Last month the government promised to enshrine in law a commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020, but the report said gains in this area had been reversed, with the percentage of children in low-income households at 31 per cent. A record 2.1m children live in low-income households where at least one adult works.

The number of people unemployed and wanting work is at its highest since Tony Blair was first elected prime minister. The report reinforces the view of a “lost generation” of young British workers. Unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds is higher than at any time since the foundation started publishing its yearly studies in 1993. Unemployment among young adults stopped falling as long ago as 2001.

The report shows Labour made strong progress on poverty and social exclusion in its first five years of power, but that this has stalled badly.

Mr Kenway said those five years stood out as the only period in recent history when the spread of poverty and social exclusion was checked. However, the subsequent reversal showed Labour policies such as the introduction of tax credits had only temporarily “treated the symptoms rather than offer a long-term cure”.

The impact of globalisation and the accession of east European countries to the EU would have had some impact on wage levels, he argued, though the more “chronic” factor of long-term unemployment had been around for 30 years, and it was still the case that people were severely underpaid for many jobs.

The report also highlighted areas of success for the Labour administration, noting that the public’s fear of becoming the victim of a burglary or violence had fallen as levels of crime dropped sharply. Minimum levels of educational attainment rose, while school exclusions fell. The rate of premature deaths fell, as did infant mortality.

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