United Kingdom

Numbers in low income

Key points

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Graph 1: Over time (numbers)

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Graph 2: Over time (proportions)

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Graph 3: Fixed low-income threshold

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Graph 4: Compared to the EU

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Why this indicator was originally chosen

It is generally accepted that poverty is concerned with a lack of possessions, or ability to do things, which are in some sense considered 'normal' or 'essential' in society.

What is considered 'normal' depends on the society in which the person lives.  So, for example, a widely accepted indicator of third world poverty is the numbers of people living on less than $1 per day, on the grounds that people on such incomes are literally in danger of starving to death.  This threshold is often termed 'absolute income poverty'.  But the use of such a threshold in the United Kingdom would obviously be completely inappropriate - no one in the United Kingdom lives on incomes anywhere near this low and its use would imply that all people with incomes above $1 per day did not suffer from serious deprivation.

What is considered 'normal' also changes over time.  Levels of income that would have been considered adequate in the United Kingdom 100 years' ago would certainly not be considered to be adequate nowadays.  Rather, as society becomes richer, so norms change and the levels of income and resources that are considered to be adequate rises.  Unless the poorest can keep up with growth in average incomes, they will progressively become more excluded from the opportunities that the rest of society enjoys.

The conclusion is that the main indicators of low income in the United Kingdom – and thus of income poverty - should be defined in terms of thresholds which rise or fall as average incomes rise or fall.  Such thresholds are often termed 'moving thresholds' or indicators of 'relative poverty'.  This conclusion is generally accepted by most researchers, by the EU and by the UK government.

In normal times, when average incomes are improving slowly but steadily, the use of such thresholds is probably a good indicator of changes in the extent of relative income poverty.  But if incomes should fall, they become insufficient: a fall in average incomes, even if the lowest incomes remained unchanged, would clearly not represent an improvement in the capacity of the poorest to attain what society had become accustomed to as the norm.

Furthermore, sole reliance on moving thresholds can become misleading if average incomes rise dramatically.  For example, incomes in Ireland have risen sharply over the last ten years or so – including incomes at the bottom end - whilst income inequalities have remained roughly constant.  Many researchers and politicians in Ireland believe that sole reliance on moving thresholds gives a misleading impression by suggesting that no progress has been made in reducing the extent of poverty.

In this context, this indicator looks at the actual numbers of people who are living on low incomes using both relative threshold and a fixed threshold that rises with inflation.

The particular threshold used is 60% of median income after deducting housing costs.  For a discussion on why this threshold has been used, and possible alternative thresholds, see the page on choices of thresholds.

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Definitions and data sources

The first graph shows the number of people living in households below 40%, 50% and 60% of the contemporary British median household income after deducting housing costs for each year since 1979.

The second graph show the same information but in terms of the proportion of the total population.

The third graph provides three measures of low income.  The bars shows the number of people in households below 60% of contemporary median income for each year since 1979 (i.e. they are the same in each year as the bars in the first graph).  This can be termed the number of people in 'relative low income'.  The line from 1996/97 onwards shows the number of people below a fixed threshold of 60% of 1996/97 median income (adjusted for price inflation) - the 1996/97 threshold has been chosen as it is the year before the Labour Government came into power.  The line from 1979 to 1994/95 shows the number of people below a fixed threshold of 50% of 1979 mean income (adjusted for price inflation) - 50% of mean rather than 60% of median being used because this was the threshold of low income commonly used at the time.

The data source for the first three graphs is Households Below Average Income, based on the Family Resources Survey (FRS) since 1994/95 and the Family Expenditure Survey (FES) for earlier years.  The analysis of the FES dataset was undertaken by the IFS, with ONS population estimates being applied to the IFS proportions.  The data relates to the United Kingdom, although this has required Great Britain figures for the years 1994/95 to 2001/02 to be scaled up as Northern Ireland was not included in the survey for these years.  Income is disposable household income after deducting housing costs.  All the data is equivalised (adjusted) to account for differences in household size and composition.  The self-employed are included in the statistics.  Note that in 2007 DWP made some technical changes to how it adjusted household income for household composition (including retrospective changes) and, as a result, the data is slightly different than previously published figures.  Also note that it is not possible to adjust the data for the numbers below 50% of the 1979 mean for this technical change but that this does not affect the essentially flat trend of these numbers.

The fourth graph shows the proportions of people in EU countries with an equivalised household income that was less than 60% of the contemporary median for their country.  The EU average shown is the average weighted by population.

The data for the fourth graph is from the Eurostat indicators website.  Note that this data is not directly comparable with the low income statistics in the other graphs: it comes from a different source (i.e. not Households Below Average Income) and is before, rather than after, deducting housing costs.

Overall adequacy of the indicator: high.  The FRS is a large, well-established annual government surveys, designed to be representative of the population as a whole.  The FES survey used in the first graph for the years prior to 1994/95 was, however, much smaller and therefore there is some uncertainty about the precise proportions in each of the years.

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External links

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Relevant 2007 Public Service Agreements

Overall aim:  Halve the number of children in poverty by 2010-11, on the way to eradicating child poverty by 2020.

Lead department

HM Treasury.

Official national targets

Reduce by a half the number of children living in relative low-income by 2010/11.

Other indicators of progress

Number of children in absolute low-income households.

Number of children in relative low-income households and in material deprivation.

Previous 2004 targets

Halve the number of children in relative low-income households between 1998/99 and 2010/11, on the way to eradicating child poverty by 2020, including:

By 2008, be paying Pension Credit to at least 3.2 million pensioner households.  While maintaining a focus on the most disadvantaged by ensuring that at least 2.2 million of these households are in receipt of the Guarantee Credit.

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The numbers

Graphs 1, 2 and 3

Year Numbers (millions)Proportion of the population
Below 60% of medianBelow 50% of median Below 40% of median Below 60% of median Below 50% of median Below 40% of median
1979 7.6M 3.3M 1.3M 13.7% 5.9% 2.4%
19808.6M 4.0M 1.6M 15.5% 7.3% 2.9%
1981 8.0M 3.8M 1.4M 14.4% 6.8% 2.6%
19827.8M 3.4M 1.4M 14.0% 6.1% 2.5%
19838.0M 3.8M 1.6M 14.4% 6.9% 2.9%
19848.5M 4.1M 1.6M 15.3% 7.4% 2.9%
19859.6M 4.6M 1.6M 17.2% 8.3% 2.8%
198610.6M 5.5M 2.2M 19.0% 9.9% 3.9%
198711.9M 6.5M 2.8M 21.2% 11.7% 5.0%
198812.8M 8.2M 3.8M 22.8% 14.6% 6.7%
198912.9M 8.3M 3.9M 22.9% 14.8% 7.0%
1990 13.4M 9.0M 4.2M 23.8% 16.0% 7.5%
1991 13.6M 9.2M 4.6M 24.0% 16.3% 8.2%
1992 14.2M 9.5M 4.8M 25.1% 16.7% 8.4%
199313.9M 8.8M 4.8M 24.4% 15.5% 8.5%
1994/9513.9M 8.7M 4.8M 24.4% 15.3% 8.4%
1995/9613.9M 8.4M 4.4M 24.3% 14.7% 7.6%
1996/9714.5M 9.7M 5.0M 25.3% 16.9% 8.8%
1997/9814.0M 9.5M 5.0M 24.4% 16.6% 8.6%
1998/9914.0M 9.4M 4.8M 24.4% 16.3% 8.3%
1999/0013.8M 9.3M 5.0M 24.0% 16.2% 8.6%
2000/0113.4M 8.8M 4.9M 23.1% 15.3% 8.5%
2001/0213.2M 8.5M 4.6M 22.7% 14.6% 8.0%
2002/0313.1M 8.5M 4.9M 22.4% 14.6% 8.3%
2003/0412.6M 8.4M 5.0M 21.5% 14.4% 8.5%
2004/0512.1M 7.9M 4.9M 20.5% 13.4% 8.3%
2005/0612.8M 8.6M 5.2M 21.7% 14.5% 8.8%
2006/0713.2M 9.0M 5.6M 22.2% 15.2% 9.4%
2007/0813.4M 9.3M 5.7M 22.5% 15.5% 9.6%
2008/0913.4M 9.4M 5.9M 22.3% 15.7% 9.8%

Graph 4

Figures are as shown in the graph.

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