Disability – the untold story behind the UK’s shocking levels of poverty

Last week The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report that suggested half of people living in poverty are either themselves disabled or are living with a disabled person in their household.

In this guest post Helen Barnard, Head of Analysis at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looks the extra costs and challenges disabled people face in Britain today. 

In recent years, there have been many high-profile debates and scandals about disability – flawed work capability assessments, cuts to benefits, the stubbornly large employment gap.  At the same time, concern about poverty has also peaked at various times, notably in relation to the record number of people in working poverty and soul searching about the reasons for the Brexit vote in June.

Two reports this year have laid bare the extent to which disabled people and carers carry the burden of the UK’s high poverty rates.  In the summer we funded the New Policy Institute to write a report examining in depth the links between poverty and disability. This week JRF published our annual monitoring report which set these findings in the context of the overall picture of poverty in the UK over the last decade.

The headline finding is shocking – nearly half of people in poverty are disabled themselves or live in a household with someone who is disabled. That is 3.9 million disabled people and 2.7 million people who live with someone who is disabled. However, the real situation is even worse than this suggests

The disadvantage disabled people face

Disabled people face a triple disadvantage: they are less likely to be in work, they are less likely to have higher qualifications and they are more likely to be low paid, even when they do have good qualifications. Successive governments have focused on employment and skills as the routes out of poverty.  That makes sense for many families – getting into work and then improving your pay is the most reliable way to a better standard of living, although most families need to have at least one full time and one part time worker to escape poverty. But it is not yet working for the 3.8 million workers in poverty (up by a million in the last decade), or for many lone parents and households with young children or disabled members.

The second reason for the greater deprivation faced by disabled people and their families is that they face higher costs than non-disabled people. Scope’s Extra Costs work has highlighted life costs more if you’re disabled – £550 a month more. These costs can range from needing specific equipment or appliances, to having higher heating bills because of reduced mobility.  This means that the same income provides a disabled people with a lower standard of living than it would for a non-disabled person.  There are benefits intended to address this, but the analysis in our reports shows that these are not fully covering the extra costs – meaning that disabled people have to cut back on other essentials.

Solving poverty

Earlier this year the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published our Strategy to Solve Poverty. This set out a detailed plan to solve poverty across the UK by boosting incomes and reducing costs, delivering and effective benefit system, improving skills, strengthening families, and promoting long-term economic group benefiting everyone. Many disabled people and their families face considerable challenges in achieving these goals – changing this should be at the heart of a drive to end poverty.

The Government is prioritising reducing the disability employment gap. Their Green Paper is a welcome start to this, but it also shows how much further it has to go to put together a concrete plan to ‘transform employment prospects’ for disabled people. In recent months, the Government has signaled its openness to change by ending the requirement for repeated testing of people with severe conditions and no hope of getting better.

However, far more fundamental change is needed. The planned cut to Employment Support Allowance for people placed in the ‘Work Related Activity Group’ should be reversed: people claiming this benefit tend to be out of work for far longer than those claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance and this cut risks tipping them into destitution. The Work Capability Assessment also requires reform, which should fully involve disabled people and incorporate a real world assessment of the type of work people would actually be able to do.

When Prime Minister May entered Downing Street she promised to create a country that works for everyone and to “fight against the burning injustices” of poverty, race, class and health and give people back “control” of their lives.  The Prime Minister will find it difficult to fulfil this pledge without a serious plan to enable nearly four million disabled people and their families to escape poverty and build a decent, secure life for themselves.

Visit Scope’s website to find out why life costs more if you’re disabled.