Edward Hadas – Poverty in the UK: concepts, numbers and a Christian perspective

Edward Hadas spoke to us on 13 January 2019. Below is a summary of his talk. His more detailed notes and slides are available at the bottom of the page.

Edward is a Research Fellow at Blackfriars, is a free lance journalist and financial analyst. For several years he was Economics Editor at Reuters Breakingviews, and columnist at Reuters.com, where in 2013 he was awarded Reporter of the Year for commentary and analysis. He is a former Assistant Editor of the Financial Times Lex column.

It may seem like a simple matter to count how many people in Britain have been poor in the recent past, and how many are poor today. A little reflection, however, shows that poverty is a slippery concept, so much so that all numbers should be treated with caution.

To start, the most obvious definition of poverty, what economists call “absolute poverty”, is hardly relevant to the UK. Almost no one lacks to goods needed for human survival – food, shelter, clothing, warmth. Even basic goods which did not exist a century or two ago – electricity, clean water and sewage, telephones, effective health care, elementary and secondary education– are available to virtually everyone.

So the only relevant sort of economic poverty in Britain is “relative”, being poor by the standards of the community. The idea is reasonable, but the social comparisons and judgements are very difficult. There is no obvious definition of the relevant community and no easy way to decide what counts as poor or as unacceptably poor. Also, in today’s developed economies, the lifestyle poverty that is typically measured is generally a less serious problem than either the poverty of insecurity, the fear that unexpected illness or unemployment could bring disastrous economic disorder, or the poverty of opportunity, the deprivation caused by poor nutrition, bad schooling, racism and other injustices.

Also, for the last few decades, he most distressing and increasingly the most prevalent sorts of poverty have not been economic. There is the poverty of indignity, for example living in an abusive household or working as a prostitute. And there is the poverty of despair – the spiritual, social and psychological emptiness which comes with broken families, mental health issues, substance abuse. This despair all too often causes new problems or amplifies existing one, and is associated with disability and early death. Disorientation and loneliness are curses of our individualistic and unreligious modern society. The problems are worst in the United States, but they should be at the centre of any British attack on poverty.

Although the numbers should not be taken as “gospel truth”, they can certainly be helpful. What do they suggest?  Basically, by the standard definitions, relative poverty is not a massive problem in the UK. The proportions of poor are comparable to those of France and other successful European countries, and looked at over the last few decades poverty has been on a declining trend. More people have jobs while welfare benefits, especially pensions, have increased overall. Unfortunately, British poverty has increased modestly in the last few years, mostly because of high housing prices and some unfavourable changes in the benefits system.

Especially weak groups include single mothers, households in which no one works and Bangladeshi households (although the trends for the last group are very positive). As might be expected, economic troubles are often material manifestations of the spiritual poverty of despair.

What should Christians make of all this? They should be grateful that absolute poverty has declined greatly globally, and angry that it is not declining faster. Closer to home, they should fight against failures in the welfare state, for example the botched Universal Credit programme, and should support Living Wage campaigns, which help the poor while doing little or no harm to anyone else. Most important, they should make use of Christian charity. Freely given time and personal care are weapons which can fight against the poverty of despair more effectively than any government plan or wage arrangement. Christian love which can soothe the deprivations of the heart.

poverty in the uk slides

edward hadas uk poverty notes for lecture


Next event: Edward Hadas on Poverty in Britain. Numbers, concepts, trends – 11 January 2019

The Blackfriars Poverty in Britain Group series of talks resumes early in the New Year:
Sunday 13 January, 11-12, in the Aula
Blackfriars, St Giles, Oxford, OX1 3LY
Poverty in Britain: Numbers, concepts, trends
Edward Hadas, a research fellow at Blackfriars, will discuss how bad the poverty problem is today, whether it is getting worse, and what can be done to help.

Poverty and Mental Health

On 17 June 2018, Daniel Maughan and Hilary Caldicott spoke to us and answered questions on the topic of poverty and mental health. Daniel Maughan is consultant psychiatrist with Oxford Health NHS Trust, based at the Warneford Hospital, and Hilary Caldicott is a mental health service user who currently volunteers with Oxfordshire Mind’s Benefits for Better Mental Health service. In the 1990s, she was director of Oxfordshire Mind.

This summary brings together the key points that they made in their talks and that emerged from the discussion afterwards. You can also see Daniel Maughan’s slides here, and read Hilary Caldicott’s talk here.

The vicious cycle

The statistics show how poverty and mental illness form a vicious cycle. If you are born in poverty, you are more likely to develop mental illness. If you are in poverty and develop mental illness you are more likely to have a poorer outcome in your illness. The lower your income the higher the risk of developing anxiety and depression.

Young people/education

It’s also the case that severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia contribute to a gradual downward socioeconomic trajectory. One of the main reasons for this is that many mental illnesses develop when people are teenagers or young adults, severely disrupting their education and knocking their life plans off course.


Welfare reform under the coalition and conservative governments has affected mental health service users particularly severely. The introduction of disability assessments by outside companies to determine entitlement to benefit and the changes to the non means-tested benefits supporting the extra costs of disability (the move from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments) have meant many mental health service users either losing their benefits or having them significantly reduced. The high success rate of appeals against these decisions shows the extent to which the system is faulty. A recent high court ruling demonstrated that rules around PIP (specifically the exclusion of people with mental illness from the higher rate of mobility payments) was ‘blatantly discriminatory against those with mental health impairments.’ The government is not appealing the decision, and up to 150,000 people will have benefits reinstated (though a recent Moneybox programme exposed that there are no concrete plans for when this will happen.)

The poorest and most unwell people are carrying the highest risks of reforms that are dismantling the social safety net. The anxiety and distress caused by the faulty assessment system exacerbates mental health problems.

The importance of the social

There is increasing realisation that treating mental illness is as much a social challenge as it is biological and psychological. Strong social bonds, secure housing, lifelong learning and flexible routes into work are crucial to lifting people out of the vicious poverty/mental illness cycle. The NHS is gradually realising this – an example is the Oxford Mental Health Partnership, which brings the NHS mental health services together with charities like Mind and Restore, focusing on creating connections with the community. Battling against isolation, and fostering integration of mental health service users into the community is extremely important for building resilience. Self-stigma can be a particular barrier – Graham Thornicroft, Shunned: Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness (Oxford University Press 2006) is worth reading on the problem of self-stigma and the importance of integration and the development of a range of different social identities (e.g. as worker, member of faith community, parent, volunteer, as well as mental health service user.)

What could be called ‘social poverty’ is also a problem to be tackled: an absence of friends, people to share food with. Recovery depends not only on receiving an income, but also being part of the world, living an abundant life, and having hope-enhancing relationships (see Julie Repper and Rachel Perkins, Social Inclusion and Recovery: A Model For Mental Health Practice, 2003).

Spirituality, church communities and hope

Taking the spiritual dimension into account in treatment is important, without falling into the trap of imagining that all mental illnesses are essentially spiritual (a stance taken by some Christian groups in the US). Church communities, especially liberal ones, who are ready to embrace people of difference, can play an important role in social inclusion and encouraging hope. The newly established Oxford Centre for Spirituality and Wellbeing is making strides in this area.

Volunteering and recovery

The charitable sector is extremely important in supporting people with mental illness. Oxfordshire Mind’s Benefits for Better Mental Health service aids 750 people a year. Their benefits advisors are paid professionals, supported by volunteers who accompany and support people at assessments and other benefit-related meetings.

For people recovering from mental health problems, volunteering can be an important transition for building confidence; Mind has many mental health service users who are also volunteers, for example in the role of peer support workers.

Volunteering can play an important role in the Five Ways to Better Mental Health and Wellbeing:

  1. connect
  2. be active
  3. take notice
  4. keep learning
  5. give


For people with severe mental health problems, and people in recovery, stable independent housing is very important. Mind has developed housing with support. Permanent supported housing is crucial for many, though currently unfashionable; such housing is usually only offered for 2 years.


The session concluded with the questions: Is the future more hopeful? Is our understanding of the links between poverty and mental health getting better?

In many ways austerity has meant a step backwards, though the persistence of mental health service users and the people who support them in striving for a better situation is a reason for hope. The Justice system (as shown in the high court ruling cited above) is also working to protect people from discrimination. Psychiatry itself has improved a lot and there’s been a prolonged revolution in learning how best to handle mental health. A new mental health law is on the cards, which promises to be more progressive than the current one.

Poverty and Mental Health

Sunday 17 June, 11-12, in the Aula, Blackfriars, St Giles

Two speakers will be talking to us about the connections between poverty and mental health.

Daniel Maughan is consultant psychiatrist at the Warneford Hospital in Oxford who has researched the sustainability of mental health services

Hilary Caldicott is a mental health service user and a volunteer with Benefits for Better Mental Health, a service run by Oxfordshire Mind and aimed at ensuring that people with mental health problems receive their correct state benefits.

All welcome!

Oxford Winter Night Shelter – an introduction and how we can help, Sunday 5 November, 11am, Blackfriars, Aula

Oxford Winter Night Shelter (OWNS)
Churches Together in Central Oxford (CTCO)
Rev. Mary Gurr, Vicar to the Homeless based at St Michael in the Northgate, and colleagues will speak at Blackfriars at 11 O’clock on Sunday 5th November.
They will explain how this important new initiative plans to provide night shelter for rough sleepers in central Oxford during the coldest months of the year. This event will also provide an opportunity to explore how Blackfriars, and especially the 9.30 Mass community, can provide support both through volunteering and by fundraising.
All welcome! 
For more information about OWNS, please contact
Mary-Ann Sheehy
Hosted by Blackfriars Poverty in Britain Group

From Poverty to Life Chances and Back to Destitution, a talk by Frank Field MP

Talk by Frank Field, MP, 19 October 2017, sponsored by the Las Casas Institute and the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics
Frank Field, Labour Member of Parliament for Birkenhead and poverty campaigner, explained that during his life in politics — until now at least — and notwithstanding many false starts and reversals, the poorest have been protected. The country has ensured that no one was left destitute. Thanks to Universal Credit this is no longer the case.
A flawed approach to social welfare 
Altruism is not enough
According to Mr. Field, the essential flaw in the general approach to reform is rooted in the failure to maintain and deepen popular support for the welfare system. This is because the system came to be seen, essentially (even if wrongly), as a way of subsiding the indigent rather than providing an insurance mechanism for all.
He argued that a key factor in this development relates to a misunderstanding of the role of altruism:
“You can’t run a society on the basis of altruism. The approach must be based on self interest.”
An appeal to working class self interest, rather than an exclusive reliance on altruism, he suggested, is necessary to underpin the welfare system. Altruism and self interest need to be connected.
Need to focus on life chances
The system is also flawed because of a failure to focus on how best to improve the life chances of the poorest. The main factors driving poverty relate to: maternal bonding; maternal mental health; and the home learning environment.
The critical objective, therefore, should be to develop policies and programmes that will help ensure that a strong bond develops between the mother and child; address the mental health problems of the poor; and support an improved learning environment in the home.
The failure of the Sure Start initiative was its inability to support those most in need  — the so called “hard to reach” families. The fact that those most in need would be difficult reach, which should have been obvious from the outset, was then used as an excuse for this failure. Mr. Field suggested that Sure Start was not designed in a way likely to attracted such families.
Globalisaition harms the poor
Mr. Field also placed considerable blame on the dominance of the global market and, in particular, the fact that working class people have been made to carry the costs of globalisation. One cannot blame poor people wanting to come to the UK to improve their lives but this should not be at the expense of the poor.
Although unwilling to engage in a debate about BREXIT, possibly realising many might not agree with him on the issue, he suggested that the welfare state would be impossible to sustain in a world of mass migration.
Universal Credit is a disaster
Universal Credit represents the destruction of a fundamental pillar of the welfare state. The “safety net”, which ensured that no one should end up destitute, has in effect been abolished.
The system of delayed payments and loans makes little sense. Poor people with no savings and many already heavily in debt are now unable to fend for themselves and their families or to provide a roof over their heads. People who lose their homes may never able to get their lives back in order.
The new system is not being monitored so it is impossible to know if poor families will ever recover from the debts they are building up. No data is being collected on the impact of what is claimed to be (and is) the “biggest reform since beverage.”
The State is abdicating it’s responsibility and expecting civil society — often the churches — to step in through the provision of food banks and others types of support or handouts. In Mr. Field’s constituency, food banks are estimating a huge extra demand in the coming months.
Universal Credit, according to Mr. Field, has ushered in “a world I never thought we would see”.
Frank Field has been the Labour Member of Parliament for Birkenhead since 1979. He is a long-time campaigner on poverty, low-pay, and welfare, often seeking radical solutions to complex problems. He has served in government and chaired numerous reviews and Select Committees. In 2010 Frank chaired an Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances and now chairs the Foundation Years Trust to implement the Review’s main findings on how to prevent poor children becoming poor adults.

Oxford Winter Night Shelter – 5 November 2017 11am

Oxford Winter Night Shelter (OWNS)
Churches Together in Central Oxford (CTCO)
Rev. Mary Gurr, Vicar to the Homeless based at St Michael in the Northgate, and her colleague Dave Portway, Director of ACT which helps prisoners on release, will speak at Blackfriars at 11 O’clock on Sunday 5th November.
They will explain how this important new initiative plans to provide night shelter for rough sleepers in central Oxford during the coldest months of the year. This event will also provide an opportunity to explore how Blackfriars, and especially the 9.30 Mass community, can provide support both through volunteering and by fundraising.
All welcome! 
For more information about OWNS, please contact
Mary-Ann Sheehy
Hosted by Blackfriars Poverty in Britain Group