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Guest Blog: Eliminating Poverty in Britain

This guest blog is from Helen Rowe, an award-winning social researcher, campaigner, and author of “Eliminating Poverty in Britain”

Do you remember the London Olympics in 2012?

The country had a buzz during those few weeks like no other. I remember the pride of having our NHS at the heart of the opening ceremony – a reminder of how few countries around the world have a system like ours. The director, Danny Boyle, turned down a knighthood feeling he hadn’t done enough to deserve one. I can’t remember the last time that happened!

The intervening years have involved epic changes in our country. It’s been a revolutionary era with austerity, the London Riots, Brexit, Grenfell, Windrush and the pandemic. The lack of action on housing, inequality and rising child poverty have also left our society dramatically different. It will require a huge effort to change direction.

I am writing this on the London Underground. With a brief scan of the crowd, I can see people from every part of the world, wearing smart clothes engrossed in smart phones. You’d be forgiven for thinking that there is no deprivation in Britain from this scene, but travel back three hours to 6am and the view would look very different. Exhausted bodies of shift workers, cleaners, swimming pool attendants and others, would fill the unusually silent carriage with sleepy heads nodding gently to the rhythm of the train. Many of these people will have two jobs and this usually means less sleep and having to deal with its deep consequences. “No facet of the human body is spared the crippling, noxious harm of sleep loss” wrote Professor Matthew Walker in his brilliant book Why We Sleep.

The stress generated by low-paid work and living without the basics has a profound effect on the human body, which our NHS is then expected to heal. The rates of cancer, heart disease, strokes, miscarriage and poor mental health are all significantly higher for those living in poverty. To the human body, deprivation is a form of trauma which generates the fight, flight, or freeze response. This actively slows the parts of the brain needed for emotional control, listening, and learning – making it more difficult to develop the skills needed to get a good education and a well-paid job.

When I studied my biology degree in the early noughties, it was well understood that our genes entirely controlled our fate, but over the past fifteen years, there has been a dramatic expansion in our scientific understanding of how our environment affects the human body. Epigenetics is the study of how our DNA reacts to the stresses caused by our environment. Our genes don’t create stress or problems for the body (unless there is an unusual mutation). If we can reduce inequality and ensure everyone has the basics they need to thrive in our country, people’s stress levels will fall. Across the country, people’s bodies will switch off the gene for cortisol (the stress hormone) which causes havoc in the body over the long term. Inflammation will also fall and people’s mental and physical health will improve. The 1960s slogan “The Personal is Political” remains true and goes deep down to our very DNA.

The good news is that ending deprivation doesn’t require a messy revolution, it can be done calmly by politicians wise enough to understand the immense benefits it would bring – from lower NHS waiting times and lower crime rates to a growing economy. Everyone would benefit in some way, irrespective of the amount of money in their pockets, but to get there, we would need to foster broad social and political support.

For politicians, there are two main constraints to ending poverty in Britain: Time and Taxes. Five years is not a long time to end deprivation and yet, with no guarantee of re-election, it would need to be completed in a single government term. Furthermore, we are not a society that votes for tax rises, so we would need to find new ways of financing the process. Thankfully, we have options. The government could issue bonds (called gilts) which could be ring-fenced for a poverty elimination programme. The Royal Bank of Scotland shares (worth billions) which are owned by the government could also be used, as could money from a reduced nuclear arsenal. Fewer government follies would also help, such as Boris Johnson’s Garden Bridge (£43m for nothing) or the Marble Arch Mound which cost £5m for seven months and was classed as London’s worst tourist attraction.

While the constraints of time and taxes are hardly political nirvana, they are our reality and we have to work with them.

We would also need three core concepts to move forward: Focus, compassion, and a plan that works in conjunction with the Green Agenda.

The pandemic showed how much our society can change when we focus on a goal. A new vaccine would normally have taken ten years to develop, but it was created and rolled out within a year. It involved an immense effort by NHS staff and British scientists. We should not assume that large challenges are beyond us.

Compassion also matters. The Victorian notion of the “undeserving poor” is very much alive in our social psyche and it has helped certain politicians over the years in their quest for power. The more politicians have blamed people’s poverty on their own bad decisions, the easier politics has become for them. This approach has culminated in some appalling decisions, like the 2020 free school meals vote during the pandemic, where government MPs initially voted against providing free meals to children over the school holidays. Some politicians who voted against the policy used ‘the undeserving poor’ as an explanation, saying society should “get back to the idea of taking responsibility”. Discrimination is easy to erect and can take a long time to dismantle. However, the UK public are often significantly more compassionate than politicians believe: the backlash to the free school meals vote was so furious that it took just two weeks for the government to change its mind.

To counter the stereotype, I have been travelling around the country training teachers, civil servants, and charity workers on The Biology of Poverty. Expanding societal awareness of the very real impact of deprivation on the human body, and the consequences for our society, is a key part of combatting the idea that people in poverty make bad decisions, or that bad decisions deserve punishment.

There are a host of measures that can be taken to end poverty in Britain including, a Minister for the Elimination of Poverty; a nation-wide system of free exchanges for children’s clothes and toys; providing better support in job centres to help people find employment they enjoy; extensive rehabilitation services for cannabis users, sex workers, and prisoners; ending the five week wait for universal credit; refurbish and build new homes; and increase the carer’s allowance. I could go on and on; the list seems endless given the scale of the task, but with a holistic, compassionate, and focused approach, we can create a society fit for every person who lives in it. I think it’s time to try.

Information about Helen Rowe’s book, “Eliminating Poverty in Britain”, and the training course “The Biology of Poverty”, can be found at

This is a guest blog and the views of the authors are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust