Poverty is not just a problem affecting people living in the developing world. Last year in the UK, over 10 million people were living below the poverty line. According to Oxfam, the richest 1% of the UK population now owns over 20 times more wealth than the poorest 20% combined. But what does “poverty” actually mean? And how can human rights help to fight it?
What does poverty mean?
The UK government sets the “poverty line” at 60% of the country’s average household income for a given year. If you are living in a household with an income below that threshold, you are living in “relative poverty.” But poverty is not just about income, or a number on a graph. For many people, it means going hungry. Illiteracy. Exploitation. Homelessness.
Poverty is frequently described in terms of a “cycle,” as its consequences and causes are often the same. It is a situation that many people are born into, or suddenly find themselves in due to circumstances beyond their control – such as illness, or discrimination.
And where do human rights come in?
Underlying the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and the UK’s Human Rights Act (HRA), which gives the Convention effect in UK law, is the powerful idea that we are all born equal – whether we are born into the UK’s “richest 1%” or “poorest 20%.” The protections that human rights laws give us are therefore crucial to tackling the injustices that create, and perpetuate, poverty.
The right to a childhood?
Article 2 of the First Protocol of the Human Rights Act protects the right to an education –at primary, secondary and university level. This right belongs to children, not their parents. This means, for example, that public authorities can only exclude a student from school if the exclusion is “necessary and proportionate.”
Protecting children’s access to education means protecting their future, and their ability to lift themselves – and others – out of poverty.
The right to freedom of Assembly and Association under Article 11 of the Act gives workers the freedom to form and join trade unions. This helps them to demand fair treatment from public and private employers, and continue to support themselves and their families.
Last year the UK introduced the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which aims to prevent forced labour and human trafficking. Its features – such as the creation of the ‘slavery and trafficking statement,’ are crucial to ensuring employees are not trapped in dangerous work with little to no pay, and little to no chance of improving their circumstances.
Poverty disproportionately affects people from certain backgrounds. It is no coincidence, for example, that 39% of people living in poverty in the UK live in a family where at least one person is disabled. Or that Black workers with degrees are paid 23.1% less on average than White workers with degrees.
This is because discrimination of all kinds is closely linked to poverty. It limits opportunities, and causes divisions in society that go far beyond differences in household income.
Article 14 protects our right to enjoy our other rights under the Human Rights Act free from discrimination on any grounds. This protection is fundamental to trying to create equal opportunities for people from different backgrounds, and to thereby break the “cycle” of poverty many are living in.
Access to Justice
In his TED Talk, activist Bryan Stevenson claims that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth… the opposite of poverty is justice.” Since the laws protecting our human rights are such a powerful tool for fighting the causes of poverty, access to justice itself is crucial to this fight.
Under Article 6 of the HRA, we all have the right to a fair hearing before an unbiased judge, and the right to be assisted by a lawyer. If someone cannot afford a lawyer, the government may be under a duty to provide one through legal aid.
This is essential for ensuring that everyone is able to enforce their human rights, and to hold the authorities accountable for actions and policies that impact on people’s everyday lives, and futures.