There is a relatively widespread view that older Londoners are “doing alright” and living in large houses on final salary pensions. But like many stereotypes about ageing, this is based on assumptions rather than facts. It is true that some older Londoners aren’t struggling financially, yet for many the reality is very different.
Research published earlier this month by Age UK London showed that when housing costs are taken into account the capital has the highest levels of poverty for people over 50 in England, with a quarter of older Londoners living below the poverty line compared to 18% elsewhere.
Along with this disparity, poverty is increasing faster in London than elsewhere. In 2011-12 the gap between London’s over-50 poverty rate and that for the rest of the country was only three percentage points, with the figures standing at 19% and 16% respectively. The latest figures show that gap has grown to seven percentage points.
Older people living in London are increasingly likely to struggle to afford a decent standard of living compared to those living elsewhere. One in three Londoners aged over 50 live below the Minimum Income Standard (MIS), an income level calculated for different household types based on input from the public about what is needed for a minimum acceptable standard of living.
In 2010-11 31% of over-50s in London were living below the MIS, as were 29% of those outside of London. By 2019-20 this two percentage point gap had grown to seven: the percentage of non-Londoners living below the MIS had fallen to 25% while in London it had grown to 32%.
A regional inequality as stark as this should be a high priority for the government’s levelling up agenda to address, especially as there are few direct powers at a London level to address the problem. But apart his comments about directing more funding to areas like Tunbridge Wells it’s not clear what future levelling up has under Rishi Sunak’s government.
Work in this area so far has paid little attention to the needs of London in general, in particular the challenges posed by the high levels of poverty in the capital. The 2019 Conservative manifesto spoke about challenging the idea that “all growth must inevitably start in London” yet ignored the fact that many Londoners do not see the benefit of that growth
The pervasive impacts of poverty are complicated and can go unseen. Conversations about it often focus on heating or eating, but poverty can also mean not getting a haircut, not fixing a leaking tap or deciding to cancel the broadband. All of these things have a cumulative effect on both physical health and wellbeing.
Additional pressures from things like cuts to travel concessions, the end of free prescriptions for some and uncertainty about pensions mean too many are struggling to meet their basic needs. Pension Credit exists to support those over 67 on the lowest incomes, yet in London 40% of those eligible for this support – around 125,000 Londoners – do not claim it.
Age UK London is calling on London decision-makers to do all they can to support older people on low incomes as they struggle to make ends meet during the difficult winter months they face and to think creatively about how they can alleviate the impact of the cost of living crisis. Yet many of the powers to meaningfully address the problem lie with national government in Westminster. If the levelling up agenda is really one for the whole country, it must not overlook poverty in London.
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