Escaping institutional destitution

Well over 500 people sleep rough on the streets of London, with an estimated 2500 people sleeping in shop doorways, bus shelters, car parks and other places across the UK. Half a million people live in temporary hostels, cold weather shelters and women’s refuges. Countless numbers survive in squats and it is thought that numbers close to half a million will rely on food banks and soup kitchens each year from 2016. Making poverty a think of the past never happened. Today, destitution has displaced that word as a severe form of poverty that logically should not exist in a country with a strong welfare state and social security system. And yet it does.

Deepak Gopinath of the School of the Environment, at University of Dundee, UK, suggests that an increase in the number of people relying on food banks for subsistence and inadequate housing provision point to more and more people entering a state of untold deprivation not seen for many decades. Writing in the International Journal of Human Rights and Constitutional Studies, he asks why this should be and in particular how the focus should be more on understanding of how people become or remain destitute rather than just focusing on particular groups such as asylum seekers.

Gopinath points out that measures of poverty do not often reflect the true standard of living, or lack thereof, for many people. Means-tested benefits and minimum income standards consider median incomes but do not take into account an individual’s unique circumstances, age, health, family status etc. Measures to counter poverty take “expert opinion” and divide people with a poverty line, but Gopinath argues that we need complementary, analytical lens that focuses on individual circumstances and identifies the vulnerabilities and conditions suffered in extreme poverty and the impact on dependents. He argues that destitution as “a state of poverty” sees an individual becoming wholly reliant on others, whether family, friends, charity, government or other agencies, to survive.

By creating a new framework for understanding the poverty trap, Gopinath hopes to make clear the routes by which people enter in such deprivation, how poverty becomes self-fulfilling even in the face of social care and importantly, how they might be helped in their escape from outright destitution.

Gopinath, D. (2014) ‘Re-thinking destitution in the UK: typologies, spaces and transitions’, Int. J. Human Rights and Constitutional Studies, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp.341-347.

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.