“I had no food in the house to feed my two kids,” says Aprel. “I’d lost my job through falling pregnant and the relationship I was in broke down, so I was on my own.”
Aprel had a history of drug use which, she says, “got me into a bad place”. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, then on top of that got postnatal depression. “Once I’d bought baby milk I was living on literally £3.20 a week. I was getting letters and phone calls non-stop from 13 different companies, from 8am to 8pm every day. I told them I couldn’t afford to pay them but they took my money anyway.”
Aprel is perhaps the classic image we have of someone on the poverty line. But “poverty” is such a wide-ranging term. What do we mean by it? There are many definitions of what it means to be living in poverty, the most commonly used one in the UK being “relative income poverty”. This is used throughout Europe, and is taken to mean households where the income is 60 per cent or less of the country’s median household income, which in the UK is currently around £25,000. So, if your household is bringing in less than about £15,000 a year, you’re in poverty.
We might also talk about “absolute poverty”, which means that the poverty level of an individual, household or group doesn’t change over time, even if the economy improves and society becomes more prosperous.
Then, if the word poverty itself seems a little distasteful, we might talk about “social exclusion”, for which we can look to the official Government definition: “The lack or denial of resources, rights, goods and services, and the inability to participate in the normal relationships and activities, available to the majority of people in a society, whether in economic, social, cultural or political arenas.”
However you slice it, poverty is bad news. And there are more of us living in it… and not just people like Aprel. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this month, one in every eight workers in the UK is now classed as living in poverty. That’s 3.8 million individuals who, despite having a job, are on the breadline. Taken as households, that’s 7.4 million people – 2.6 million of them children – who are in poverty. And that means a record high of 55 per cent of those classed in poverty are actually in working households.
“The UK economy is not working for low-income families,” says Helen Barnard, Head of Analysis at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. “The economy has been growing since 2010 but during this time high rents, low wages and cuts to working-age benefits mean that many families, including working households, have actually seen their risk of poverty grow.
“As it negotiates Brexit, it is vital that the Government does not allow its focus to slip from the domestic concerns that make a huge difference to people who are just about managing. This report shows that people on low incomes cannot rely on economic growth and rising employment alone to improve their financial prospects. Families who are just about managing urgently need action to drive up real-term wages, provide more genuinely affordable homes and fill the gap caused by cuts to universal credit, which will cost a working family of four almost £1,000 per year.”
These “just about managing” households have been big news recently, even earning themselves an acronym: Jams. Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May has promised to do something for the Jams. And that’s hardly surprising; working households tend to vote, and they’ll often cast their vote for those who make their lives a little easier.
“Theresa May has been talking a lot about the Jams, and it’s right that she should,” says Marianne Clough. “But apart from the just about managing families, there are those who are not at all managing.”
So the Naams, perhaps. Those who are in poverty but not the 55 per cent who are working. People like Aprel. Marianne is a spokesperson for Christians Against Poverty, a Bradford-based, national charity that helps people struggling to attain even a basic level of living. Aprel was one of their clients, featured in CAP’s 2015 client report. The charity is drawing up its 2016 report, to be released in early spring, and the picture isn’t improving.
Clough says, “We do interviews with people we have helped across the country for the client report, and there are clear indications that things are becoming more extreme for people right on the edge.”
CAP helps around 20,000 people every year across the UK, primarily by taking away the worry of being chased by creditors and acting as a debt relief organisation that negotiates on behalf of its clients to stop harassment and put together workable repayment plans.
The average household income of those they help is about £14,000 a year… with many of them far, far below that. Clough says, “Some of the people we help have no chairs to sit on, no carpets, nothing in the kitchen cupboards. We have people who have not put on the heating or the hot water for more than a year.”
Today CAP, along with the Trussell Trust, which manages food banks across the UK, revealed that almost half of the people referred to them needing food handouts are on pre-payment fuel meters, meaning that if they have no money they can’t pay for gas and electricity.
Health news in pictures
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‘Universal cancer vaccine’ breakthrough claimed by experts
Scientists have taken a “very positive step” towards creating a universal vaccine against cancer that makes the body’s immune system attack tumours as if they were a virus, experts have said. Writing in Nature, an international team of researchers described how they had taken pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in the advanced stages of the disease. The patients’ immune systems responded by producing “killer” T-cells designed to attack cancer. The vaccine was also found to be effective in fighting “aggressively growing” tumours in mice, according to researchers, who were led by Professor Ugur Sahin from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany
Green tea could be used to treat brain issues caused by Down’s Syndrome
A compound found in green tea could improve the cognitive abilities of those with Down’s syndrome, a team of scientists has discovered. Researchers found epigallocatechin gallate – which is especially present in green tea but can also be found in white and black teas – combined with cognitive stimulation, improved visual memory and led to more adaptive behaviour. Dr Rafael de la Torre, who led the year-long clinical trial along with Dr Mara Dierrssen, said: “The results suggest that individuals who received treatment with the green tea compound, together with the cognitive stimulation protocol, had better scores in their cognitive capacities”
New online test predicts skin cancer risk
Health experts have created a new online tool which can predict a person’s risk of developing a common form of skin cancer. The tool uses the results of a 10-question-quiz to estimate the chance of a person aged 40 or over of having non-melanoma skin cancers within three years. Factors including the age, gender, smoking status, skin colour, tanning ability, freckling tendency, and other aspects of medical history are covered by the quiz
Multiple Sclerosis stem cell treatment ‘helps patients walk again’
A new treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) has enabled some patients to walk again by “rebooting” their immune systems. As part of a clinical trial at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital involving around 20 patients, scientists used stem cells to carry out a bone marrow transplant. The method known as an autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) works by using chemotherapy to destroy the area of the immune system which causes MS
Dementia patients left without painkillers and handcuffed to bed
Dementia patients experience a ‘shocking’ variation in the quality of hospital care they receive across England, a charity has warned. Staff using excessive force and not giving dementia patients the correct pain medication were among the findings outlined in a new report by The Alzheimer’s Society, to coincide with the launch of Fix Dementia Care campaign
Cancer risk ‘increased’ by drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer per day
Drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer a day increases the risk of developing cancer, according to medical experts. New guidelines for alcohol consumption by the UK published by chief medical officers warn that drinking any level of alcohol has been linked to a range of different cancers. The evidence from the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) overturns the oft-held view that a glass of red wine can have significant medical benefits for both men and women
Vaping ‘no better’ than smoking regular cigarettes
Vaping could be “no better” than smoking regular cigarettes and may be linked to cancer, scientists have found. The study which showed that vapour from e-cigarettes can damage or kill human cells was publsihed as the devices are to be rolled out by UK public health officials as an aid to quit smoking from 2016. An estimated 2.6 million people in the UK currently use e-cigarettes
A teenager was hospitalised and left unable to move after she developed the rare rat-bite fever disease from her pet rodents which lived in her bedroom. The teenager, who has not been named, was taken to hospital after she complained of a pain in her right hip and lower back which later made her immobile, according to the online medical journal BMJ Case Reports. She suffered for two weeks with an intermittent fever, nausea and vomiting and had a pink rash on her hands and feet. The teenager, who had numerous pets including a dog, cat, horse and three pet rats, has since made a full recovery after undergoing a course of antibiotics. Blood tests showed that she was infected with for streptobacillus moniliformis – the most common cause of rat-bite fever. One of her three pet rats lay dead in her room for three weeks before her symptoms showed
Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
Fat loss from pancreas ‘can reverse’ effects of type-2 diabetes
Less than half a teaspoon of fat is all that it takes to turn someone into a type-2 diabetic according to a study that could overturn conventional wisdom on a disease affecting nearly 3 million people in Britain. Researchers have found it is not so much the overall body fat that is important in determining the onset of type-2 diabetes but the small amount of fat deposited in the pancreas, the endocrine organ responsible for insulin production
Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
The Government should introduce a sugar tax to prevent an “obesity crisis” from crippling the NHS, a senior Conservative MP and former health minister has said. Dr Dan Poulter believes that the case for increased taxes on unhealthy sugary products was “increasingly compelling”
Cancer breakthrough offers new hope for survivors rendered infertile by chemotherapy
A potentially “phenomenal” scientific breakthrough has offered fresh hope to cancer patients rendered infertile by chemotherapy. For the first time, researchers managed to restore ovaries in mice affected by chemotherapy so that they were able to have offspring. The scientists now plan to begin clinical trials to see if the technique, which involves the use of stem cells, will also work in humans by using umbilical cord material and possibly stem cells taken from human embryos, if regulators agree
Take this NHS test to find out if you have a cancerous mole
An interactive test could help flag up whether you should seek advice from a health professional for one of the most common types of cancer. The test is available on the NHS Choices website and reveals whether you are at risk from the disease and recommends if you should seek help. The mole self-assessment factors in elements such as complexion, the number of times you have been severely sunburnt and whether skin cancer runs in your family. It also quizzes you on the number of moles you have and whether there have been any changes in appearance regarding size, shape and colour
Health apps approved by NHS ‘may put users at risk of identity theft’
Experts have warned that some apps do not adequately protect personal information
A watchdog has said that care visits must last longer
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) said home help visits of less than 30 minutes were not acceptable unless part of a wider package of support
Pendle in Lancashire tops list of five most anxious places to live in the UK
Pendle in Lancashire has been named the most anxious place to live in the UK, while people living in Fermanagh and Omagh in Northern Ireland have been found to be the happiest
Ketamine could be used as anti-depressant
Researchers at the University of Auckland said monitoring the effects of the drug on the brain has revealed neural pathways that could aid the development of fast-acting medications.
Ketamine is a synthetic compound used as an off anaesthetic and analgesic drug, but is commonly used illegally as a hallucinogenic party drug.
Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, a senior researcher at the university and a member of the institution’s Centre for Brain Research, used the latest technology in brain imaging to investigate what mechanisms ketamine uses to be active in the human brain
A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
The biggest cause of early death in the world is what you eat
Unhealthy eating has been named as the most common cause of premature death around the globe, new data has revealed. A poor diet – which involves eating too few vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains and too much red meat, salt and sugar – was shown to be a bigger killer than smoking and alcohol
Scientists develop blood test that estimates how quickly people age
Scientists believe it could be used to predict a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as well as the “youthfulness” of donated organs for transplant operations. The test measures the vitality of certain genes which the researchers believe is an accurate indication of a person’s “biological age”, which may be younger or older than their actual chronological age
Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences.
Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2).
But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
David McAuley, chief executive of the Trussell Trust says: “A crisis in winter for someone on a pre-payment meter who can’t afford the bare essentials isn’t just shocking: it’s dangerous. We’ve met a grandmother who went without food and heating as she waited six weeks for a delayed pay cheque, a family using candles over the Christmas period because they can’t afford to put the lights on.”
CAP prefers not to bang political drums about poverty, preferring to put their energies into personal meetings at home with every one of their clients and, according to Clough, organising extensive meetings behind closed doors with banks, credit providers, power companies and politicians to bring about the changes required to lift the pall of poverty that hangs over the UK.
There is no shortage, though, of people more than willing to put the responsibility for the poverty crisis at the door of the present Government and its austerity policies of freezing benefits and slashing universal credit.
Naz Shah, the Labour MP for Bradford West, has known poverty herself. As a child, abandoned by her father, she and her mother and siblings passed from one squalor-ridden hovel to another around West Yorkshire. “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt,” she says. Shah pulled herself up by her bootstraps – her resourcefulness would make any Tory proud! – but she knows that she might not have been able to if she was in the same situation today with the extra-harsh strictures on those on the breadline.
“It’s a cycle, a spiral,” she says. “You feel like you’re at the middle of a tornado. People have got to have support to allow them to transcend those situations, but that support is increasingly just not there. Benefits and tax credits shouldn’t be seen as a hand out, they should be seen as a hand up, a way to help people help themselves out of the poverty trap.”
Now an MP in a city that has some of the worst levels of deprivation in the country, Shah is seeing first-hand how people are suffering. “I had a woman come to see me with a list of people she owes money to, including all her neighbours. She didn’t know what to do, who to pay with the bit of money she had.
“I see people who have jobs on the poverty line, because they are on zero-hours contracts and have no job security. People with two jobs, sometimes three, who haven’t seen an increase in wages in literally years.
“The Tory way to solve this seems to be taking money from places with high levels of poverty and redistributing it to wealthier areas. How is this a strategy for economic recovery? It just stinks.”
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has its own ideas on what needs to happen to arrest the poverty spiral, including reversing cuts to in-work allowance, ending the freeze on benefits so they rise with inflation, and cutting housing costs for those in the private rented sector.
In the meantime, while Great Britain plc tries to balance the books through austerity politics, it is left to individuals and organisations to put sticking plaster after sticking plaster over the widening poverty gap in the UK. Organisations like the Trussell Trust and their food banks, who helped Maria Amos of the Wirral last Christmas. She says, “I had no money at all and couldn’t afford to put the gas on. I moved the bed into the living room, like a bedsit. I couldn’t afford to heat the whole house. The food bank helped me with a food parcel and a fuel voucher, and I was so grateful for the help they gave me.”
And CAP, who helped Aprel, living on pennies a week and bombarded by creditors until CAP stepped in. She says, “I’m debt free now; my life is new. The way that I spend now is different: I save a bit, which I didn’t used to. And I can afford things for my kids, like swimming lessons for my son, which he’s wanted for such a long time. I wouldn’t have realised how good life could be without CAP. I would still be putting my kids to bed and then getting high, if it wasn’t for their help. But with CAP I always had the reassurance that someone was there to help me, no matter what.”
The question is, are there enough sticking plasters in the world to cover the gaping wound of poverty that is blighting life in Britain at the end of 2016?
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