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What’s the challenge?

Britain is the world’s fifth richest country, yet poverty in Britain is rising. With paid work failing to reduce poverty for many, how can Britain best tackle this growing issue?

It has been stated in the most recent Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion report (Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), 2010) that in 2008/2009 13 million people in Britain were living in poverty. Of these, “5.8 million were in ‘deep poverty’ (household income at least one-third below the poverty line”.

For a country that can boast the accolade for being the fifth richest in the world, this is a surprising statistic. Furthermore employment and education is decreasing, suggesting that poverty in Britain is a social problem that is set to continue into the next decade.

These resources focus students to look at what causes persistent poverty in Britain and what are the solutions to it.

Poverty is “people whose resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities.”

Source: Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research


  • 2.1 million: The number of children in Britain currently living in poverty in working households, where at least one adult is working.

  • 60%: The percentage of poor adults who live in working households in Britain

  • 10.9 million: people identified as ‘poor’ in Britain in 2008/9 based on their household income before housing costs.

  • London is one of the most unequal places in the UK

  • 2.2 million: The number of pensioners who currently live in poverty in Britain

  • Britain has a higher proportion of its population living in relative poverty than most other EU countries

Sources: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2010, IPPR, 2010, Oxfam

Defining poverty

Peter Townsend offers a conclusive definition of poverty, outlining it “as those people whose resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities” (Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research).

The severity of poverty is also classified. ‘Relative poverty’ is a situation where there is a lack of perceived basic needs when compared to the average and ‘absolute poverty’ is where a number of basic necessities which sustain life are lacking. Examples of some of the indicators used in measuring poverty include: an inside toilet, beds and bedding for everyone, a damp-free house, 3 meals a day for children and 2 meals a day for adults.

Who is most at risk?

There are certain demographics that are more susceptible to poverty. Single parent households are particularly at risk and research has found that 89% of lone parents with 3 or more children are living in poverty. This percentage increases further if the children are under the age of 4.

Other demographics particularly at risk are those people of non-white origin, specifically those of Black or Bangladeshi ethnic affiliation. In 1999 71% of Black people in Britain were living in poverty and an astounding 92% Bangladeshi (Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, JRF 2000).

This has significant implications not only for the people suffering below the poverty line but also to the ever growing disparity between ethnic groups in modern day Britain.

Those people receiving job seekers allowance and income support have a greater tendency to be living below the poverty line. One in eight of the economically active population claimed Job Seekers Allowance at least once between 2008 and 2010 and this was thought to be exacerbated by the recession (Monitoring Poverty and Social Change, JRF 2010).

The root causes of poverty


A lack of sufficient funds that can support basic life is seen to be the greatest and most significant root cause of poverty. Professor David Gordon stated that “wages and benefits are too low” and therefore breaking the poverty cycle is extremely difficult for those in unemployment or part-time, low paid work.

Currently the minimum wage stands at £5.93 for those over 21. However the wage for school leavers (ages 16-17) has been criticised the most for being too low and possibly encouraging poverty (£3.64).

A campaign for a Living Wage has spread from Baltimore, USA in 1994 to now become a force in Britain, being lead by London Citizens. The Living Wage Campaign calls for every worker in the country to earn enough to provide their family with the essentials of life. Launched by London Citizens in 2001, the campaign has won over £40 million of Living Wages, lifting over 6,500 families out of working poverty.

Leading organizations such as KPMG and Barclays, the Olympic Delivery Authority and the Greater London Authority have gone Living Wage and become influential advocates. It is also championed by politicians including Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Professor Jane Wills from Queen Mary, University of London has been researching the living wage since 2001.


There is a common belief that poverty can impede a child’s education. Children’s social background can greatly influence their educational experience and it is suggested that children from low-income backgrounds are less confident in school and feel that they have reduced prospects in the future. As a result, these children are typically more resentful about schooling and this trend can be inherited through generations.


The consumerism trend in modern day Britain is aiding to the increasing levels of poverty. Television and other media outlets are corrupting the real needs of growing children and replacing them with consumer goods which are expensive and unnecessary.

What can be done to eradicate poverty?

The labour government in 1999 pledged to eradicate child poverty by 2020 and have it cut from 4.1million to 3.1 million by April 2010. However, this target was not quite reached as the Department for Work and Pension found that child poverty had decreased by 700,000, therefore missing the target by 300,000.

Effective social mobility is seemingly scarce in Britain but still considered to be the preferential solution to poverty when compared to social security. High dependency on social security has been criticized for slowing social mobility and has been compared to ‘glass ceiling’ which prevents liberation from helping themselves out of poverty.

Policies are needed which target the root causes of poverty, including addressing the high young adult unemployment levels and dwindling education statistics in this country. The new coalition government is proposing to concentrate on the long term causes of poverty and according to the Department for Education there has been “an over-reliance on short term measures”.

Low-income households

A household is deemed to be ‘in poverty’ if its income is less than 60% of median household income. The value of this poverty line depends on the number of people in the household (reflecting larger households need more money). In 2008/9 this was worth, per week:

£119 for a single adult
£161 for a lone parent
£206 for a couple with no children
£288 for a couple with two children under 14

In-work poverty

In-work poverty occurs when working families do not have an income that is high enough to lift them over the poverty line. During 2000s there was a greater number of people experiencing working poverty than workless poverty.

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) held a panel discussion on 15 March 2011 to discuss the issue.

Hear about this challenge from:

Frank Field, MP Member of Parliament for Birkenhead

Frank Field was appointed Chairman of the Independent Review on Poverty and life chances in June 2010. From 1969-79, Frank Field worked as Director of the Child Poverty Action Group, during which time it became one of the premier pressure groups in the country.

In 1974 he also became Director of the Low Pay Unit until 1980. The Unit was established to make sure wages councils properly protected the rights of workers in certain industries. It was the first to campaign for a national minimum wage, along with Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former general secretary of the National Union of Public Employees, now Unison; a goal that was eventually achieved in 1998.

John Bird MBE, Founder and Editor-in Chief, The Big Issue

“An inspirational business leader with an outstanding record of using business as a tool for social change, John Bird is an original and authoritative voice on a range of social and business issues”.
Julian Richer, Entrepreneur and Author.

John Bird was born into poverty, brought up in care, and has lived through a lot. His life’s journey has included spells as a thief, prison inmate, artist and poet. Now an established iconoclast, activist and publisher, John Bird is the force behind The Big Issue, the world’s most successful street magazine. He is an inspirational business leader with an outstanding record of using business as a tool for social change.

At a time when Corporate Social Responsibility is preoccupying business leaders and consumers alike, John Bird offers an authoritative, fresh approach, and some original perspectives on the interaction of business and society. His diverse experience, combined with his exuberant personality, erudition and often trenchant views make him a compelling and entertaining speaker.

John has spoken at the UN in New York, Nairobi and Istanbul, Downing Street and Buckingham Palace. The UN Scroll of Honour, an MBE and the 2005/6 Beacon Prize for Creative Giving are just three of the many accolades and awards he has received. Since founding The Big Issue in 1991 with Gordon Roddick, John has overseen its development into the UK’s most successful social enterprise, stretching from Tokyo to Totnes and helping thousands of homeless people worldwide.

His autobiography “Some Luck”, published by Penguin is a compelling story of John’s journey from poverty, rejection, and struggle to eventual redemption. In March 2007 he took part to the Quick Reads campaign and wrote the bestselling ‘How to change your life in 7 steps’ (Random House).

”I think we’ve got poverty wrong. We spend too much time and too much money on the poor and what we do is enslave them. We don’t give them the opportunity, we postpone the day they will have social mobility. They are of another species.” John Bird MBE

”I used to be a part of the problem and then became a part of the solution.” John Bird MBE


Julia Unwin CBE, Chief Executive, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Julia Unwin is Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust.

She was a member of the Housing Corporation Board for 10 years and a Charity Commissioner from 1998-2003. Julia was also Deputy Chair of the Food Standards Agency and worked as an independent consultant operating within government and the voluntary and corporate sectors. In that role, she focused on the development of services and in particular the governance and funding of voluntary organisations. Julia has researched and written extensively on the role, governance and funding of the voluntary sector.

She previously held a position as chair of the Refugee Council from 1995 until 1998, and is now a trustee of York Museums and Gallery Trust and a member of the University of York’s Council.

Kate Wareing, Director of Poverty programme, Oxfam UK

Oxfam’s vision is that diverse communities of women and men living in poverty will exercise their rights to a decent and secure standard of living in a rich industrialised society.

Kate Wareing is the Director of Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme, which works with partners to tackle poverty and inequality in Scotland, England and Wales.

Oxfam works to overcome poverty in the UK in three ways. It develops projects with people living in poverty to improve their lives and show how things can change, raises public awareness of poverty to create pressure for change, and works with policymakers to tackle the causes of poverty. The focus of Oxfam’s work in the UK is on ensuring that everyone in the UK has a secure income which gives them enough money to live on. Oxfam also tackles the discrimination which makes women, ethnic minority groups and others more vulnerable to poverty. In 2009/10 Oxfam’s worked directly with around 8,000 people living in poverty in the UK: its policy and advocacy work has affected the lives of hundreds of thousands more.

Further Reading

Joblessness, poverty & welfare in the UK, Geography Directions, 2010

Moving towards a living wage in the UK, Geography Directions, October 2014


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Challenge Overview Sheet


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Challenge Overview Sheet (1)


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Exam Specification Overview


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Exam Specification Overview (1)


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Persistent Poverty in Britain General Teaching Ideas


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Persistent Poverty in Britain General Teaching Ideas (1)


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 1 Plan


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 1 Plan (1)


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 1 Resource Pack


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 1 Resource Pack (1)


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 1 Teacher Notes


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 1 Teacher Notes (1)


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 2 Plan


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 2 Plan (1)


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 2 Resource Pack


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 2 Resource Pack (1)


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 2 Teacher Notes


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Persistent Poverty in Britain Lesson 2 Teacher Notes (1)


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