Why political parties need to have plan to tackle high levels of deprivation ahead of the election

Mason Boycott-Owen speaks to Katie Schmuecker, principal policy adviser at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, about how inequality has become a big political challenge.

In recent years many conversations around living standards in the UK have shifted from poverty to inequality, a broader way of looking at those who are less well-off in the country.

Though there have not been huge shifts in inequality in people’s incomes in the UK since the 1980s, Britain still has a very high level of inequality when compared to other countries, says Katie Schmuecker from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

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“Of all of the large European countries, we are the most unequal, and that really does matter, and it really matters for people at the bottom,” she says.

Katie SchmueckerKatie Schmuecker
Katie Schmuecker

“If we look at poverty over the last 20 years, we have seen barely any movement. We've seen barely any movement on poverty since 2010, either. It's been 20 years and six different prime ministers since we significantly shifted the dial on poverty in this country.”

Despite the headline figures barely changing, under the surface it is a different story, adds Ms Schmuecker.

“Those who are in poverty are now experiencing deeper forms of poverty than they have done previously,” she says, adding that “destitution”, where people are unable to meet their most basic physical needs to be warm, dry, clean and fed, has more than doubled between 2017 and 2022.

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“During 2022 there were 3.8 million people in our country, including one million children who experienced destitution. That is a level of hardship that simply should not exist in a country like ours.”

Children in poverty is one of the most stark and upsetting concepts for many as it is happening not only at what is meant to be one of the happiest parts of their lives, but at a time when impacts are carried with them for the rest of their lives.

“If we look at children who are below school age, preschool children, experiencing poverty in that stage of life has huge and negative impacts on children's life chances,” says Ms Schmuecker.

“Even by the time children get to school at age five, big gaps open up in terms of their social and their emotional and cognitive and educational development.

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“If you talk to teachers, they tell us about children who are coming to school hungry, children who are coming to school tired because they're living in overcrowded accommodation, and they are coming to school in need of emotional support because they are living in highly stressed environments where parents are really struggling to make ends meet.”

“I think what we should really be focused on is the urgency of the experiences of hardship that people are having right now. The question that we are asking of all of the political parties as we head into this general election campaign is what is their plan to do something about the urgent problem of hardship that is facing our country.”

These issues, though present in the South of England, tend to be magnified in the North.

“We're very used to talking about the North-South divide, and the reason we talk about it a lot is because it's real, it absolutely exists,” says Ms Schmuecker.

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Even within Yorkshire, the difference between areas are stark, with areas such as Bradford, Sheffield, Kirklees, Leeds and Hull having child poverty rates of over a third, while areas like Harrogate, Hambleton, Selby, Richmondshire, York and Craven have child poverty rates of less than one fifth.

Meanwhile recent work in Leeds found that children born in the most deprived areas of the city had a nearly 10 year difference in lifespan compared to those in the most affluent areas.

“That shows the seriousness with which we should be treating these issues,” she adds.

“When we talk to the public about these issues and about their experiences of the cost of living and the degree to which people in our country are going without the essentials and are unable to afford the basics of life, what people say to us is that they don't think that in a country like ours, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, that we should be having such high levels of hardship.”

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