Blog for The Equality Trust

Tuesday, 7 May, 2024


Do you remember the London Olympics in 2012?

The country had a buzz during those few weeks like no other. I remember the pride of having our NHS at the heart of the opening ceremony – a reminder of how few countries around the world have a system like ours. The director, Danny Boyle, turned down a knighthood feeling he hadn’t done enough to deserve one. I can’t remember the last time that happened!

The intervening years have involved epic changes in our country. It’s been a revolutionary era with austerity, the London Riots, Brexit, Grenfell, Windrush and the pandemic. The lack of action on housing, inequality and rising child poverty have also left our society dramatically different. It will require a huge effort to change direction.

I am writing this on the London Underground. With a brief scan of the crowd, I can see people from every part of the world, wearing smart clothes engrossed in smart phones. You’d be forgiven for thinking that there is no deprivation in Britain from this scene, but travel back three hours to 6am and the view would look very different. Exhausted bodies of shift workers, cleaners, swimming pool attendants and others, would fill the unusually silent carriage with sleepy heads nodding gently to the rhythm of the train. Many of these people will have two jobs and this usually means less sleep and having to deal with its deep consequences. “No facet of the human body is spared the crippling, noxious harm of sleep loss” wrote Professor Matthew Walker in his brilliant book Why We Sleep.

The stress generated by low-paid work and living without the basics has a profound effect on the human body, which our NHS is then expected to heal. The rates of cancer, heart disease, strokes, miscarriage and poor mental health are all significantly higher for those living in poverty. To the human body, deprivation is a form of trauma which generates the fight, flight, or freeze response. This actively slows the parts of the brain needed for emotional control, listening, and learning – making it more difficult to develop the skills needed to get a good education and a well-paid job.

When I studied my biology degree in the early noughties, it was well understood that our genes entirely controlled our fate, but over the past fifteen years, there has been a dramatic expansion in our scientific understanding of how our environment affects the human body. Epigenetics is the study of how our DNA reacts to the stresses caused by our environment. Our genes don’t create stress or problems for the body (unless there is an unusual mutation). If we can reduce inequality and ensure everyone has the basics they need to thrive in our country, people’s stress levels will fall. Across the country, people’s bodies will switch off the gene for cortisol (the stress hormone) which causes havoc in the body over the long term. Inflammation will also fall and people’s mental and physical health will improve. The 1960s slogan “The Personal is Political” remains true and goes deep down to our very DNA.

The good news is that ending deprivation doesn’t require a messy revolution, it can be done calmly by politicians wise enough to understand the immense benefits it would bring – from lower NHS waiting times and lower crime rates to a growing economy. Everyone would benefit in some way, irrespective of the amount of money in their pockets, but to get there, we would need to foster broad social and political support.

For politicians, there are two main constraints to ending poverty in Britain: Time and Taxes. Five years is not a long time to end deprivation and yet, with no guarantee of re-election, it would need to be completed in a single government term. Furthermore, we are not a society that votes for tax rises, so we would need to find new ways of financing the process. Thankfully, we have options. The government could issue bonds (called gilts) which could be ring-fenced for a poverty elimination programme. The Royal Bank of Scotland shares (worth billions) which are owned by the government could also be used, as could money from a reduced nuclear arsenal. Fewer government follies would also help, such as Boris Johnson’s Garden Bridge (£43m for nothing) or the Marble Arch Mound which cost £5m for seven months and was classed as London’s worst tourist attraction.

While the constraints of time and taxes are hardly political nirvana, they are our reality and we have to work with them.

We would also need three core concepts to move forward: Focus, compassion, and a plan that works in conjunction with the Green Agenda.

The pandemic showed how much our society can change when we focus on a goal. A new vaccine would normally have taken ten years to develop, but it was created and rolled out within a year. It involved an immense effort by NHS staff and British scientists. We should not assume that large challenges are beyond us.

Compassion also matters. The Victorian notion of the “undeserving poor” is very much alive in our social psyche and it has helped certain politicians over the years in their quest for power. The more politicians have blamed people’s poverty on their own bad decisions, the easier politics has become for them. This approach has culminated in some appalling decisions, like the 2020 free school meals vote during the pandemic, where government MPs initially voted against providing free meals to children over the school holidays. Some politicians who voted against the policy used ‘the undeserving poor’ as an explanation, saying society should “get back to the idea of taking responsibility”. Discrimination is easy to erect and can take a long time to dismantle. However, the UK public are often significantly more compassionate than politicians believe: the backlash to the free school meals vote was so furious that it took just two weeks for the government to change its mind.

To counter the stereotype, I have been travelling around the country training teachers, civil servants, and charity workers on The Biology of Poverty. Expanding societal awareness of the very real impact of deprivation on the human body, and the consequences for our society, is a key part of combatting the idea that people in poverty make bad decisions, or that bad decisions deserve punishment.

There are a host of measures that can be taken to end poverty in Britain including, a Minister for the Elimination of Poverty; a nation-wide system of free exchanges for children’s clothes and toys; providing better support in job centres to help people find employment they enjoy; extensive rehabilitation services for cannabis users, sex workers, and prisoners; ending the five week wait for universal credit; refurbish and build new homes; and increase the carer’s allowance. I could go on and on; the list seems endless given the scale of the task, but with a holistic, compassionate, and focused approach, we can create a society fit for every person who lives in it. I think it’s time to try.

Information about Helen Rowe's book, "Eliminating Poverty in Britain", and the training course "The Biology of Poverty", can be found at


The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Poverty

1 March 2024


If a government cannot house its own population, then what is it there for? I posed this question to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Poverty this week, along with a plan on how to end deprivation in Britain in five years, without raising taxes. The group was enthusiastic and cautious in equal measure. The raft of problems that our population faces can wear down even the most ardent campaigners - and yet they carry on undeterred.


The APPG is raising the voices of marginalised people across the country. I say ‘marginalised’ but in reality, financial pressures are so great for millions in the UK that poverty is increasingly becoming the norm, especially for children. It is a damning indictment of the failure of successive governments that so many children in twenty-first century Britain aren’t able to eat three meals a day and don’t expect three meals a day because none of their friends receive them. This was the message given to me by Marsha Powell, the CEO of BelEve, a charity that works with disadvantaged women and girls in South London. Her experiences encapsulate so much of what is happening nationwide. But there is hope.


As I travel round the country giving talks on my book Eliminating Poverty in Britain, I have been surprised by how many Social Mobility Networks exist in major organisations, including The Bank of England, The Financial Conduct Authority and OFCOM. All of them are led by people who want to raise the issue of poverty and inequality in their workplaces and seek to deal with it in constructive and thoughtful ways. These groups - of which the public knows little about, are chipping away at the barriers which create and maintain poverty in our country.


In the past 15 years there has also been an explosion in scientific research into how our environment affects the human body. Poverty is a form of trauma and if we want to change Britain for the better, then we need to start by making people feel safe. When the body lives without the essentials it needs, the brain enters the trauma state and freezes areas needed for learning, listening and emotional control - all the parts needed to gain good school grades and keep a well paid job. All this leads to a clear conclusion: Everyone benefits in a society without poverty, irrespective of how much money they have.


In the upcoming general election, NHS waiting times, crime levels, economic growth and education will inevitably be key areas of debate. Yet, if we deal with deprivation and the stress that it causes, all of these will naturally improve.


We don’t need a revolution to end poverty in Britain. We already have many of the structures we need. However the concept remains on the outskirts of public policy awaiting its day. Instead, it should be seens as the natural progression of a developed society.


Our country is deeply cynical of politicians’ promises, and understandably so, but we must keep the faith that a brighter future is possible. As the Illinois Governor, JB Pritzker once said, “The kindest person in the room is often the smartest”. Compassion is not a weakness and by moving away from “the undeserving poor” stereotype, we could create a society which is fit for every person who lives in it.


UK Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, seeks to fine homeless people and charities for their tents.

8 November 2023


It is very easy to blame the poor for their poverty. This week, Britain’s Home Secretary, Suella Braverman wrote proudly on Twitter/X that she wants to create a new civil offence to allow the authorities to fine charities who give out tents to the homeless, and fine the homeless themselves if their tent is in an inconvenient spot and deemed to be a public nuisance. Her argument was that people who sleep rough choose to do so and so it is right to remove their tents from them. 


We cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice” @SuellaBraverman 4 November 2023.


When I read it, my stomach turned. The “undeserving poor” is a Victorian notion which has served certain politicians very well over the years and given them an easier life. Blaming the poor for their situation gives politicians an opt-out clause for laziness in public office. 


Eliminating poverty in Britain is a far harder task and yet, if we are honest, it is the only way of achieving the society we want, with lower waiting times on the NHS, lower crime rates, better mental health and a thriving economy. Even climate change cannot be fully dealt with unless inequality is reduced.


For Suella Braverman and all the other Conservative MPs who voted against and abstained from the free school meals vote during the pandemic, the idea of eliminating poverty in Britain is not on their radar. Fears around the general election in the next 18 months are skewing the need for well planned and properly considered policies which can actually help our homeless population.


There are many reasons why there are 1.4 million people on the social housing waiting list and high levels of street homelessness. Successive governments haven't built enough homes and housing hasn't been a priority. In the past 15 years, Britain has had 13 housing ministers, seven of whom in the last four years. The churn of housing ministers increases uncertainty and prevents plans from reaching maturity.


The removal of housing benefit for under-25s during David Cameron's tenure also pushed many young people into poverty and the ripple effects of austerity continue to be felt. In reality, austerity never ended. 


If the Home Secretary really wants to deal with poverty, she would begin with a plan on how to end it in five years, without raising taxes. Governments in Britain are not elected on the basis of raising taxes and there is no guarantee of re-election, so accepting these parameters is fundamental.


It would be an immense task, but with compassion, focus and a detailed plan which works in conjunction with the green agenda, it could be achieved. At the very least, we should try. If poverty levels were halved in five years, that would still mean taking seven million people out of poverty. It would still be worth doing, but without aiming for 100% those levels would never be reached. It needs an all-or-nothing approach. 


There is money in the pot to pay for it, if you know where to look. Excessive government waste through poor decision-making and accounting could save millions, and creating a new social gilt fund could raise billions of pounds ring-fenced for social good.


Eliminating poverty in Britain is not a utopian fantasy. We would just be creating a society which is fit for every person who lives in it. If Suella Braverman really wants to help the homeless, she would be thinking holistically and planning properly, rather than pushing the divide and rule agenda.


It is a weak way of behaving for someone in such a position of authority and power. Thankfully, it did not go unchallenged. The National Housing Federation, Crisis, Centrepoint and a raft of other front line organisations wrote an open letter against her plans. It is blindingly obvious that it is a terrible idea and concerning that she thought it was a good idea at all. We need strong politicians who understand the society they are running. Sadly when it comes to our Home Secretary, we will be waiting a while. Her attitude is not just a mistake, it signals someone who has no compassion or understanding of reality.


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