In this excerpt from our new report Why End UK Hunger?, Elizabeth Clery and Jane Perry look at public attitudes to poverty and food insecurity.

Why End UK Hunger?

The latest data on public attitudes show that the vast majority of us continue to believe that poverty involves not having enough to eat and live without getting into debt. Wider definitions of poverty – not having enough to buy the things you need, or that most people take for granted – are also gaining support.

Over the past decade, the perception that there is ‘quite a lot’ of poverty in Britain has increased substantially – from 52% in 2006 to 65% in 2018. A growing proportion of us also believe that poverty has increased over the past decade and is set to increase further over the next.

Perceptions of poverty have always varied according to economic and political circumstances. What is unprecedented is that trends in public views of the amount of poverty in Britain are no longer following the direction of official measures of poverty. This suggests that government needs to do more than simply ensuring that poverty levels, as officially measured, are reduced. To improve public perceptions, policy must also address those aspects – around people’s immediate, visible and basic needs, including signs of food insecurity – which attract political and media attention and are likely to be influencing public views of poverty.

For more than 35 years, NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey has shed light on the public’s attitudes to a range of social, moral and political issues, how these have changed over time and the factors driving this change. The BSA survey represents the gold standard in quantitative social research, as it replicates the same methodology and question wording from year to year, enabling the identification of genuine change over time.

When it comes to attitudes to poverty, BSA data show that the public does not ascribe to one consistent view of what counts as ‘poverty’. Nevertheless, over the lifetime of the survey…

Around nine in ten people consistently agree that someone would be in poverty if they did not have enough to eat and live without getting into debt

88% stated this in 2018

Indeed, less stringent definitions of poverty are increasingly gaining support:

55% think that someone would be in poverty if they ‘had enough to eat and live, but not enough to buy the other things they needed’,

28% think this would still be the case if someone had ‘enough to buy the things they really needed, but not enough to buy the things most people take for granted’.

Accepting the multiplicity of definitions of poverty held by the public, there is clear evidence that more and more of us believe that poverty and inequality are (growing) problems in Britain. Between 2006 and 2018 – the period dominated by the aftermath of the financial crisis, subsequent decade of ‘austerity’ and considerable publicity around growing food bank use – the proportion thinking that there is ‘quite a lot’ of poverty in Britain increased from 52% to 65%. Over the same period, the proportion stating that levels of poverty had increased over the past decade almost doubled (from 32% to 62%), with the proportion who expect poverty to rise further over the next decade rising form 44% to 61% – the highest level since records began.

Whilst high, the proportion agreeing there is ‘quite a lot’ of poverty is not unprecedented – having been 71% in 1994. Analysis of three decades of BSA data on attitudes to poverty have indicated that perceptions of poverty levels appear to respond in particular ways to specific economic and political circumstances (for instance, with the view that there is quite a lot of poverty becoming more popular during and after periods of recession or among particular groups of political party supporters when ‘their’ party adopts a sympathetic stance towards this issue). However, previously, public views have tended to broadly move in line with official poverty statistics, as recorded in the Households below Average Income (HBAI) statistical series (see chart). From 1994–5 until 2007–08, the proportion saying there is ‘quite a lot’ of poverty in Britain fell steadily, broadly in line with falling rates of ‘official’ poverty. However, from 2007–08 public perceptions of poverty have increased, whilst official rates have remained stable or continued to fall. This divergence between official measures of poverty and public views is unprecedented.

The most recent published analysis of BSA data on poverty argues that this divergence may stem from increasing recent political and media coverage of, and discussion around, poverty. Analysis shows that attitudes have shifted most markedly among those exposed to and influenced by this discourse – be they Labour Party supporters or readers of broadsheet media. On the whole, changes in perceptions of the scale, nature and acceptability of poverty and inequality more closely reflect trends in the portrayal of these concepts by politicians and the media, as opposed to the picture presented in official figures. Recent coverage of poverty has tended to focus on people’s immediate, visible and basic needs, rather than long-term trends in relative income (as currently measured by official statistics – note that from 2020, new experimental poverty statistics, developed by the DWP, using the work of the Social Metrics Commission as a starting point, will be introduced which have a wider coverage than long-term trends in household income).

This led the authors to conclude that, to reduce support for the view that there are significant amounts of poverty in Britain:

“it may be that policy makers need to…identify and devise policies that address the issues highlighted by politicians and campaigners and in media discourse around poverty relating to people’s basic needs – such as short-term deprivation, homelessness and food bank use, in order to regain a more positive view among the public.”

In other words, any moves to reduce food insecurity and successes in this regard, particularly if they receive political and media attention, may have the potential to reduce the perception of widespread poverty among the British public. There is also some evidence from the latest survey that moves aimed at reducing inequality would be popular with the public, with 78% saying that the gap between those with high and low incomes is too high.

Elizabeth Clery and Jane Perry, freelance researchers, contributors to NatCen’s 36th British Social Attitudes report