Policy responses to poverty and inequality in UK    

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Introduction

Poverty has been defined in many ways. According to the United Nations, poverty refers to the deprivation of opportunities and choices and is a breach of human dignity. The two main types of poverty are absolute and relative poverty. When experiencing absolute poverty, individuals are unable to cater for their basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, and access to clean drinking water. In other words, as stated by Mondal (n.d.) is the failure to afford the minimum required provision for maintaining work efficiency and health. On the other hand, relative poverty refers to the lack of resources by a certain group compared to another in the same society (Mondal n.d.). In most of the developed nations such as the UK, it is not common for people to experience absolute poverty, but relative lack is prevalent.

In the United Kingdom (UK) poverty is measured by the income of a household relative to the national average. According to the government of UK, in approximately 300000 households none of the adults has work. Additionally, nearly 300000 children have drug addicted parents exposing them to challenges that reduce their likelihood of succeeding in life. Also, as of 2014, approximately 6.5% (3.9 million people) of the entire UK experienced persistent poverty (Wells 2016). The current paper seeks to critically analyse the policies the UK government has put in place to curb the issues of poverty and inequality. With regard to inequality, the focus will be laid on income, gender, health, and education disparity.

As an intervention, the UK government recognizes that dealing with the causes of poverty is more effective and long-term as opposed to dealing with isolated people’s incomes (Gov.uk 2015). In this regard, the government has responded to the poverty issue through many ways, some of which have been successful and others have failed to meet the aim. These interventions range from job creation to helping individuals find work. According to the UK’s government, their policy responses to poverty focuses on identifying and dealing with causes of social exclusion, forging a fairer society that provides equal opportunity for every individual to achieve their potential fully, and equipping individuals as well as communities to assume the responsibility for their lives (Piachaud and Sutherland 2000). However, most recent reports reveal that poverty and inequality are still issues of concern in the UK. In this regard, government policies have failed to adequately curb these issues.

Poverty

The government has introduced and implemented policies to curb poverty and inequality. One of the policies was introduced in 1997 and provided the minimum wage for employees, a step that aimed at ensuring individuals and families’ standards of living did not fall below the line of absolute poverty. However, this policy only ensures access to basic commodities such as food, clothing, and shelter but does not protect against relative poverty. Additionally, the intervention does not help the large unemployed number of people in the country. In this regard, the minimum wage policy has been useful although it can only be beneficial to those with jobs.

As a response to poverty, the government of United Kingdom adopted a working tax credits program for children, families, and pensioners (Tomlinson 2012). This system involved offering incentives that encouraged individuals to take on the rising job opportunities even if they awarded low wages. The government would then subsidize or top up the earned income to make them more tolerable. Thus, the tax credits program did not just help reduce absolute but also relative poverty by giving people an opportunity to live above the line of poverty and earn more than the set minimum wage.

In addition to minimum wage policy, the UK government introduced programs to reduce poverty. Among the programs were the New Deal schemes, which were categorized to cater for the unemployed young people, lone parents, lone parents, and the aged. These selective universality programs benefited the involved individuals through grants and funding, assisted child care, subsidies to child minding, and made more feasible going to work for lone parents (Tomlinson 2012). Since their introduction in 1999 to their independent modification in 2009, 1.8 million people had found jobs with 500000 of these being lone parents resuming work and 150000 being the disabled (Tomlinson 2012). Consequently, the schemes were beneficial with the reduced levels of unemployment subsequently leading to a reduction in poverty levels. However, most the new deal schemes’ jobs were low paying, part time, or temporary as they were backroom jobs, allowing most employees to earn wage amount that does not significantly vary from the minimum set wage by the government or offering short time employment. In this regard, the programs rendered it possible to eradicate absolute poverty in the country leaving people and families to suffer from relative poverty. In this regard, the new deal schemes were a short-term solution to the poverty problem and although it was partially successful, the government failed to adequately respond to poverty in long term.

Another intervention targeting to reduce child poverty was a development the civil service’s child poverty unit. The unit was forged during Tony Blair’s governance in 1999 with its sole focus being to eliminate child poverty within a two-decade period (Walker 2016). However, the unit was abolished towards the end of 2016, a move that raised alarm with analysts predicting an increase in a number of children experiencing poverty by 2020 (Walker 2016). The UK government claimed it would introduce better policies to curb child poverty. Abolishing of the unit came after a UNICEF report revealed that the UK had failed to reduce child inequality in terms of health, income, and education. What is more, Britain was ranked the last for inequality in children’s healthy eating habits as a large and growing gap was revealed between the different financial and social backgrounds (Quinn 2016).  In this regard, the UK has not been adequately handling child inequality.

Income Inequality

Income inequality is a becoming an issue of concern even in developed countries. However, in the UK the tax and benefits system plays a significant role in ensuring the gap between the rich and poor is bridged. With regard to income, the tax system is progressive rendering it to cut a large amount of money from higher earners and even zero to those who receive low wages.  For instance, as Wells and Thomas (2016) states, UK’s income indicates a high level of inequality prior to application of any benefits and taxes but the unevenness is significantly reduced after redistribution by this system. However, in 2015 the government made some modifications where tax credits were cut and rate of income tax of the rich reduced. Additionally, the government also increased the minimum wage and argued that it would offset the impacts of widespread cuts in tax credit (Inman 2015). Conversely, there was a £4 billion income rise resulting from the increased minimum wage but the welfare cuts were £12 billion (Inman 2015). The result was an imbalance that instead of reducing income inequality encouraged disparity as high-income earners got their anticipated household’s income increased.

Although a progressive welfare and taxation targets to redistribute income and wealth from the richest to the poorest with the focus being on reducing inequality and poverty, recent result reveals contradicting findings in Britain. In 2016, a report released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed that income inequality is on the rise, meaning that wealth and income are concentrated to the few, rich individuals (Mack 2016). According to the report, the top 5% rich British individuals in 2015 received 45.5% of the entire UK income and the top 10% rich received 29% of the total share. 12.7% of UK’s total income went to the top 1% and 5% to the top 0.1% (Mack 2016).  Wealth distribution revealed the same trend with the 20% wealthiest individuals having 62% of the entire household wealth and 40% of all disposable income going to the top 20% of earners.  In this regard, the UK has failed to implement policies that will lead to an even distribution of wealth.

Other tax and benefit government programs have been encouraging inequality. For example, other benefits like the universal credit are regressive exposing the poorest 10% of families with children to lose 5% of their income while the top rich 10% stand to lose only 2% (PSE 2010). The inadequacy of UK government policies in curbing poverty and inequality have also been documented by a report a UK independent body named Social Mobility Commission whose role is to monitor social mobility’s progress (Murphy 2017). According to the report, the British administration had failed to reduce poverty and inequality for the last 20 years and warned of the continuous growth in the disparity gap if appropriate intercession would not be taken (Murphy 2017). The issues of concerns raised were the stagnating wages, children wellbeing with 30% living in poverty, and poor standards in schools. Evidently, the policies and interventions undertaken to address these issues have not been successful.

The government of United Kingdom has introduced various other policies to deal with wealth inequalities. For example, founded after the Second World War, the welfare state was aimed at providing a comprehensive social insurance system (BBC Bitezite n.d.). This policy was developed to guarantee universal provision as well as flat rate contributions making it a social justice model. Currently, it is made up of several parts which include social security, comprehensive education, the national health service (NHS), services for children and personal social services, and social housing (BBC Bitezite n.d.). Evidently, each of these policies has a more focused aim and implementation has presented advantages as well as challenges.

For social security, the government offers a range of benefits such as child benefits, maternity grants, state pension, and universal credit to those in need. However, these benefits may not be as helpful to the many people as intended due to various reasons. For example, £220 billion was allocated to social security in the financial year 2014/15. This amount is significantly low and as BBC Bitesize (n.d.) states, and it is means-tested. As Spicker (2017) states, means tested benefits although helping to concentrate benefits on those in need are difficult and complex to administer. Also, they in most cases do not reach the needy due to ignorance, stigma, fear, changing circumstances’ effects, and intricacy. Another shortcoming of means tested benefits arise from the constant reporting it requires as well as frequent adjustments in the benefit amount. People fail to follow up these procedures. Additionally, social policy necessitates people to work so as to be eligible to receive them. Also, in some cases, contributions are too high rendering most people unable to pay and poor people have reduced chances of affording them. In this regard, many people in need are left out from benefiting, making the policy intervention a failure.

Although the government launched the welfare state to contribute positively to a better UK by helping those in need, it presents with various shortcomings and challenges. For example, alarms have been raised where these programs were exploited by government officials. In such cases, the programs cease to benefit the poor and increase equality but rather contribute to concentrating money to the well-established figures. This way, the risk of the country becoming unequal increase even with the government interventions to reduce unevenness due to fraud in the programs.

Another concern presented by benefits and cash programs is an increase in dependency by some individuals. As the government offers money to the unemployed there is a risk of people being dependent, creating a society that is less motivated to work and provide for themselves as they get used to receiving support financially even without making any effort. Thus, instead of the government interventions ensuring social justice they may render unfairness to the independent, hardworking, and rich entities who are taxed more as a redistributive strategy of bringing income equality to the states.

Another policy that has been developed is the personal social services and children’s services. These programs ensure the wellbeing of marginalized individuals such as the elderly where care is offered at their homes. For children’s services, the government reduces challenges facing children like orphans through fostering and adoption procedures. Additionally, this policy has provided some children with essential needs in cases where their parents are unable to cater for the basics. Also, the UK government has implemented policies to help women. For example, the maternity and widowed parent’s allowance help improve the lives of females. Precisely, the allowance for widows is meant to support single mothers in raising their children and giving them proper living standards even without the presence and support of the husband. Thus, with children and women being at more risk of experiencing poverty, they are policies to protect them.

Health Inequality

The government intervention through the NHS has helped reduce inequality in accessing healthcare facilities. NHS was established as a free, universal, comprehensive, and high-quality choice that received £140 billion in the financial year 2014/15 allowing it to improve the overall health of individuals in the UK as many people had access to appropriate facilities (BBC Bitesize n.d.). However, apart from Scotland, the governments in other states do not cater for prescription charges, a step that leaves most poor unable to access the appropriate treatment due to financial constraints. Consequently, health disparity is experienced by the different citizens stratified by social class. For example, the gap between the life expectancy of most and least affluent individuals in the UK was reported to widen even with reported overall improved health (BBC Bitesize n.d.). Thus, although NHS has helped in improving access to the healthcare, the government policy has failed to reduce the health gap.

Education Inequality

The government has made efforts in reducing educational inequality through comprehensive education. In the UK, state services of education run from nursery school to primary, secondary, and through to tertiary institutions giving equal opportunities of education to all (BBC Bitesize n.d.). However, the standards of education have been questionable with the schools running short of equipment and staff and the school buildings being of poor quality (BBC Bitesize n.d.). Additionally, the education system in most UK states necessitates students to pay for tuition fees, an aspect that may exclude the poor from furthering their studies.  In this regard, inequality may result where students in public schools may have poor education standards minimizing their chances of being successful and independent in the future. The result is a gap between the rich and the poor even in the future.

Gender Inequality

With regard to curbing gender equality, the UK policies also seem to be ineffective. Even with the policies that allow females to resume work and education opportunities for all, research suggests that gender inequality, especially in workplaces, still is rampant (Monaghan 2016). The report revealed the existence of a high gap in pay for working mothers and fewer females than male in workplaces. Thus, the government should act appropriately to reduce gender inequality.

Poverty and Inequality Relationship

Poverty is related to inequality. As stated by JRF (2014), the causes and impacts of poverty are significantly affected by relationships, gender roles, as well as the manner in which males and females are positioned by social structures. Thus, gender inequality contributes to poverty with women having more chances of living in poverty than men (JRF 2014). Although policies to reduce poverty and inequality in the UK have been implemented, the government does not consider the link between gender inequality and poverty. As a result, policies have concentrated solely on the two aspects independently, leaving unsolved the shortage that is contributed by increased dependence on women for household duties. As JRF (2014) states, when there is uneven sharing of income in couples a hidden poverty is experienced, with women managing family poverty and suffering the associated costs. Thus, with the failure of the government to recognize this type of poverty appropriate interventions cannot be taken.

Conclusion

Thus, the UK government has developed and implemented many policies as a response to poverty and income, gender, education, and health inequality. However, most of these interventions have not been effective as reports indicate existence of poverty and levels of inequality, especially in the recent years. Although the poverty and inequality issues could have been worse if these interventions did not exist, they are still inadequate and faced with many challenges. In this regard, the United Kingdom government should take the necessary steps to modify or develop policies that will improve the current situation. For policies that fail due to official’s incompetence, for example, fraud and embezzlement of funds meant for the needy, appropriate steps should be taken to ensure responsible and accountable spending of such monies. Further, stricter policies regarding implementation of poverty and inequality reduction must be designed to guarantee positive results.

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