How the UK compares to other Europeans on poverty


by Richard Exell    
9:09 am - January 17th 2013

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The American saying goes: every time a new set of state-by-state economic or social rankings comes out, 49 Governors murmur “thank God for Mississippi” to themselves.

No matter how badly their state has done, they can be sure the Magnolia state will have done worse.

Perhaps British politicians should get used to saying “thank God for Bulgaria.”

Yesterday’s statistics on poverty and social exclusion in the UK and the EU would look a lot worse if it weren’t for the fact that at least we did better than most of the countries that were run by dictators until recently.

The top headline is that the proportion of people in the UK at risk of poverty or social exclusion is lower than the EU average: hurrah for egalitarian us!

Atriskpovorsx 1

But before we get too carried away, let’s look at the countries to the right of us in this chart. It would be unfair to lump all East European countries together, after all, the Czech Republic is the best performing state. All the same, you don’t have to squint to divide it into a central and North West European half and and East European and Mediterranean half – with us either at the bottom of one or the top of the other.

If we look at the countries that were EU members before 2004 (except Ireland, unfortunately there aren’t any figures), then we’re in the top third, with a significantly higher proportion than the West European countries we would normally compare ourselves to and with a clearly higher proportion than the EU (unweighted) average of 21.1 per cent:

Atriskpovorsx 2

These figures are for the proportion of the population that is “at risk of poverty or social exclusion”, an EU indicator that combines figures for households below the poverty threshold, severely deprived or having a “low work intensity.”

There are also figures for the proportion of the population at risk of poverty, which produce a very similar picture:

Atriskpovorsx 3

It is true but misleading to describe our poverty and social exclusion rate as ‘lower than the EU average’.

We will have to cut the numbers facing poverty or social exclusion a lot more to match the standards of the North Western countries we commonly compare ourselves to.

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About the author
Richard is an regular contributor. He is the TUC’s Senior Policy Officer covering social security, tax credits and labour market issues.
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Reader comments


And an alternative view. Yes, I do get the point that you’re talking about relative poverty etc. But that’s not the be all and end all, by no means.

I was discussing pay over here in the Czech Republic just last week (I have a project going on here). To hire a standard worker. Not some 16 year old and not a qualfied engineer, just good solid skilled workman, would require pay of around 20,000 crowns a month. Cost to the employer are about double that (social security etc). If I wanted a qualified engineer/technician (ie, not someone designing bridges, but someone working in a lab) then perhaps 30k crowns in wages.

That higher one is £1,000 a month, or £250 a week. The lower is £170 a week. Well below UK minimum wage.

Sure, equality might be something to worry about. But so should actual living standards, not just relative ones.


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