London, Britain’s richest city, also has the accolade of leading the pensioner poverty league. By Tim Whitaker, Trustee of Wise Age
The first week of February week, coinciding with the burst of icy weather, was a week of poverty reports. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation poverty report came out showing that in 2020/21 one in five of the UKs population was in relative poverty including older people. Then the Greater London Authority “State of London” report revealed that material deprivation (that’s the lack of access to basic items and services supporting quality of life) is much more prevalent among pensioners in London than other parts of the UK, including even leafy outer London areas.
These reports received the customary bit of media coverage with the usual condemnations.
The broad trends are now becoming rather too familiar given the number of weighty reports popping up reminding us poverty is still with us. We know that the poverty rate for single pensioners is double that of couples. Pension age women tend to have higher poverty rates and these are higher for older ethnic minority groups, those in poor health suffer from greater poverty where you are twice as likely to have damp home, and don’t have a filling meal every day.
As Independent Age data show, since 2012 there has been a slow but steady rise in income poverty among older people and movement in and out of poverty mainly due to a loss of social benefit income. And pensioners who enter poverty didn’t have high incomes in their working lives and those groups who are at greater risk of poverty in later life also have greater risk of entering poverty past State Pension Age. The other noticeable trend is that inequalities within older generations are some of the most extreme in society. Rich pensioners have seen their wealth increase, but the poorest older people experienced a drop in their wealth.
Poverty is preventable
But London now has the accolade of leading the pensioner poverty league, ironically when it’s the richest UK city. As Age UK London’s Poverty report starkly spelt out recently – if the poverty rates of over 50s were the same as the rest of England, then some 160,000 fewer over 50s in London would be in poverty. That’s roughly the population size of Kensington and Chelsea.
So, despite this legion of reports with pretty strong evidence, why do we persist with such rates of older people’s poverty?
Poverty is preventable; and as the Joseph Rowntree report made plain, requires the same energy that led to the Beveridge Report and a radical economic and social reshaping of the UK.
So, what might be the prospects for pensioner poverty and will it rise up the political and policy agenda nationally and in London?
Jeremy Hunt, Chancellor of the Exchequer, said in the 2022 Autumn Statement, “How we look after our most vulnerable citizens is not just a practical issue but speaks to our values as a society.” The Centre for Ageing Better’s poll earlier last year had a resounding 80 per cent saying that the government was failing to ensure a decent life for older people. But politically it doesn’t seem this is translated into government actions or converting the Treasury’s cautious stance.
One explanation is that the picture of poverty and the economic lives of older people is a messier and more complicated one than the media, think tank and commentariat agendas. Gone are the days of impactful sepia photos showing the struggle and squalor of destitute people that turned public opinion.
The problem is also simply grouping all older people together as impoverished. Whereas Daily Express headlines leap out regularly to on the triple lock, TV licences or the raising of the state pension age, other media highlight the spectre of rich pensioners compared with the economic difficulties faced by young people and the inter-generational unfairness of supporting older people as a whole.
The public opinion jury is then a bit confused as to where priorities should lie and the dire consequences for some older people don’t resonate.
But how do we explain and accept London’s pole position in leading older people’s poverty rates? It’s almost appearing as a bit of a levelling down for London.
The high rates haven’t quite caused an explosion of rage amongst London’s opinion formers, though there are signs that GLA Assembly members are now onto the case. London for many is a Millennial city with the average Londoner a little over 35 years old and we don’t tend to look at London as an ageing city. Cynics might add that older voters don’t vote for Labour – explaining why older Londoners tending to be lower in the London policy pecking order than other groups.
True age is a protected characteristic amongst other groups, but it doesn’t have its own bespoke holistic policy strategy or stance. The reality of post-Covid recovery (remember the “Building Back Better” brand we all looked forward to) in the GLA and many London Boroughs is that older people didn’t quite have the clout in policy terms. The London Recovery Board argued against having a mission specifically for older people as it had done for young people. Any policy recipes for older people tend to be grouped into general policies with the risk their specific needs aren’t met.
The time has come for a rethink about London’s older population and the issues of poor rented housing, fuel poverty, and the way deprivation affects health and social connectedness being dealt with. And it’s not just financial hardship or cost of living but a more complex blend of problems requiring a multi-pronged policy approach. If the London Mayor is to truly parade London’s status of an Age Friendly City then it needs to have demonstrably tackled the economic and social problems facing many older Londoners.
Tim Whitaker is a consultant on age and employment and also works and writes on policy and communication issues affecting older people and an ageing society. He’s a Trustee of Wise Age a charity promoting training and support for workers over 50 in London and challenging ageism in employment plus a member of the London Age Friendly Forum.