The UK - A great nation that is failing too many of its citizens

Following his work on Measuring up, Professor John McKendrick of Glasgow Caledonian University asks why a great nation like the UK is failing too many of its citizens and what chance we have of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 1 – to end poverty in all its forms everywhere.

Are we not a great nation?

There is much that is great about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  We have a rich and evolving history of innovation and entrepreneurship. We have recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of the NHS.  We are among the world’s most economically developed nations. We have a comprehensive system of free and subsidised education.  We think and act globally.  We have a system of social security that aims to protect the most vulnerable from the worst excesses of destitution.

Is our nation great for everyone?

Not for the young care leaver who finds herself in a hostel unsure of how much paid work she will get next week in the ‘gig economy’. Not for the large family struggling to cope with the reduction of their family income following Welfare Reform.  Not for the middle-aged man who is midway through a month without money as he waits for his first Universal Credit payment. Not for one-in-five households that currently live in poverty in the UK.

Are we prepared to accept this?

There are many examples of individuals and organisations currently doing work to tackle poverty. The proliferation of local foodbanks in recent years is a good example of local people doing something to ensure that the most vulnerable in their communities do not go without one of life’s basic necessities. The £1million Innovation Fund that has been established by the Tom Hunter Foundation to find new ways to tackle child poverty in Scotland is another. An anti-poverty practice framework for social work in Northern Ireland was launched in July 2018. And many schools are now thinking critically about the hidden cost of the school day, with a view to reducing household expenditure for poor families. And, there are many others.

Are things getting better?

Unfortunately not.  Although many are doing of lot of good work, poverty is persisting in the UK. Looking ahead to 2030, without a renewed UK sense of purpose and a comprehensive programme of action, there is not a remote possibility of the UK meeting the Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating poverty.

It’s not just about the economy, stupid!

Understandably, these days in the UK we are somewhat pre-occupied with Brexit. What is clear is that we are uncertain about what the future holds. But, we cannot afford to use this as an excuse to sidestep our responsibilities for tackling poverty.  We do need a prosperous economy if we are to tackle poverty (economists would implore us to improve productivity to provide the resources necessary to tackle poverty).  However, a prosperous economy does not automatically mean that poverty will be tackled.   

The social insecurities that are emerging in the UK are not inevitable.  They are the result of the choices we have made in response to challenges we have faced. We need to wake up to the problems that we are creating for our most vulnerable.  We need to work toward a fairer and more just society, acknowledging and celebrating the respective contributions of enterprise, government (local and national), voluntary and community organisations, families and individuals. It’s your business, it’s my business, it’s everybody’s business.

Tackling poverty in the UK won’t be solved overnight.  We need to start acting now to achieve our 2030 target of eradicating poverty in the UK.

Professor John McKendrick co-directs the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit at Glasgow Caledonian University and led the Goal 1 chapter of Measuring up.