Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist
23 July 2005

I’ve just finished watching the whole series of Boys from the Blackstuff (a pivotal drama set in recession-hit Liverpool in the early 1980s) which I couldn’t help but find moving even though it was in many places transparently manipulative and though I don’t subscribe entirely to the politics on offer in it.

Characteristically, it made me wonder about the statistics behind these stories of men on the dole only able to support their families through working in the black economy. Of course the main way in which the unemployed have benefited since 1982 is that there are a lot more (low paid) jobs available for them and more help and training available to get then those jobs – that is where the emphasis of government policy has gone – but nonetheless I wondered to what extent the lot of the remaining unemployed has improved since that time.

I have found a table from the government with the weekly rates of the main social security benefits but they only go back to 1993 and there must have been a hundred different kinds of benefit listed which made it difficult to figure out what a typical unemployed household might have received. The very useful UK Poverty site also only goes back to 1996 – it at least shows both pensioners and couples with young children on benefits appear to be nearly 40% better off now – after inflation – than they would have been in 1998. But for a couple without children who are on benefits their income would not have changed at all adjusted for inflation over that period, leaving them 20% poorer relative to average earnings. But where should I look if I want to get a longer historical perspective on UK poverty? All I found about the 1980s was this depressing fact from the ‘key facts‘ at the poverty site: “The numbers of people on relative low incomes [60% of median income] remained broadly unchanged during the 1990s after having doubled in the 1980s”.


  1. Statistics. If a small group of people pulls ahead of the mass in terms of income, then a much larger number of people will find themseleves on a relatively reduced income, even if there has been no real change in their circumstances.

    The thing that makes people poor isn’t their income relative to the population as a whole, but their income relative to the middle 30-40% of the community by population.

    I suspect that a lot (not all) of the effect you mention can be put down to the “rich getting richer” that happened during the 80’s. This continued during the 90’s but with a better overall economy it was a case of “all boats rising on a flood tide”, so there was no further deterioration in the stats.

    The above might be wrong, but it is testable.

    Comment by ian dickson — 23 July 2005 @ 7:22 am

  2. Ah but note that the definition of poverty used to describe its growth in the 80s is based on median income, not average income, so it measures exactly the income of the poor relative to the middle income of the population.

    Comment by David Brake — 23 July 2005 @ 1:04 pm

  3. Median, good point. I had just woken up, obviously not quite properly 🙂

    Comment by ian dickson — 23 July 2005 @ 2:10 pm

  4. I suppose I’m one of your statistics from the 1980’s. I’m 43 years old and have never had a job. I live in a former coalmining area and the entire economy and society collapsed whwn the pits closed and some of us just got left behind. A lot of people have been coerced into the government’s conspiracy of being transfered onto other benefits; namely Incapacity Benefit and Attendance Allowance…I haven’t.

    Comment by Lee Firth — 29 August 2005 @ 4:46 pm

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