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Poverty in the UK

Volunteer Jane Foote at Tower Hamlets foodbank sorting through food stocks (Credit: Oxfam/Sarah Brodbin)

The UK is the world's sixth largest economy, yet 1 in 5 of the UK population live below our official poverty line, meaning that they experience life as a daily struggle.

Oxfam's vision is for everyone in the UK to have enough to live on, and for all men, women and children to be treated with respect and dignity no matter how much money they have. We believe it is unacceptable that over 13 million people in the UK do not have enough to live on, and most do not have the power to speak out about what this feels like and why it is wrong. We work with others to achieve a fairer and more equal country, in which everyone in the UK can live free from poverty and shame. We do this in three ways:

  • We develop projects to improve the lives of people living in poverty
  • We work with policy-makers to tackle the causes of poverty
  • We raise public awareness of poverty to create pressure for change

Discrimination and prejudice play a large role in the lives of people experiencing poverty. That is why challenging negative attitudes and addressing gender and race inequality are integral parts of our work.

Our goals

1. Defend the rights of all in the UK to protection through social protection coverage and access to decent work.

  • We believe our welfare system should prevent people from falling into poverty when they face a crisis - for example, the loss of a job, illness, or death of a relative. 
  • We also think having a job should be a route out of poverty, but for many it does not provide economic independence. 
  • We believe all workers should be paid fairly, have their rights respected by their employers, and have opportunities for progression.

2. Use asset-based livelihood approaches to support people in finding their own way out of poverty, and building a secure future for them and their communities.

  • Oxfam's international experience tells us the best way to address poverty is not to focus on what people lack, but on what people already have - their strengths and skills, the support from their family, the links to their community.
  • We already use this approach in our work, and we are actively seeking opportunities - from the government and private sector - to increase the scale of this work. 
  • We collect evidence to demonstrate the value of this approach to policymakers, so they can use it to design better policies, which incorporate this approach.

3. Increase power, voice and capacity of the black and minority ethnic (BME) and women's sectors to challenge race and gender inequalities.

  • All over the world, people from ethnic minority groups are likely to be poorer than the general population. The same happens in the UK, where the BME population is more likely to be unemployed, have low incomes, report ill-health, and live in the most deprived areas of the country.
  • Our objective is to support grassroots BME groups to increase their involvement - and their communities' involvement - in local and national policies that impact on vulnerable and disadvantaged BME women. We work in partnership with these groups, particularly in the north of England, building on their existing expertise and relationships.

Key resources

The Doughnut Reports

Can environmental sustainability and social justice coexist? The doughnut reports explore what this would look like with reports focused on Scotland, Wales and the UK as a whole.

The Breadline Reports

Although the UK is the seventh richest country in the world, many people struggle to afford even the most essential of goods: food. The following publications highlight the rise in food poverty in the UK and the paper makes recommendations for how the social security system could provide the safety net when people need it, supporting people into sustainable work and providing for those unable to work.

Emergency use only

 The use of emergency food aid in the UK, particularly in the form of food banks, has dramatically increased over the last decade. Research was jointly conducted by Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), the Church of England and The Trussell Trust to examine why people are turning to food banks, how food bank use fits with their wider coping strategies, and what might be done to reduce the need that leads to food bank use.

Campaigns and advocacy

Welfare reform

The current UK benefits system is outdated and inflexible, and we think it needs updating. Designed in the 1960s, it's not able to cope with today's labour market, with temporary contracts and part-time jobs. The amount of support offered is often too low, leaving people struggling to get by.

That's why we support many of the principles of the current welfare reform. However, we believe some of the proposed changes to this complex system will have a detrimental effect, so we are actively lobbying the government to consider the impacts of these changes before endorsing the reforms proposed, which will considerably affect the ability of millions of people to exit poverty.

In-work poverty and labour rights

Work is invaluable for people: it provides a purpose, dignity, and, crucially, an income, enabling people to support themselves and their families. But, although work has been advocated as a route out of poverty, for more than four million in the UK it does not provide economic independence and may actually damage their health and well-being.

Oxfam believes in a world where everyone is entitled to decent work. This is why we campaign with other NGOs for the following workers' rights:

  • The right to earn an adequate and stable income
  • The right to be protected from exploitation
  • The right to have security through fair labour rights
  • The right to have access to training and opportunities for progression

Capacity building of ethnic minority organisations and women

We support a number of grassroots organisations such as Southall Black Sisters to ensure that vulnerable women - especially these from ethnic minority communities - have a voice standing up for their rights.

We work alongside the public sector to make sure they know how to meet the needs of women and men in all their work. Much of our work has been with agencies trying to regenerate and improve deprived areas - specifically engaging women to ensure that the schemes meet the needs of the local community.

A snapshot of poverty in the UK