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17 August 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 11:11am

Want social justice, Theresa May? Break the link between disability and poverty

Nearly one in three disabled people live in poverty. 

By Adam Tinson

If the Government is serious about social injustice, it needs to break the link between disability and poverty

Nearly half of all UK poverty is in households containing a disabled person. If the new Government is serious about tackling injustices, addressing their needs must be top of the list.

Our latest research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation explores the links between disability and poverty – disabled people and their households face higher poverty rates than non-disabled people: 31 per cent compared with 18 per cent. Nearly half (48 per cent) of people in poverty are either disabled themselves or in a household with a disabled person. This 48 per cent figure amounts to 3.9m disabled people and 2.7m people living with them.

The poverty experienced by disabled people tends to be deeper as well. A quarter of working-age disabled people are living on below half the average income, compared to 13 per cent of non-disabled people. Nearly a fifth of disabled people are unable to afford multiple basic goods and services like heating or meet unexpected expenses, three times as high as for non-disabled people. 

Why are poverty rates so high? The first is higher costs. Disabled people tend to face higher costs in terms of things non-disabled people may not need (for example, medication or appliances), as well as more of the things everyone uses (such as higher heating bills). These higher costs mean that a disabled person would have a lower standard of living than a non-disabled person if they both had the same income. 

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This is the case even when households with a disabled member are receiving benefits designed to account for the extra costs of disability, such as Disability Living Allowance/Personal Independence Payments and Attendance Allowance, suggesting the inadequacy of these benefits. Our research adjusts income to remove these benefits: including income designed to meet extra costs but not including those costs would artificially depress poverty rates for disabled people. As the graph indicates, even with this adjustment, the figures are likely to be underestimates of poverty among disabled people, but capturing the full costs of disability is an impossible task.

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The labour market plays a major role in driving higher poverty rates for disabled people as well. Roughly a quarter of disabled households have no adults in work, and a third have only some of the adults in work, both of which are associated with poverty. Qualification levels among disabled people are much lower, even accounting for their average age profile being older. Disabled people in work are also more likely to be low paid, even if they do have the same level of qualifications as non-disabled people. 

There is also the role of the social security system more broadly. The Government maintains that spending on disability benefits has been constant, though support has been redistributed within this. Clearly this will produce losers who may still face great need themselves. But other changes to the social security system that are not specifically for disabled people – such as sanctioning, or the “Bedroom Tax” – still have had a negative impact. 

Untangling disability and poverty is a difficult task. The first act should be to protect what already exists, in terms of maintaining the value of disability cost benefits and not localising them to face local cuts as happened with Council Tax Benefit and has been proposed for Attendance Allowance. The harsh conditionality of the social security system, including but going beyond sanctioning, also needs to be relaxed for disabled people. The Government has a target of halving the employment rate gap between disabled and non-disabled people. This will need to take account of both the skills gap and the varying regional picture of employment for disabled people. But a labour market strategy with disabled people cannot stop there: as others have argued, there needs to be a focus on retaining employment when a disability develops, not just helping people back into work. 

Theresa May’s first statement as Prime Minister outlined her intention to tackle social injustices in Britain. The poverty faced by disabled people and the households they belong to needs to be top of this list.

Adam Tinson is a Senior Researcher at the New Policy Institute