The UK poverty problem is more than a story about austerity

by Shaun Richards

Timing can sometimes be if not everything very important and so the release of the UN report on UK poverty by Phillip Alston on the day we get the latest data on the public finances is unlikely to be a coincidence. So let us get straight to it.

Although the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth largest economy, one fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty, and 1.5 million of them experienced destitution in 2017.

That is certainly eye-catching especially the use of the word destitution. However it was only on Monday that Andrew Baldwin reminded us that using purchasing power parity or PPP the UK is in fact the ninth largest economy rather than the fifth. So we note immediately that many of these concepts are more elusive than you might think. That issue particularly relates to the issue of poverty which is basic terms can be absolute or relative. With the relative definition we find that people can be better off but poverty gets worse. especially if the definitions are changed. I note that the Social Metrics Commission has done exactly that.

This new metric accounts for the negative impact on people’s weekly income of inescapable costs such as childcare and the impact that disability has on people’s needs……. The Commission’s metric also takes the first steps to including groups of people previously
omitted from poverty statistics, like those living on the streets and those in overcrowded housing.

The issue is complex and on a personal level my eyes went to one of the supporters of this which is the same Oliver Wyman which assured us that Anglo Irish Bank was the best bank in the world in 2006.  It was not too long before it was nationalised and made the largest loss in Irish corporate history.

The Detail

Be that as it may the report tells us this.

 Four million of those are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line and 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017, unable to afford basic essentials. Following drastic changes in government economic policy beginning in 2010, the two preceding decades of progress in tackling child and pensioner poverty have begun to unravel and poverty is again on the rise. Relative child poverty rates are expected to increase by 7 per cent between 2015 and 2021 and overall child poverty rates to reach close to 40 per cent.

On the other hand if we go to the absolute poverty measure then we are told this.

“There are 1 million fewer people in absolute poverty today – a record low; 300,000 fewer children
in absolute poverty – a record low; and 637,000 fewer children living in workless households – a record low.” ( Prime Minister May)

As you can see there is an extraordinary difference between the two approaches.

UK Public Finances

We can look at the situation from this perspective so here we go.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks) in April 2019 was £5.8 billion, £0.03 billion less than in April 2018; the lowest April borrowing since 2007.

So the monthly numbers were better albeit by the thinnest of margins so let us delve more deeply.

Borrowing in the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019) was £23.5 billion, £18.3 billion less than in the previous financial year; the lowest full financial year borrowing for 17 years (April 2001 to March 2002).

As you can see we are now approaching a possible budget balance because the same rate of improvement this year would pretty much wipe the deficit out. This raises a wry smile because when the government was supposedly trying to do this it remained a mirage and was always around three years away on the forecasts. Except three years later it was three years away again! Yet the current government has regularly promised to end austerity and has in fact made quite a lot of progress towards a balance budget. Make of that what you will. In fact the situation has levels of complexity as the spending numbers make clear.

Over the same period, central government spent £740.7 billion, an increase of 2.5%.

Those are the numbers for the full financial year to March and they open the austerity debate again. It depends which inflation measure you use as to whether that is a cut in real terms (RPI) or a rise ( CPI). It also depends on how you define austerity as that too varies. Monthly numbers vary but the latest month suggests a minor reduction in it.

 while total central government expenditure increased by £1.8 billion (or 2.7%) to £66.5 billion.

Moving onto what has changed the deficit numbers ( what used to be called the PSBR) the most has been this development.

In the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019), central government received £739.7 billion in income, including £559.0 billion in taxes. This was 4.9% more than in the previous financial year.

As you can see revenue has been strong and that gives us a hint that maybe the economy has been stronger than the GDP data has picked up and perhaps more in line with the employment and real wages numbers. One way of looking at the situation is to compare revenue with the national debt and if we do so using the international standard ( Maastricht) then it is 40%.

Whilst we are looking at revenue I am often critical of Royal Bank of Scotland so let me also post the other side of it.

On 14 February 2019, The Royal Bank of Scotland Group plc (RBS)announced the dividend price to be paid to shareholders on 30 April 2019. As a shareholder, the government received £0.8 billion

Comment

The report from the UN’s special rapporteur does remind us of problems as well as teaching me that the word rapporteur exists. Those familiar with my work will know that the fact that real wages are still nowhere near the previous peak is an issue. Added to this comes the enormous effort to keep house prices out of the inflation index and then the way that the costs of home ownership are represented by fantasy rents which are never paid. You might reasonably argue that home ownership is the distance of Jupiter away for the poor but the mess made of this area has affected even them as via problems with the balance between new and old rents it seems likely to me that the official rental data has recorded the wrong numbers as in too low.

Whilst the good professor has sadly resorted to a bit of politicking I thing he is on form ground pointing out issues like this.

Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food and sending it
home because teachers know their students will otherwise go hungry…….In England,
homelessness rose 60 per cent between 2011 and 2017 and rough sleeping rose 165 per cent
from 2010 to 2018……. Food bank use increased almost
fourfold between 2012–2013 and 2017–2018,29 and there are now over 2,000 food banks in
the United Kingdom, up from just 29 at the height of the financial crisis.

The rough sleeping issue has increased in the area I live ( Battersea). I also agree that Universal Credit was a good idea that has been implemented incompetently.

Returning to the number-crunching it gets ever more complex to see through the fog as I fear HM Treasury plans to start making smoke.

In the financial year ending March 2019, £8.0 billion in dividends were transferred from the Bank of England Asset Purchase Facility Fund (BEAPFF) to HM Treasury.

Also moving to today’s inflation data which I will pick up on another time I noticed that computer games are hitting the news again, this time with a downwards effect. The official statistics are having real problems with such fashion items and @Radionotme has suggested that the trend to digital sales ( which he thinks are not reported) may also be an issue.

80 per cent of UK video game sales are now digital, new figures have revealed.

The Entertainment Retailers Association said of the £3.86bn generated by the video game market in the UK in 2018, £3.09bn was from digital and £770m was from physical sales. ( Eurogamer)

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