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Academic Papers

Who counts in poverty research?

Mainstream poverty analysis currently renders certain people and degrees of privation more socially legible than others across high-income countries. This paper examines how these hierarchies carry through to and corrupt wider social scientific analysis, inscribing differential value to actors and phenomena in ways that undermine social understanding and explanation. First, conventional approaches to poverty analysis and measurement obscure the de facto prevalence of deep poverty, as well as those most subject to its violence. Second, a growing number of hyper-marginalised groups are missing from population income surveys, undermining the accuracy of (deep) poverty estimates and public understanding of both its determinants and dynamics. Third, the inferential and external validity of income surveys is significantly diminished by problems surrounding data quality and coverage. Attempts to address this have principally focused on improving data quality, but as demonstrated in this paper, these strategies exacerbate poor representation of the lowest-income groups in distributional analysis. Much more than merely technical or pragmatic, these are theoretical and normative judgements about who counts in welfare policy and politics. Overall, I demonstrate how current data practices occlude some the most violent forms of denigration and exploitation that structure advanced marginality, particularly the gendered, racialised, bordering and ableist practices underpinning state-citizen dynamics. Focusing principally on the UK context, I argue that the epistemic erasure committed features in and systematises a policy blindness to deep poverty for some of the most marginalised social groups making it harder to evidence its effects and address its causes across high-income countries.

Indentured: benefit deductions, debt recovery and welfare disciplining

The UK social security system performs an important role as a creditor and debt collector for many benefit claimants, with more affected by deductions than formal welfare conditionality or sanctions. Deductions, then, are central to understanding low-income life in the UK. With that in mind, this paper draws on a mixed-methods project to explore the policy rationale, administration and effects of benefit deductions at a particular moment of crisis. Through new analysis of statistical releases, I evidence increasing indebtedness and an Inverse Care Law, whereby UK social security performs worst for those who need it most. Drawing on qualitative longitudinal ethnographic fieldwork conducted at the height of the cost-of-living crisis, I also evidence how deductions affect the lives and trajectories of low-income claimants over time. The analysis offered details how deductions weaponize debt, often in ways that financialise benefit claimants and their entitlements that prove counter-productive to the stated policy objectives of deductions: worsening the poverty-debt trap and pushing people (further) away from the labour market.

Plumbing the depths: the changing (socio-demographic) profile of UK poverty

Official statistics tend to rely on a headcount approach to poverty measurement, distinguishing ‘the poor’ from the ‘non-poor’ on the basis of an anchored threshold. Invariably, this does little to engage with the gradations of material hardship affecting those living, to varying degrees, below the poverty line. In response, this paper interrogates an apparent flatlining in UK poverty to establish the changing profile of poverty, as well as those most affected by it. Drawing on the Family Resources survey, this paper reveals an increasing depth of poverty in the UK since 2010, with bifurcation observable in the living standards of different percentile groups below the poverty line. In addition, this paper demonstrates substantial compositional changes in the socio-demographic profile of (deep) poverty. Since 2010, the likelihood of falling into deep poverty has increased for women, children, larger families, Black people and those in full-time work. Within the context of COVID-19, I argue there is a need to re-think how we currently conceptualise poverty by better attending to internal heterogeneity within the broader analytical and methodological category of ‘the poor’. Doing so raises questions about the prevailing modes of poverty measurement that tend to frame and delimit the social scientific analysis of poverty, as well as the policies deemed appropriate in tackling it.

Working Papers

Submerged: surfacing deep poverty during permacrisis

This paper surfaces the ‘hidden injuries’ of deepening privation that are often occluded through prevailing modes of poverty analysis. We do so by drawing on qualitative longitudinal, ethnographic research to examine what bearing a sustained period of instability and insecurity has had on the everyday survival strategies, sociality and health of those on the lowest incomes in the UK. Focusing on the experiences retained and recovered through a more inclusive sampling, recruitment and retention strategy, we evidence distinctive features of deep poverty and demonstrate how those worst affected by permacrisis are also those most likely to fall outwith the sociological gaze and research process. Attending to the empirical problem and theoretical potential of absence in poverty research, we reflect on the corpus of experience we tend to centre in sociological analysis, and the corpus of experience that is left behind in the process.


Building on broad support for better social security

What impact should our social security system have on poverty and disadvantage? It is a fundamental question for welfare states, but one that inevitably pivots on contested ideas surrounding human need, desert and motivation. To decide the level at which benefits should be set, decision-makers have tended to fixate on questions of work or contribution and neglect more basic issues of adequacy and coverage. While there are all sorts of overlapping functions of social security, arguably the central purpose should be to provide a basic minimum that prevents or alleviates poverty. In this article, we present new evidence of broad public support for higher benefit levels in the UK, in line with a more generous Minimum Income Standard.

Falling faster amidst a cost-of-living crisis: poverty, inequality and ethnicity in the UK


Longer-term progress made in reducing socioeconomic disparities between white and Black and minority ethnic people in the UK has largely stalled in the UK since the 2007-08 global financial crisis.  Changes to the tax-benefit system have been highly regressive, but also racialised with Black and minority ethnic people, especially BAME women, losing the most. This briefing for the Runnymede Trust outlines racial inequalities and discrimination that structure a disproportionate exposure to and risk of (deep) poverty amongst minority ethnic people today. We focus principally on the impact of the social security system and 'Energy Price Guarantee', and consider what lessons this could offer to more effectively protect the livelihoods of Black and minority ethnic people amidst rising inflation and a stalling economy.

Deep poverty: everyday financial crisis in Leeds


Rising inflation is pulling those already below the poverty line into deeper, more severe forms of financial crisis. How are those towards the very bottom of the income distribution being affected by the cost-of-living crisis? In what ways do their experiences differ from the more general challenges of living on a low income? And what can be done to ensure institutions and services are responsive to their needs? Drawing on in-depth qualitative interviews with 40 people living in Leeds, this briefing explores these questions to better understand the ‘cliff edges’ and compounding forms of disadvantage that deep poverty can engender in the lives of those affected.

Running on empty: COVID-19, deep poverty and BAME children

How have changes to the benefits system affected low-income families over the last decade and what does this mean for their exposure to the economic fallout of COVID-19? What has happened to the depth of poverty, particularly for the poorest BAME children? And what reform agenda does this set for social security beyond the pandemic? Written for Child Poverty Action Group, this briefing draws on HBAI data to explore these questions.

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