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Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2012

This year’s report comes during a period of cuts to social security benefits and reforms to benefits for sick and disabled people but before the introduction of universal credit (UC) in 2013. Besides overcoming the formidable administrative challenge posed by UC, the government is also now consulting about how poverty in Britain is to be defined and measured.

The report also comes at a time when there has never been more data, more people analysing it or more places to publish the conclusions. For example, the monthly responses to new labour market statistics from ministers, opposition MPs, researchers and media commentators, show that there are many ways to interpret the statistics. To analysts and observers the outputs are fascinating and sometimes addictive. But this report is not intended as a response to the most recent data, nor particularly to the latest developments in government policy. Rather, it takes a longer view, at times going back several decades.

It does this for two reasons. The first is that poverty – in essence, not being able to achieve a basic standard of living for today’s society – is a subtle idea and a subtle problem, certainly more so than say, unemployment or inequality. Unless the economy collapses, poverty cannot be expected to change much over one or two years. The second reason is that poverty is complex, with many causes. Those causes include government policies. But poverty is not just a result of what government does: developments within the economy and in society affect it too. Though almost invariably slow-moving, their cumulative effect over several decades can be considerable.

In order to try to capture this, each chapter begins with a long-term indicator going back in some cases up to 60 years, to the start of the welfare state in 1948. The shortest of these long-term indicators goes back 30 years, to the start of the 1980s. We start this commentary by drawing out some of the things that this long-term view shows.