Along with thousands of people, I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard on the train the other day (9 November). But unlike those thousands, as I read it I recalled a lecturer of mine who used to say, mantra-like, that half-baked evidence is no evidence at all.
What prompted the memories from my cherished years as a university student was an article by Russell Lynch on the so-called ‘Atlas generation’ – i.e. people in their 20s and 30s. Lynch claimed they would be ‘sagging’ under the burden of the concessions for older people announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review (eye tests, concessionary fares, TV licences, and winter fuel payments spared from the cull plus the linkage of pensions to average earnings, and so on).
The article concludes thus: “Penalising society’s poorest and genuinely deserving OAPs is no solution, but the old as a class can afford to pay more. Official figures show pensioner incomes rising 44% in the past 15 years — ahead of the average. And the Council of Mortgage Lenders puts the amount of unmortgaged housing equity held by households over 60 at £1 trillion and rising. The affluent baby-boomers around retirement age are the prime candidates to take the hit and it’s time the Coalition showed some nerve to set about the task. It might just avoid alienating an entire generation choking on promises of ‘fairness’ and saddled with a bitter legacy of debt.”
Here I want to present some of the latest (2008/09) figures on poverty based on the usual poverty indicator – percentage of people living below 60% of median income, after housing costs (Source: Family Resources Survey and Households Below Average Income, ONS). I am leaving the issue of inter-generational fairness for a future contribution.
Almost 7.6 million working-age adults live in poverty in the UK – equivalent to 21% of all adults of working age. In turn, more than 1.8 million over state pension age live in poverty – roughly, 16% of all people over state pension age.
For working-age adults, having children increases the risk of falling into poverty: 26% of all adults of working age with children live in poverty (3.4 million) against 19% of those without children (4.3 million).
However there is a bigger poverty hazard than being a parent: having or not having a job. Of the 4.3 million adults of working-age living in poverty without children, about 60% live in households in which one of them is either unemployed or inactive. Of the 3.4 million in poverty with children, 36% of them live in households in which at least one of them is workless. In contrast, only 5% of working-age adults with children in full-time work live in poverty (about 130,000 people) – interestingly, the proportion is also just 5% for those without children in full-time work (0.5 million).
Very likely, these workless households now in poverty will eventually fill the ranks of the pensioner poor. A recent report using data from the 2008 English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) found that reaching state pension age is not, of itself, a driver of poverty of income; instead, income poverty is one of the possible consequences of low-level pension provision and being out of the labour force.
If we now look in more detail at the 1.8 million pensioners in poverty, the main finding is that around 64% of them are outright owners of their houses. (Before housing costs, this rate rises to almost 80%). So, even though these households do not have to pay a mortgage or rent their accommodation privately, this does not spare them from the plight of living below the poverty line – a clear indication of the inappropriately-low incomes on which the vast majority of older people in the UK live which, again, as the ELSA-based report noted reflects their work trajectories more than their current age.
To compound this issue, generally speaking, their capacity of earning additional income is vastly reduced compared to younger people, and you get a very different picture from that of “the old as a class [who] can afford to pay more” – one that portrays most of the older members of our society as true Atlases, having carried financial and social burdens over their shoulders for most of their lifetime and still doing so today.
The announcements in the CSR represent a fair deal for older people thanks, not to a small extent, to our campaigning and influencing work. However, the figures above show that there is a lot of work ahead for Age UK to keep combatting poverty in old age, and articles such as Lynch’s suggest there is also a lot of work ahead for us to continue debunking myths and challenging tinted views and half-baked evidence, which as my former lecturer would have said without a cue, is no evidence at all.