Don’t waste another chance to tackle inequality and poverty

A new report shows that Black and minority ethnic people will be the worst affected by the UK cost of living crisis. Now, the government needs to act

Shaista Aziz Runnymede Report
The economic crisis is forcing many household to choose between heating and eating. Photography by Getty Images

British newspapers have been filled this month with headlines about soaring energy prices, rising interest rates and falling wages. Against this relentlessly gloomy backdrop, the Runnymede Trust, a leading UK race equality thinktank, has published a detailed report on the ways the UK cost of living crisis will affect people and communities of colour. 

The findings underline the disproportionate consequences faced by minority communities in a country grappling with multiple, overlapping problems and a government that appears incapable of addressing them.

Released during Black History Month, the Runnymede report states that Black and minority ethnic people in the UK are almost three times more likely than their white peers to live in “relative poverty” and more than twice as likely to experience “deep poverty”. Deep poverty is broadly defined as an extreme state of deprivation in which people struggle to meet their basic needs, such as food and energy, while people who live on less than 60% of the average national income are described as being in relative poverty.

Such statistics fly in the face of the culture war narratives propagated by the right-wing media, in which the idea that systemic racism and other varieties of embedded prejudice even exist is dismissed as “wokeness” gone mad.

The Runnymede report, titled Falling Faster, Amidst a Cost of Living Crisis, comes little more than a year after Black Lives Matter protests filled streets around the world, during a still-ongoing pandemic that has disproportionately claimed the lives of people and communities of colour, and amid more than a decade of Tory austerity.

This context alone should be enough to force our politicians to seriously examine what must be done to build a fairer and more just society, in which tackling racial injustice is viewed and resourced as a national priority. In a Brexit Britain lurching from one economic and social disaster to the next, however, it appears that our leaders have little inclination to do anything of the sort.

At its core, the report illustrates the impact of the UK’s growing racial disparities. While just under a third of white UK residents (32%) are likely to experience fuel poverty this winter, 52% of Black and minority ethnic people are expected to. That figure rises even more steeply for Pakistani and Bangladeshi people, the vast majority of whom are also working-class Muslims, at 66%.

The trust is not the only organisation to highlight these issues. Another recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity that examines poverty and inequality, shows that three-quarters of Black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani households in the bottom 40% of UK earners are in energy bill arrears, compared with nearly half of white households. Meanwhile, within the same economic demographic, more than 75% of the UK’s Black, ethnically mixed, Bangladeshi and Pakistani households are experiencing food poverty, compared with 69% of white households.

The cost of living crisis is devastating for working-class people of all backgrounds, but the fact is that some groups are more harshly affected than others. While Black and minority ethnic people make up 15% of the UK population, they represent 26% of those living in deep poverty. 

The figures contained in these reports are stark enough, but it is important to remember that in real life, such economic inequities mean the difference between survival and destitution. 

The Runnymede report draws on past experience — specifically the global financial crisis of 2008 — and the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic to demand a fresh and “reimagined commitment to protecting those in the deepest forms of poverty”. 

As the organisation’s CEO, Dr Halima Begum, says: “The pandemic made abundantly clear that when a crisis hits, support needs to be targeted urgently towards those who will be worst affected — usually those at the intersection of multiple structural inequalities. More must be done not just to stave off, but to reset the economy in light of a catastrophe that is snowballing fast.”

Among the Runnymede Trust’s recommendations are a windfall tax on the profits of energy providers, appropriate targeting of support to at-risk communities, means testing of cost of living payments and increasing social security payments to households on the lowest incomes. The trust also calls for the scrapping of “no recourse to public funds” legislation, which prevents anyone without secure immigration status from claiming state support. During the pandemic, more than 1.4 million people were excluded from the welfare system: 82% of them from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. 

As the government makes a full U-turn on its radical and disastrous mini-budget, now would be a perfect time for such advice to be acted upon. If we want to build a better future, we must learn from the lessons of the past. The financial crisis of 2008 presented ample opportunities to redress these structural imbalances. They were squandered and, instead, we have continued to see people and communities of colour scapegoated and blamed for the failed policies of successive governments. We should not make the same mistakes again.

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