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1 February 2023

Living at the sharp end of socio-economic inequality: everyday experiences of poverty and social security receipt

When we turn our analytical gaze to questions of inequality, we routinely and rightly focus on structural forces that variously act to increase, address or soften divisions in opportunities and outcomes. We explore how and whether government interventions can work against inequalities in wealth and income, and the intersections and stubbornness of inequalities of race, place, gender, class, ill-health and age.

This approach will rightly characterise much of the work of the IFS Deaton Review, and will shed new light on the extent and intersections of inequalities and possible government policy responses. But what it will not do – and indeed cannot do because of its focus – is to provide an evidence base into lived experiences at the sharp end of inequality. That is the subject of this commentary, which takes as its starting point the importance of attending not just to structural drivers of inequality, but also to their everyday, lived outcomes – to how being in poverty in a deeply unequal society feels. In this commentary, I bring together qualitative evidence from over 10 years spent researching poverty and social security receipt to document how individuals navigate and respond to their hardship and to encounters with state and third-sector institutions providing their ‘welfare’ (see Patrick, 2014, 2017; Patrick and Simpson, 2020).

This analysis reminds us of the active agency of, and intensive work undertaken by, individuals experiencing poverty. People facing poverty and in receipt of social security for all or most of their income are already active ‘beings’, not the ‘becomings’ in need of corrective policy intervention that the political framing routinely suggests (Wright, 2012). The lived realities documented clash with political narratives and rhetoric that centres on the assumed failings of people experiencing poverty, which is primarily expressed in an assumption that they are not working, or (and since the onset and extension of in-work conditionality) not working enough. These narratives contribute to processes of misrecognition and disrespect, which form part of the relational harm that those experiencing poverty face.

What this analysis also shows is the ways in which people experiencing poverty face policy processes that frequently extend and embed these relational harms. This commentary considers the intersect between the material and relational harms done by income inequalities, and the scope here for a different and better policy approach.

In this commentary, the focus is on experiences of poverty and social security receipt, but these are framed as experiences at the sharp end of socio-economic inequality. When we examine poverty, then, we are also examining one visible, negative outcome of inequality. Stewart Lansley (2021) emphasises that poverty continues because the ‘battle for share’ has been won, and continues to be won, by what he describes as an ‘over-empowered financial and corporate elite’. Looking across the past 200 years, he notes that Britain has been a high-inequality, high-poverty nation for most of its modern history (Lansley, 2021). But he also notes the extent to which, for many years, politicians, academics and even anti-poverty charities appeared to accept (and, in some instances, embrace) inequality even as they promised action to address poverty. It is hoped that this approach is on the wane, and the IFS Deaton Review is here an especially welcome, and timely, intervention.

Centring our critical lens on inequality encourages the creation of a shared understanding of the need for societal change, and reminds us of the close relationships between what some call the ‘problem of poverty’, but what others – following Tawney (1913) – remind us is also (or even better understood as) a ‘problem of riches’. By zooming in on everyday experiences of poverty and social security receipt, we can better understand, and indeed make the case for, policy action, and can also generate insight into where policymakers most need to direct their reformist energies. Here, this commentary argues that there is an urgent need to both increase incomes at the bottom of the distribution, but also to radically improve interactions and policy interventions in order to generate respectful and dignified encounters between citizens and the state.

Cite this as:

Patrick, R. (2023), ‘Living at the sharp end of socio-economic inequality: everyday experiences of poverty and social security receipt’,
IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities,