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The truth about British poverty and economic mobility

Summary:
It’s a general refrain, that Britain has more poverty than other European countries, that we’ve less social mobility enabling people to get out of it. As it happens that’s not what the actual numbers show. From the Office for National Statistics:Out of the 28 EU member states, the UK had the 12th highest poverty rate in 2017, but only the 20th highest persistent poverty rate; this reflects that in the UK, for those experiencing relative low income, it is more likely to be for a shorter period of time.Or, another way of saying the same thing, income mobility in the UK is greater than it is in the majority of other EU states. For fewer people are stuck in that low relative income for long periods of time here.We should also take issue with this definition of “poverty” here, this is relative

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It’s a general refrain, that Britain has more poverty than other European countries, that we’ve less social mobility enabling people to get out of it. As it happens that’s not what the actual numbers show. From the Office for National Statistics:

Out of the 28 EU member states, the UK had the 12th highest poverty rate in 2017, but only the 20th highest persistent poverty rate; this reflects that in the UK, for those experiencing relative low income, it is more likely to be for a shorter period of time.

Or, another way of saying the same thing, income mobility in the UK is greater than it is in the majority of other EU states. For fewer people are stuck in that low relative income for long periods of time here.

We should also take issue with this definition of “poverty” here, this is relative poverty. Or, as it’s more accurately known, inequality. That Britain has more inequality than a lot of Europe we know and we here are also fine about.

However, turning to actual material poverty, something we should we think really be worried about:

Persistent material deprivation – which provides an estimate of the proportion of people whose living conditions are severely affected by a lack of resources – fell to 2.1% in 2017, continuing the decline over the past four years.

We tend to think that getting a problem down to only 2 percentage points is a startling victory for government given the general inefficiency of the system. Do note though that this definition of material poverty is also a relative measure. It’s still compared to the average British standard of living, not that of Romania or Bulgaria.

But what’s most interesting is how different that is from the usual bombardment. Actual poverty, not having very much, is low and falling. Having less than others sees Britain pretty much in the middle of the pack. The persistence of that less than being lower than in our peer comparators by virtue of income mobility being greater here.

The most frequent reason for leaving in-work poverty was for employees to keep the same job and number of hours, but to increase their hourly pay, accounting for 44% of those who exited.

Oh, and the best way out of poverty? Get and keep a job until you’ve proved yourself and earned a pay rise. Now isn’t that different from what we’re more commonly told?

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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