17 September 2018

The untold story about disability and poverty

By Stephen Brien

The inescapable costs of being disabled have been ignored for too long. When the true costs of a disability are properly calculated it reveals something that should have been picked up a long time ago – people with disabilities are far more likely to be in poverty than previously recognised.

A landmark piece of research published today reveals that nearly half of the 14.2 million people in poverty in the UK live in families with a disabled person. That’s 6.9 million people and 48.3 per cent of all those living in poverty.

This means that people with a disability are much more likely to be living in poverty than previously recognised. For too long, the inescapable costs of being disabled have been absent from the debate about poverty measurement.

This link between disability and poverty is one of the key findings from a two-and-a-half-year analysis of poverty in the UK by the Social Metrics Commission, an independent commission, that has united poverty experts and thinkers from the left and right in a new approach to measuring poverty.

For the first time, this new metric accounts for the negative impact on people’s available resources of inescapable costs such as obligatory debt repayments, childcare costs and the real experience of disability; and includes the positive benefits of access to liquid assets such as savings, to supplement people’s income and alleviate immediate poverty.

Families with a disabled person tend to have both lower earnings and higher costs than comparable families without a disabled person. Whilst many people with disabilities enjoy full employment and build extraordinarily impactful lives, many disabled people can’t work full-time and often work part-time, sometimes from home on a flexible basis, or cannot work at all.

Those caring for a family member with a disability are also often unable to work full time, or to work at all if 24/7 care is required. Furthermore, if you are disabled yourself, the ordinary routines of life, like getting dressed in the morning and travelling to and from work and other activities, can be very complicated, time-consuming and costly.

The benefits system does provide support for these extra costs in terms of PIP and Attendance Allowance. However, previous measures of poverty accounted for these benefits as income, without considering the associated extra living costs. As a result, many families with disabled members had been mistakenly considered to have sufficient resources to escape poverty.

The new measure, by recognising these benefits are related to increased living costs, now properly determines that many more families with disabled members are in poverty.

The findings highlight the challenges for people with a disability. When we looked at persistent poverty – those people living in poverty for at least two of the last three years – we found that 12 per cent of the total UK population (7. 7 million people) live in persistent poverty. And when we looked at the causes of persistent poverty, we found two drivers – disability and worklessness.

Persistent poverty is highest in families where someone is disabled and workless families. We also found that 43.4% of those people in deep poverty (defined as those who are 50% or more below the poverty line) are in families with a disabled person.

Full-time work is a route out of poverty, but when a person’s ability to work is limited by a disability, or they are caring for a disabled person, this pathway out of poverty gets blocked, and they can end up trapped.

The reason that we set up the Social Metrics Commission was to produce an accurate measure of poverty in the UK; and it was clear from the start that a broad consensus around poverty measurement needed to be built, if we were to deliver concrete action and real progress in the fight against poverty.

If we don’t understand who is in poverty and why, then we cannot deliver policy that helps lift people out of poverty. There is currently no official measurement of poverty for the UK and no agreed targets to reduce poverty.

We want to put poverty at the heart of government policy-making and ensure that the decisions are made with the long-term interest of those in poverty. For too long it has been possible to debate the measurement of poverty, now with this new measurement of poverty, the commission calls on people and organisations across, and outside of, the political spectrum to support it, so that we can all put our energy into creating the policies and solutions that build pathways out of poverty.

Stephen Brien is Director of Policy at the Legatum Institute and a member of the Social Metrics Commission.